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BROTHERS AND VINTNERS : Sam and Don Sebastiani Each Uncork Premium Wines

October 30, 1987|BRUCE KEPPEL | Times Staff Writer

SONOMA, Calif. — Sam Sebastiani turned as he unlocked a shed down the hill from his Eagle Ridge Ranch home above town. The shed houses a tiny winery in which he intends to craft special wines in batches of 400 cases.

"I call it Villa Vittoria --victory!" he said, pushing open the door.

For now, Villa Vittoria is Sebastiani's only wine-making facility. But the new Sam J. Sebastiani Winery--founded by Sam and his wife, Vicki, in the wake of his firing, by his mother, as president of the family's Sebastiani Vineyards--is already producing limited editions of premium wines made under contract by two Napa Valley wineries.

The new winery's headquarters are in Sonoma, at the opposite end of town from Sebastiani Vineyards. Wine country visitors are unlikely to miss that ivy-covered edifice with its well-appointed tasting-sales room and the towering, carved aging tanks it contains.

Established in 1904 by Sam Sebastiani's grandfather and namesake, Samuele, and now the nation's eighth-largest winery, Sebastiani Vineyards flanks the last of the chain of missions established by Father Junipero Serra.

On the other hand, visitors would have a hard time finding Sam J. Sebastiani Winery, established in 1986. There are no tours and no ivy. Just a suite of offices in a nondescript professional building. And the bitter legacy that lead to its founding.

Sam and Vicki Sebastiani financed their enterprise by selling the old Sebastiani Building facing the town plaza, which 46-year-old Sam had inherited in 1944 from his grandfather. Sam also cashed in the pension that he had earned during 20 years at the family winery and from which, as he unceremoniously put it recently, he was "booted out" last year after six years as president.

Rather than linger over his painful firing by Sylvia Sebastiani and his replacement by 34-year-old brother Don, the former Republican assemblyman, Sam decided to pour everything he had learned about wine and all he knew about business (he has a master's degree from the University of Santa Clara) into a new venture.

The publicity surrounding the ouster was clearly wounding, but as a businessman Sebastiani recognized that he could capitalize on public interest and quickly launched his own winery. His idea was to produce small quantities, just 8,000 cases initially, of three premium wines that he hoped would contain the best that Sonoma County and Napa Valley grapes could offer.

"When you make wine, you have to conceive of style," Sebastiani explained. "After all, California doesn't need another winery." His challenge is to distinguish Sam J. Sebastiani Winery from the state's other 650 wineries--and certainly from Sebastiani Vineyards.

"We came up with the idea of blending Napa and Sonoma grapes together, with Napa grapes providing the wine's backbone and intensity and Sonoma's the floral qualities to the nose, and we have tried to find vineyards that meet this profile," he said. The fruit comes from six selected vineyards in Sonoma County and four in adjacent Napa Valley, each chosen to contribute specific flavor or textural elements.

First Releases Acclaimed

Sebastiani's marketing hunch proved correct: The first offerings from these vineyards--a 1985 Chardonnay, a 1985 Sauvignon Blanc and a 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon--quickly won distribution in 32 states and the District of Columbia. Some even was shipped to Britain, France and Taiwan.

The wines also drew praise from writers who had witnessed Sebastiani's unexpected fall from family grace, on New Year's Day, 1986, just as he appeared to have not only turned around a seriously troubled business but also succeeded in changing its image as principally a jug wine operation to a premium winery.

The trouble began a few years after the greatest coup by Sam and Don's father, August, who began putting the family name on the wines that had before been produced to wear other wineries' labels: bottling varietal wines in 1.5-liter magnums and even larger bottles normally used for only the cheapest generic wines.

As a result, Sebastiani Vineyards' production doubled, tripled and quadrupled in the 1970s to a peak of nearly 4 million cases. But what August Sebastiani refused to do, in the view of his eldest son who worked beside him at the time, was to make the investments in equipment and staff needed to maintain quality through the rapid expansion.

The strain showed in 1978 when Brettanomyces bacteria, a wild yeast infection, broke out at the winery. "Bottles began exploding in the stores," Sam Sebastiani said. Eradication included the recall and destruction of nearly $1 million in defective wine--and, he claimed, the near destruction of the winery's reputation as a producer of dependable, if not distinguished, wines.

'Giants' Battle

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