SEBASTIANI VINEYARDS is enjoying the best of both worlds these days: It has been able to grow both in volume, placing it among California's 10 largest wine companies, and in quality, chipping away at the high end of the fine-wine market. . . .
Increasingly better wines highlight specific vineyards and appellations within Sonoma County, and they offer exceptional value, tooan important consideration in today's market. . . .
For years, Sebastiani wrestled with the notion that a winery could be both large and small. Part of that had to do with wine quality and part was tied to image. No big winery wanted anyone to know just how much wine it made; case production figures were closely guarded trade secrets. . . .
As a jug-wine producer in the 1960s and 1970s, Sebastiani's volume grew by leaps and bounds in a rapidly expanding market. This venerable winery was out of sync as fighting varietals took over in the 1970s and 1980s, and California appellation Cabernets and Chardonnays, priced at $5 to $8 a bottle, were the rage. . . .
THAT TREND SLOWLY eroded the jug-wine market of generic table wines, as consumers traded up to better wines. Sebastiani's wines started to improve, too, first under the tenure of Sam Sebastiani and now under the wing of his younger brother Don. . . .
All along, Sebastiani has battled its image, and it has taken the better part of two decades to convince fine-wine lovers that the best Sebastiani Vineyards wines are worth a tryand they are. . . .
What a long, strange trip it's been, with periods of turmoil and tranquility. Sebastiani Vineyards dates to 1904, when Italian immigrant Samuele Sebastiani founded the company in the town of Sonoma, Calif., buying grapes and bulk wines which he sold in San Francisco. . . .
The family and winery still have a strong presence in Sonoma, as a walk around the town square will show, with the old Sebastiani Theatre still standing and the winery a big tourist draw. . . .
Samuele's son, August, took over in 1944 and gradually built the winery's volume to 3 million cases, big numbers in those days. . . .
WHEN FAST-PACED technology and innovation replaced traditional techniques and wine styles, and a white wine boom exploded in the 1970s, Sebastiani was caught off guardits rustic reds, blends of Zinfandel, Barbera and Petite Sirah, and sweet wines became tougher sells. And, as the notion of drinking less but drinking better swept the nation, Sebastiani was left in the dust. . . .
To be fair, Sebastiani had its share of innovative wines even then, with its Nouveau Beaujolais, Pinot Noir blanc and dessert-style wines. . . .
August's oldest son, Sam, steered the winery in a new direction when he took over in the 1980s, shrinking volume and raising quality, with a greater focus on superpremium, varietal wines. . . .
But strong family disagreements about Sam's decisions and management style, and other internal conflicts, led to his ouster in 1986. His younger brother Don, a one-time California state assemblyman, stepped in as chairman. . . .
SAM AND HIS WIFE, Vicki, left to start their own winery, Viansa (VIcki ANd SAm), which is located along Highway 121, the first winery most tourists pass after they drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and begin winding their way to either Napa or Sonoma. . . .
Don believed the winery could be both big and smallthe General Motors of wineand in 10 years he's proven it, as he has segmented the Sebastiani wines by price and image. . . .
The lineup ranges from the lower-priced Vendange and August Sebastiani wines to the mid-priced Talus wines, but the best wines appear under the Sebastiani Cask labelthe one with the large "S" on the frontand under the estate label, even though the type is quite small and hard to read. . . .
Sebastiani's size has obvious advantages. Its biggest resource is the variety of its vineyards and the grapes it buys. "The goal now is to go where the best grapes are and tap into Sonoma's diversity," says Don. His willingness to seek out better sources allows the winery to be more selective and make better wines. . . .
FOR SEVERAL YEARS now, Sebastiani has produced a Dutton Ranch Chardonnay, from the same Dutton Ranch in Russian River used by Chardonnay-master Steve Kistler. The 1993 (89, $18) just missed scoring outstanding but the 1994, also $18, is better. It's smooth, rich and creamy, with hints of pear, honey and butterscotch. Kistler Dutton Ranch is brilliant, but also $36. . . .
For Barbera ($14), the winery uses the broader Sonoma County appellation, buying grapes from several areas and achieving an appealing wine with tart berry flavors and spicy, zesty accents. Another winner. . . .
With Zinfandel, the winery can utilize its options, like crushing old vine Dry Creek grapes from Cuneo and Saini farms, and bottling separate wines, or if it's a lesser vintage and the wines lack something, different appellations can be blended together. The 1994 Zinfandel is a classy buy (88, $12) that captures the essence of the spice and raspberry of the area. . . .
A SECOND 1994 Zin carries a Sonoma Valley appellation and has a slight raisiny edge. It's the same vineyard that produced one of Sebastiani's classics, the 1980 "Black Beauty" Zinfandel, a wine that still packs lots of flavor. . . .
A 1994 Mourvedre from the same vineyard is also very well crafted, with a pretty dried cherry and herb edge. . . .
The 1993 Merlot (87) at $12 is a wonderful buy and a wine that captures spicy herb and currant flavors. . . .
The 1994 Merlot comes from the Town vineyard, a winery-owned property near the winery in Sonoma. It's part of Cherryblock vineyard, which is mostly Cabernet. . . .
The winery has been bottling Cherryblock separately for more than a decade, beginning with Sam's "Eagle" Cabernet in 1980. The vineyard was renamed after his departure. . . .
I'VE LIKED THE Cherryblock Cabernet. It is a consistently well-made wine from year to year, with a trim band of herb and currant flavors, but I've never thought it was a great wine, especially at $40, and it seems the only wine that's overpriced, by my tastes. . . .
The thing about the Sebastiani wines, across the board, is that they are not bold, rich, ultraripe or oaky wines, but instead reflect a more understated style. Don doesn't want high alcohol wines. . . .
While I'd like to see more depth and concentration in the wines, many consumers are perfectly happy with them the way they are. . . .
Still, winemaker Mark Lyon, who has been with Sebastiani since 1979, has been given the go-ahead by Don to build greater depth and richness into the Cherryblock Cabernet. Beginning with 1994 and 1995, the grapes have been harvested at riper sugar levels, the hope being that they'll capture more flavor, riper tannins, a fleshier texture and greater complexity. . . .
SEBASTIANI SKIPPED the 1993 vintage because quality didn't meet expectations, another sign the strict quality-control measures are being adhered to. . . .
Lyon also is at work with Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Syrah, wines that will soon join the Cask lineup. "We'll continue to look at more appellations for other wines," says Don, who didn't rule out Napa Valley Cabernet. . . .
In fact, a brand he owns with his brother-in-law, Cecchetti Sebastiani, produced an excellent 1993 Napa Cabernet (89, $25), so it's possible Sebastiani may move beyond its traditional Sonoma boundaries for even better grapes, in much the same fashion that Kendall-Jackson and Robert Mondavi have spread throughout California. . . .
Given how much Sebastiani's wines have improved this past decade, that can only be viewed as a positive, a sign of the winery's ability to change and adjust with the times. A sign, too, of better and more diverse wines to come. . . .
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