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Seghesio Winery Reflects the Changing Nature of the Business Today

July 14, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

HEALDSBURG, Calif. — The aroma inside the old concrete walls is unmistakable: A combination of mustiness, fermentation odors and earthiness. It's unquestionably a winery.

Yet the dinginess of the interior hearkens back to another age, an age before high-tech stainless steel fermentation vats and pristine transfer lines and computerized presses. The Seghesio Winery, in operation here since the turn of the century, hasn't changed much. It's not what you'd call state of the art unless you're talking about prehistoric art.

Yet the story of the Seghesio winery is pretty much the story of the American wine industry, complete with its Italian roots and its heritage of "dry red," the wine that comprised 95% of the wine diet of Italian families in the years before and after Prohibition.

Italian names light up the history of the California wine industry--names like Pietro Rossi, Louis Martini, Cesare Mondavi, and Louis Petri, not to mention names like Sbarboro, Pedroncelli, Gallo, Sebastiani, Papagni, Bargetto, Sattui, Cribari, Filippi, Riboli, Prati, and Nichelini.

For Wine-Drinkers Without Pretense

These family oriented people plied their trade without seeking to make "world class" wines, focusing on wine for people who drank wine regularly and without pretension. Hearty wine. Red wine.

"In the old days, all the Italians drank a half gallon of wine a day," said Eugene (Pete) Seghesio, president of the winery. "They wanted red wine and they wanted something smooth, not harsh," and he said that on cold days they would drink the wine straight, and on hot days they would add cool water to it. Or ice.

Seghesio was founded as a winery in 1902, 16 years after Edoardo Seghesio emigrated from Piedmont, Italy, to work with Pietro Rossi at Italian Swiss Colony, just a few miles north of this Sonoma County town. The Seghesio winery was built to make wine, much of it from purchased grapes. The wine would be sold in bulk to other wineries, who would bottle it with their name.

And the system worked fine for three-quarters of a century (with time out for the Grand Experiment). Primary buyers through the early 1970s were Gallo and Paul Masson, with Almaden buying a smaller share and lesser amounts to Beringer, Krug and Mondavi. Production grew to more than 1.5 million gallons.

"Then the industry changed," said Pete Jr., marketing director. "There was a huge surplus of wine in California, and in 1975 Gallo stopped buying, and in 1976 Masson quit, and then Almaden. We were left with a lot of wine and no label." The only thing left to do was market wine under the family brand.

It was a good plan, but it was done with a premise that hearty red wine, the wine of the Italian family, would sell. After all, it's what Pete Sr. drank.

In 1982, Seghesio began to market wine under its own brand for the first time. Most of the wines were red, bold and coarse without much tannin. They had spent a long time in oak barrels to smooth out. One of the first wines was a 1975 red wine made from a blend of grapes including Carignane, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't what American wine consumers were evolving toward then.

The new wines that created the boom of the late 1970s were fresher, richer, with a classical structure. It wasn't aged in oak for a decade; it was aged just long enough to give it life in the bottle. Yet for a time the Seghesio family still tried to market the older style.

Caught in the Change

Sebastiani Vineyards in the Sonoma Valley was another winery caught in the change from the old-style to the new, says Sam Sebastiani, former president of the giant winery.

"My dad (August) saw the changes, but he was afraid to change because he'd been through so many left and right swings, from one style to the other," said Sam. "One day people are applauding our wines, and then suddenly the clapping stops."

Sam said that after his father's death in 1980, he was trying to change the Sebastiani winery's image from jug to premium when he was caught in a family squabble that forced him out.

Seghesio has had no hint of Falcon Crestiana and a change in the style of wine was discussed in family meetings. Dozens attended such meetings. So many Seghesio family members now work at the winery, it's hard to keep straight who belongs to whom.

Besides Eugene (Pete Sr.) and his son, Pete Jr., there's Ed Seghesio, Eugene's nephew, who runs the winery. The wine maker is Ted Seghesio, Ed's son (and thus Pete Sr.'s grand-nephew). Ray Seghesio (another nephew) is in charge of the winery's Cloverdale ranches and Jim Neumiller, who is married to Julie Seghesio, Ed's daughter, runs the bottling line.

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