Sylvia Sebastiani, the matriarch of one of California's best-known wine families, died Sunday, Nov. 30, at a hospital in Sonoma Valley, after suffering a heart attack two weeks ago. She was 87.
Although her declining health in recent years had forced Sebastiani to step away from daily duties at Sebastiani winery, she had been a mainstay in the Sonoma County wine community for half a century. She was able to watch as the winery reinvented itself, changing from a mass marketer that sold value wines under a variety of labels into a company that focuses on Sonoma County-grown wines and has produced its best wines ever in recent vintages.
Born in Cordelia, Calif., on May 10, 1916, the former Sylvia Scarafoni moved to Sonoma in 1927 with her parents, who ran a dairy farm in Schellville.
In 1936 she married her childhood sweetheart, August Sebastiani, and became his partner in Sebastiani Family Winery, founded by August's father, Samuele, in 1904.
August, known for his crusty demeanor and bib overalls, was also a shrewd businessman -- he built the winery into one of California's great post-Prohibition success stories.
Sylvia focused most of her attention on the home and was known as a superb cook, often preparing feasts of classic Italian dishes for August and his customers and colleagues.
In the 1960s, Sebastiani compiled her favorite recipes for a cookbook she named Mangiamo, or "Let's Eat," which sold more than 500,000 copies. She was often seen in the winery tasting room greeting visitors or tending to the winery garden.
"My mother was the consummate wife and mother. She loved her husband and her family," said daughter Mary Ann Sebastiani Cuneo. As for making a success of the winery, she added, "I don't think my father could have done it without her."
Sebastiani's life changed in 1980 when her husband died and she took the reins of the family empire, which had grown from a rustic bulk-wine operation into one of the nation's largest wine companies, competing with the likes of E. & J. Gallo. Her son Sam had been groomed to run the winery, but six years later, in a highly publicized split, she fired Sam and handed control over to her son Don. Sam went on to found Viansa winery, and later the family members reconciled.
The Sebastiani winery prospered into the new millennium, but in 2001, the company downsized to focus solely on the family label; it sold its 7.6 million-case bulk-wine operation, which included brands such as Talus and Vendange, to Constellation Brands for about $295 million. At the same time, Don stepped down to focus on his own company, Don Sebastiani & Sons (with brands such as Aquinas, Pepperwood Grove, Quatro and Smoking Loon) and his sister, Mary Ann Sebastiani Cuneo, became president and CEO of Sebastiani.
Sylvia Sebastiani is survived by children Sam, Don and Mary Ann, 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. A burial mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 4, at St. Francis Solano Catholic Church. Donations may be made to Sonoma Valley Community Hospital.