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Big Wines From Small Places


This is the story of three men who started big and ended small. All three are better off because of it.

The most dramatic story is Sam Sebastiani's. The eldest son of August Sebastiani (famous for his bib overalls) and the grandson of Samuele, who founded Sebastiani Vineyards in 1904, Sam assumed control of the winery after his father's death in 1980. He immediately set out to change Sebastiani's image: It had been one of the country's largest producers of jug wines, but Sam wanted to make it into a premium producer.

Then his younger brother Don, a state legislator, lost an election, left politics and rejoined the winery. There he found that Sam's expensive conversion to premium wines was going more slowly than expected. He wasn't pleased.

Sylvia Sebastiani, family matriarch and major shareholder, stepped in. Jug wine made money, she felt; premium wine was an expensive gamble. Moreover, insiders say, there was conflict between Sylvia and Sam's wife, Vicki. Sylvia sided with Don, fired Sam and put Don in charge.

Sam then developed his own wine business, calling it Sam J. Sebastiani Wines. Inevitably, confusion arose: The public saw modest wines called Sebastiani and premium wines called Sam Sebastiani. Who made which? So Sam's brand name became Viansa Winery, an acronym of Vicki and Sam.

Viansa opened Feb. 17, 1990, an attractive mini-winery whose main charm lay in its Tuscan architecture and an Italian deli offering excellent wine, great espresso, aprons, kitchen gadgets and food made from Vicki's recipes. A year later, rumor had it that Viansa was bankrupt. Sam denied it.

"It hasn't been easy," says Sam. "We were set to open more than two years ago, but the (Loma Prieta) earthquake blew the bottom out of the restaurant and hotel business. Tours we had booked started canceling left and right. Then came the recession and the Middle East war, and, well . . . ."

Sam Sebastiani is pinning the future of his winery on a line of super-premium red wines, some of them from Italian grape varieties. To be released March 30 is a 202-case lot of Obsidian, a Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon blend that will sell for $65 a bottle. There are also small lots of 1990 Nebbiolo ($12.50) and 1990 Sangiovese ($24). His top tasting-room wine these days is a fresh, superbly balanced 1989 Chardonnay ($12).

Dave Ramey, former assistant to Simi Winery's brilliant Zelma Long, got his first head winemaking job in 1984 when he was hired to replace Merry Edwards at Matanzas Creek Winery. But friction developed between Ramey and owners Bill and Sandra MacIver. Before the 1989 harvest, Ramey was gone.

A year later he surfaced at Chalk Hill Winery, owned by one of the nation's most successful corporate attorneys, Fred Furth. "Fred didn't understand why this fabulous estate wasn't the best in California," says Ramey, who was charged to make it so.

Ramey makes rich, complex Chardonnays and in Chalk Hill he found the perfect grapes for his style. His first effort is an amazingly complex 1990 Chalk Hill Chardonnay ($15), a rich wine with a striking aroma of tropical fruits mixed with a toasty, hazelnut finish. Quite a start.

Ramey also found superb Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and his Chalk Hill 1989 Cabernet ($13) evinces the hilly, rock-strewn soil: cassis and spice, a trace of cumin and a powerful structure. The wine is a bit tannic and needs a year or two to smooth out.

Two decades ago everybody thought Phil Baxter was going to become a superstar winemaker. He started his career as winemaker Bill Bonetti's assistant at Charles Krug Winery when Krug was one of the Napa Valley's heavyweight wineries.

In 1986, after a stop at Rutherford Hill Winery, Baxter took the head winemaking job at Sonoma's Domaine Michel, which was then being trumpeted as "the next Jordan Winery." Domaine Michel seemed to have everything going for it, but for reasons still unknown, sales and winery image never reached expectations. In 1989, Domaine Michel replaced Baxter with Fred Payne.

Baxter went back to the Napa Valley to sell real estate--and make wine in his spare time under the Philippe-Lorraine label. "This is an embryonic thing, like (William) Hewlett and (David) Packard, who started out in a garage," said Baxter.

The first Philippe-Lorraine Cabernet Sauvignon, from the 1989 vintage, is a grand example of lean, delicate winemaking with ample flavor and complexity. The wine is not an oaky monster but is made with nuances of herbs and cherries. It should age well for four to six years. At its price, $10 a bottle, it's a steal.

Higher priced but still worth the tariff is his superb 1989 Merlot ($15), packaged in a classic tall, antique-black bottle. The aroma is berries and toast with a long, tart finish that indicates the wine will age nicely.

To round out a lineup that offers great value, if spotty distribution, Baxter also is offering a lovely 1990 Chardonnay at $10 that has excellent fruit and great acidity. He has more of it (2,000 cases) than he does of the other wines.

Wine of the Week

1990 Chalk Hill Sauvignon Blanc ($8.50)-- Few wineries in California have both the grapes and the inclination to make a Sauvignon Blanc that emulates the fine white wines of the Graves district of Bordeaux. Graves wines usually have chalky/earthy elements that mingle with the lean grapefruit and new-mown hay flavors of a dry Sauvignon Blanc. When young, they are crisp enough to marry with oysters, yet they age well into a more creamy and gentle wine.

This wine is a dramatic example of how the Graves style of wine can be developed in California, but with notes of creaminess in the finish from barrel aging, meaning more depth than Graves get at such an early stage. The aroma is a complex series of herbal/melony aromas, and the taste is lush enough to match with a wider variety of foods than most young Graves.

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