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A Wine Family Feud : The Matriarch of the Sebastianis Makes Her Move, and Her Elder Son, Sam, Is Out of a Job

April 27, 1986|JACQUES LESLIE | Jacques Leslie, a former Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent, is a writer based in Northern California.

Some people think Sam Sebastiani displayed characteristic extravagance when he paid $595,000 for a mostly barren hill behind the family winery in Sonoma and then spent at least another $58,000 on a party last June at which the hill was renamed for the Sebastianis' ancestral village in Italy. Sam's defenders, who outnumber his detractors, disagree: They say the purchase of the hill, and the party, reflected his marketing flair, a talent that enabled the Sebastiani Vineyards to make headway after the death of August Sebastiani, Sam's father, in 1980.

At the very least, the party showed off Sam's promotional skills. Sam chose the hill because his grandfather, who founded the winery, had quarried stone there. By reaffirming the Sebastianis' link to the land, Sam believed he was underscoring one of the winery's chief marketing assets--its lengthy history of family ownership--while laying the groundwork for expansion. One day, perhaps, he'd construct caves or wine cellars on the hill, or he'd build a small restaurant that would become the winery's entertainment center.

At the party, the 300 guests, including prominent local citizens, wine writers and family friends, were taken in horse-drawn wagons to the hill, where Sam had re-created an Italian marketplace. His wife, Vicki, the firm's director of wine and food presentations, served 60 Italian dishes, including some based on recipes she'd picked up in Farneta, the village for which the hill was being renamed. Sam even flew in some relatives from Farneta and nearby towns; among them was a priest, Don Samuele Ricci, who by happy coincidence was both the nephew of Sam's grandfather and the pastor of Greve, Sonoma's sister city in Italy.

While a cameraman recorded the proceedings for inclusion in a promotional videotape to be shown to the winery's distributors and retailers, Ricci dedicated a handsome cobblestone monument that Sam had installed halfway up the hill. The plaque at the base of the monument reads in part:

"On June 1, 1985, the Sebastiani family dedicated this hill Monte di Farneta, in honor of the birthplace of winery founder Samuele Sebastiani. Farneta, Italy, is where Samuele learned the art of grape growing and winemaking, and formed the idea of starting a Sebastiani family winery in America. . . . He worked the quarry on this hill to fulfill his dream of establishing the Sebastiani family winery in 1904."

Sam, however, never got the chance to develop Monte di Farneta. Seven months later, on the morning of Jan. 2, his brother, Don, came to Sam's house bearing a message from their mother, Sylvia, owner of 94.6% of the winery's stock. Sam expected that Don would be relaying Sylvia's decision about a long-term employment contract he'd requested. Instead, he was shocked to learn that Sylvia had fired him. Now the monument is less a memorial to the family legacy than to Sam's foreshortened reign as winery chief. Don, who took over for his brother, says he may sell the hill.

The predictable theme of much of the news coverage of Sam's firing was reflected in a San Francisco Chronicle headline: "Sebastiani Soap Opera Better Than 'Falcon Crest.' " Even Don thought comparisons to the wine country television soap opera were apt, joking recently that "the only difference between Italian families like this and 'Falcon Crest' is that these families have dramatically more violence and dramatically less sex."

Indeed, while sex and overt violence are missing from the Sebastiani saga, not much else is. A synopsis goes like this: August, the owner of the largest winery in Sonoma, dies, leaving majority ownership to his wife, Sylvia, now 69, and management to his elder son, Sam, now 45. The new president realizes that the winery is in trouble and radically shifts its sales strategy, upsetting Sylvia and other members of the family. He puts his wife, Vicki, in charge of the winery's food presentations, provoking jealousy from Sylvia, who had played that part while August was alive.

Meanwhile, Don, 12 years younger than Sam, becomes a state assemblyman, a controversial one at that. When Don's actions cause his political opponents to threaten retribution against the winery, Sam rebukes him for putting it in jeopardy. By 1985, Sebastiani wine is receiving critical raves, but the winery is losing money, and Sylvia's distress over Sam's spending grows. Finally, instead of confronting Sam, Sylvia consults Don, 33, and her daughter, Mary Ann Cuneo, 38. Together they decide to fire Sam.

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