Sonoma Icon Sebastiani Sold for Rumored $47 Million

Dec 20, 2008

The Foley Wine Group has purchased Sebastiani Vineyards, one of the cornerstones of the Sonoma County wine industry for the past century, owner William Foley told Wine Spectator.

The family-owned winery, founded in Sonoma in 1904, had been trying to sell its business in recent months, according to Mary Ann Sebastiani Cuneo, one of the principal owners. But at least two potential sales deals fell through, she said.

While terms of the sale to Foley were not disclosed by Cuneo, one source familiar with the sale said the price was in the $47 million range. Revenues last year were said to be $33 million. The purchase includes the production facility and tasting room in downtown Sonoma, which last year hosted 250,000 visitors, along with several vineyards and the winery’s inventory. Cuneo and her two brothers, Sam Sebastiani and Don Sebastiani, have owned the winery since their mother, Sylvia, died in 2003. Cuneo declined to say why the family had decided to sell.

“I’m pretty excited,” Foley said. The 280,000-case winery, which makes five lines of Sonoma County wines, “gives me the volume to have some clout with distributors and to do the little brands.” He said he plans to bring new resources to the Sebastiani line of wines, which have consistently been rated in the very good to outstanding range in Wine Spectator ratings.

The “little” brands include several wineries owned by Foley, including Merus, the Cabernet specialist in Napa Valley, purchased last December, along with Venge Vineyards, bought earlier this year.

Foley is chairman of the Florida-based Fidelity National Financial Inc., which last year had gross revenues of $5.5 billion, putting it at No. 435 on the Fortune 500 ranking of the largest U.S. companies. In February 2008 he acquired a 60 percent share of Three Rivers Winery, in the Walla Walla region of Washington state. The previous August he bought Firestone Vineyards in Santa Barbara, where he already owns Foley Estate and Lincourt. He owns eight brands and 1,100 acres vineyards in California and Washington state, with an eye to further expanding his holdings.

In many ways Sebastiani represents the historical arc of winemaking in Sonoma County: poor Italian farmers scraped and toiled to build small empires on sturdy, inexpensive wines, and as the California wine industry evolved and matured, new generations took over and they evolved and matured as well, leaving behind the jugs and producing increasingly more impressive wines.

Samuele Sebastiani was the founder of the winery, which for much of the past century was the most prominent producer in the county and one of the largest in the state. Samuele’s son August, a man with an affinity for bib overalls and stout, simple wines, built the winery’s reputation on inexpensive jug wines. He died in 1980 and his wife Sylvia took the helm and put their son Sam in charge. But after his efforts to reposition and upscale the brand faltered, he was fired and replaced by his brother Don. Don refocused the company on volume and it became more profitable. The winery then sold several of its value brands, including Vendange, Talus, Nathanson Creek, La Terre, Heritage and Farallon.

Pete Seghesio, CEO of Seghesio Vineyards, which is also a century-old Sonoma winemaking family, said “This is very reflective of what has happened to our industry. It’s sad to have such a historic landmark winery change hands. Their family history is a great picture book of the American wine industry.”

Winery Purchases and Sales United States California

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