Sebastiani: Over a Century of Winemaking in Sonoma
Sebastiani’s first century in Sonoma winemaking began when Samuele (pictured right) emigrated from the Tuscany region of Italy in 1895 and started Sebastiani nine years later. A stonemason by trade, he quarry-mined the Sonoma hills for cobblestones that were used to build the streets of San Francisco. He worked long hours and saved carefully to buy land in Sonoma County, from which he would make wine for the Sonoma community and San Francisco’s restaurants.
The winery was the only one in Sonoma County to continue operations through Prohibition, making a small amount of sacramental and medicinal wines. It has been joked, and perhaps with some grain of truth, that during this time there was a resurgence of people becoming very religious.
Samuele believed in hard work and asked the same of everyone at the winery. At the same time, he was a strong supporter of the land and the people of Sonoma. When the combination of Prohibition and the Depression hit hard, Samuele initiated major projects at the winery to create employment for his neighbors. When there wasn’t sufficient work at the winery, he built around the plaza and constructed a skating rink, motel, theater and meeting hall at the Catholic Church. To keep people employed at the winery, Samuele began canning peaches, pears and nectarines.
Shortly after Samuele’s death in 1944, his son, August (pictured left), and August’s wife Sylvia purchased the winery from the estate and began the expansion of the facilities and the product line, adding new varietal wines and proprietary blends.
Always sporting his trademark bib overalls, August was recognized as one of America’s most skilled and innovative winemakers of the time. August was also known for his tireless devotion to birds and their preservation – as evidenced by his lifelong support of Ducks Unlimited and his collection of rare doves and black swans. He respected the craftsmen of Sonoma and made use of their skills at the winery; the famous hand-carved Sebastiani barrels, which are still on display at the winery, were completed by Earle Brown in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
When August died in 1980, Sylvia and their children, Sam, Don and Mary Ann, assumed management of the company. Sam stayed until 1986, when he left Sebastiani to start his own winery, south of the city of Sonoma.
The Sebastiani company’s biggest growth spurt came during this time. The family built a large-volume, Central Valley-based portfolio of value brands, collectively called Turner Road Vintners, while continuing to produce its Sebastiani-labeled wines. Production of Turner Road Vintners brands reached 8 million cases a year.
With the decision made to refocus on quality and the flagship Sebastiani brand, the family sold the Turner Road Vintners brands and winemaking facilities in March 2001 to Constellation Brands (formerly Canandaigua). When that sale was completed, Don Sebastiani left to devote full attention to Cecchetti Sebastiani Cellars (now Don Sebastiani & Sons), which he started with brother-in-law Roy Cecchetti in 1985. Mary Ann Sebastiani Cuneo, formerly senior vice president of hospitality and manager of the company’s real estate holdings – which include 700 vineyard acres, 225 of them planted -- assumed the role of president and CEO and helped lead the company through its transition into one of Sonoma County’s premier quality wine producers. She spearheaded the multi-million dollar remodel of the Sebastiani tasting room and hospitality center completed in 2001, offering unique cultural and historic programs for visitors. In addition, the production facility underwent major renovation with an emphasis on small-lot artisan winemaking.
Today, Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery advances its record of acclaim under the guidance of vintner and entrepreneur Bill Foley, who acquired the winery in 2008. As part of Foley Family Wines, Sebastiani will maintain its commitment to producing singular wines from the appellations of Sonoma County.