You can take the boy out of the cellar, but you can't take the cellar out of the boy. After a brief hiatus from the wine business, Sam Sebastiani has returned for a third act with La Chertosa, a small wine brand he hopes will showcase his family’s heritage.
“From the time I was 16, I made the decision to make my life vocation the wine business,” said Sebastiani. “When I stepped away from a yearly harvest, I started to miss it.”
Sebastiani, now 73, took the reins at Sebastiani Family Winery in 1980, heading a family business that was started in 1904 by his grandfather, Samuele. With an annual production of 4 million cases, Sebastiani was the seventh-largest in the United States by volume at the time.
But Sam was set on positioning the winery as more than just an inexpensive jug-wine brand. He reduced volume, purchased more expensive grapes exclusively from Sonoma, and started using new French oak barrels. His vision was to produce award-winning Sonoma wines, modeling his concept after Napa’s Robert Mondavi Winery.
But the cost of the improvements was too much for the rest of the Sebastiani family members and in 1986, Sam was fired by his own family. The winery was sold in 2008 to the Foley Wine Group.
Sebastiani moved on, establishing Viansa Winery in 1989, which grew into one of Carneros’ most popular tourist sites, featuring a large tasting room, a gourmet market and a picnic area. But after 16 years, Sebastiani handed off ownership in Viansa in 2004 to his seven children so he could pursue another passion, wetlands restoration. (His kids sold Viansa for $31 million in 2005.)
For most of the past decade, Sam has been restoring 2,000 acres that he owns on the North Platte River in Nebraska, creating a magnet for ducks and geese that he’s dubbed Winemaker’s Island. But now, the semi-retired Sebastiani is back at it again with La Chertosa.
“I was beginning to feel like a fish out of water without a winery,” he said. He remembers growing up 100 yards from the Sebastiani Family Winery on 4th Street East in the town of Sonoma. “I could smell the fermentations while playing in the yard. It gets into your blood.”
The label pays homage to Sebastiani’s family’s legacy. La Chertosa is named for the Chertosian monastery in the Tuscan valley of Farneta where Samuele Sebastiani learned how to make wine. Each label bears the Maltese cross, the same cross that can be found on the altar of the church in Farneta where Samuele was baptized. The label also depicts a rendering of Chertosian monks making wine.
Sebastiani wants to do more than tend to the administrative side of the business this time around. He has been working closely with enologist Derek Irwin to make the La Chertosa wines. While they have been producing La Chertosa since 2011, it has only been available for purchase in Colorado and Nebraska, until now. Sebastiani was hesitant about debuting the wine in California, citing the difficulty of selling wine in the saturated market.
La Chertosa current releases include a Sonoma Valley Chardonnay, a Sonoma Valley Sangiovese and an Amador County Zinfandel. Ultimately, Sebastiani is trying to achieve wines with balance that pair well with food, made in the traditional Sebastiani style that was taught to him by his father and grandfather. “I want more breadth of flavor rather than high notes,” said Sebastiani. “It's like music: The flavor profile should be a quartet on the side rather than a rock-and-roll band.”