Sebastiani Uncorks a New Career : Veteran Wine Maker to Launch a New Label on His Own

September 25, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

"In 1985, no one in his right mind, least of all me, would have predicted that in 1986 I would be fired as president of the family winery, Sebastiani Vineyards, and within eight short months I would be making and marketing wine under my own label," Sam Sebastiani mused without a trace of bitterness as he and his wife Vicki geared up for the launching of their new label Sam Sebastiani Wines.

"I am delighted to be back in the saddle again at the helm of my own vineyards," Sebastiani said, "and I expect to be making fine wine for a long time to come, hopefully as long as the family enterprise, which was established in 1904. While all the problems between my mother, Sylvia, and myself are not as yet resolved we are talking to one another and I bear her no grudge for the ouster. We have reached an agreement concerning the family name for use on my label. I wish all the best for the continued success of my mother and Sebastiani Vineyards."

Questioned His Future

Fortunately for all the Sebastianis, a media-predicted family feud over the firing did not materialize. Initially stung by his ouster, Sam questioned whether he would even remain in the wine business.

"I thought I might sell country real estate," he laughed, "but . . . I believed the new 'better varietals, premium wine' direction I launched for the winery was beginning to pay off."

After the death in 1980 of Sam's father, wine patriarch August, Sebastiani Winery entered a financial slump. With considerable expensive equipment retooling, Sam brought the winery to better long-term financial prospects and built an image emphasizing quality rather than quantity of wine. However his mother and other family members became concerned over costly transition expenditures estimated at $6.5 million; hence, a quick change in management.

"In some ways my family did me a favor," Sam noted, "for now I can make wines in my own style without fear of frustrating objections and criticism. After all, I took Sebastiani from a volume jug wine position to one where we were competing with the best of California premiums, winning as many as 58 medals at American wine competitions. The 1986 marks my 20th consecutive harvest, and through these many years I have tried to make the best without overly worrying about the cost. I always figured that if my wines were good, somehow the cost would take care of itself."

Differences in Technique

Perhaps that attitude illustrates best the differences in management technique between Sam and his dad, who was renowned for his country image of doing business in bib overalls and not wasting money on frills or expensive modernizing. Some industry observers said there was no marketing program during August's reign but they were wrong. He was the marketing program and was very effective in exploiting his country image and the sale of millions of cases of pleasing, inexpensive jug wine.

Only 39 when appointed president of Sebastiani Winery, Sam was often described as "the yuppie vintner" as he seemed to know what his generation wanted in the way of wine. He earned a masters degree in business administration at the University of Santa Clara and was determined to bring the winery the kind of academic professional business principles that his father often described as "highfalutin."

"Highfalutin or not," Sam said, "I expect to make my winery a true boutique family winery, perhaps with a limit of 50,000 cases. My first year will see no more than 9,000 to 10,000 cases. I do not have to be a 'highfalutin' marketing genius as I am relying on the simple and best expediency: good taste. Right after I took over Sebastiani Winery I planned a premium major vineyard, the Eagle, to demonstrate that as a family winery we were operating in a corporate world and that we are an endangered species."

Sam's debut releases, Sam J. Sebastiani, Sauvignon Blanc, 1985, and Cabernet Sauvignon, 1983, reflect what Sam does best. Acting like a Burgundian negociant , he gathered excellent grapes in limited quantities from friendly vintners, who instantly made them available to him. He has taken a little from here and a little from there to fashion wines decidedly different from those of the family.

"I intend to create unique styles of wine that express the finest characteristics of each appellation I use. I will produce only three wines, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, all to be made in limited quantities from grapes grown in Sonoma and Napa counties."

The '85 Sauvignon Blanc is a full-flavored, big, luscious wine showing length, depth and early complexity. The Sauvignon Blanc bigness and richness could well double as a Chardonnay and can easily be partnered with richly sauced fish and even veal dishes. As a premiere it is a winner.

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