The sale of Sebastiani Winery, announced this past Saturday, has taken the wine industry by surprise.
Founded by the patriarch Samuele Sebastiani in 1904, the eponymously named company has been one of Sonoma County’s most venerable wineries, and one of America’s most recognized. It survived Prohibition, and was a favorite brand from the 1950s through the 1990s.
Just a few years ago, the Sebastiani family vowed to reinvigorate the winery, which was perceived to have slipped, not so much in quality but in visibility, in the view of critics and some consumers. “Even though we’re 100 years old, we have a totally new product, a new deal,” said Mary Ann Sebastiani Cuneo, in 2004. She is Samuele’s granddaughter, and the daughter of August Sebastiani.
But it was Cuneo who, on Dec. 20, announced the sale of the family winery. “All of the family agreed this is a good thing,” she told Sonoma Valley Sun columnist Kathleen Hill. “Everyone can go their own way and do their own thing. We are really happy to sell to an individual and not to a corporate takeover. My brothers, Don and Sam, and I are all pleased.”
The buyer is William P. Foley II, retired president of Fidelity National Inc. Foley owns Foley Estates Vineyard in Santa Barbara County and for some years has been on a buying spree, scooping up other wineries, including Firestone and Three Rivers (in Walla Walla), as well as vineyards. This is his second winery purchase in the North Coast. Earlier this year, Foley bought Venge Vineyards located at the base of Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain.
Reached in Montana, Foley said he bought Sebastiani “to get some leverage with distributors…With Sebastiani’s 250,000 [annual case production] it gives me a base level to deal with them and then consolidate my other brands with distributors and have a positive marketing plan.” Another reason for choosing Sebastiani, he said, is because “it gives me great access to Sonoma County.” Foley confirmed that he is “looking at some brands in Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley,” as well as in Napa Valley.
Foley said he plans to maintain Sebastiani’s production staff, including winemaker Mark Lyon. The purchase price for the deal is not known, but it is reliably believed to be between $45-$50 million.