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California's New Generation: Marc Cuneo

Helping Sebastiani start over

Tim Fish
Posted: August 12, 2003

Marc Cuneo isn't short on leisure-time pursuits, but his first priority is the transformation of Sebastiani.
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The redwood tank in the Sebastiani Vineyards tasting room is a big beast. It once held nearly 60,000 gallons of wine -- enough, by Marc Cuneo's calculations, to supply a bottle a day for 825 years. The Sebastianis used to think that big, but the tank is empty now, only a reminder of the way things used to be.

It's a new era at the venerable Sonoma Valley winery, and the 26-year-old Cuneo is one of those leading the way. Representing the fourth generation of the Sebastiani wine clan, he is the great-grandson of founder Samuele Sebastiani and the son of current president Mary Ann Sebastiani Cuneo. While mindful of the winery's century-old family tradition, he concedes that a fresh start was long overdue at Sebastiani.

"There are a lot of changes going on here. This facility used to do about a million cases at crush and now we're doing 180,000," says Cuneo, who is director of grower relations. "There's an attention to detail that didn't exist in the past, and that means better wine."

After years of cranking out jug wines and a confusing assortment of value-brand labels such as Vendange and Nathanson Creek, Sebastiani downsized in 2001 by selling its 7.6-million-case bulk-wine operation to Constellation Brands. That allowed the family to focus all its efforts on the Sebastiani brand, and the results are already apparent. In the past year, nine wines have scored 88 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, with seven of them priced at $24 or less.

Even Don Sebastiani, the winery's former CEO and Cuneo's uncle, admits that the wines have improved since he left to focus on his own brands, Pepperwood Grove and Smoking Loon. "I should have taken the hint earlier," he says, laughing. Sebastiani attributes much of the turnaround to his nephew, saying, "He's making a lot of things happen with his own hands. He is being groomed to be a very serious player."

And yet, Cuneo is hardly one to take himself seriously. Jeans and a flannel shirt are his preferred attire. Single, he is an ardent outdoorsman who participates in triathlons and tends to his own 5-acre Pinot Noir vineyard in the Carneros district. After graduating with a business degree from the University of the Pacific in 1998, he worked a year for wholesaler Southern Wine & Spirits, selling wine at chain stores, before joining the family business.

While Cuneo is often busy making sales and promotional trips -- you may recognize him from a new Sebastiani advertising campaign -- his main job is overseeing the winery's 190 acres of estate vineyards and working with its myriad outside growers.

Many of the improvements in wine quality, Cuneo says, can be traced to changes in the vineyards. Crop loads are smaller, and the leaf canopies are better managed to allow for improved sun exposure and riper fruit. The family is also replanting some vineyards, experimenting with rootstock and grape clones. At the winery, wine is made in small lots, with greater extraction time given to the reds and a richer regimen of barrel fermentation for the whites.

With all the changes occurring at Sebastiani, Cuneo says it almost seems like he's working for a new company, not a 100-year-old family business.

"I don't know if working under an old guard which was doing things the same way for 90 years would appeal to me. But I'm sure my grandfather and great-grandfather would be thrilled to see what we're doing. And we're just getting started."

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