Sebastianis back to making Sonoma wines
DON SEBASTIANI JR. shows off the new Don and Sons label, which marries the family’s rich history with its new business model.
Few family names in the Sonoma Valley have the same caché as Sebastiani, who have been making wine here since the turn of the last century. The family has since sold the iconic winery that bears its name, but are launching a new era and a signature label meant to tie their abundant history to the new realities of their business.
Simply called Don and Sons, the newly released label is solely producing Burgundy varietals – chardonnay and pinot noir – made entirely with Sonoma County grapes, including some grown by the Valley’s Sangiacomo family. While the Sebastiani family’s wine négociant business of the same name, Don and Sons, has been around for more than a decade, its newest label will take the lead on their product line.
“This is the brand that this company will be built around in the next five to 10 years,” said Don “Donny” Sebastiani Jr., president and chief executive officer of Don and Sons: The Next Generation of Wine.
A double gold winner in the 2012 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the pinot noir provides a subtle blend of fruity flavors, specifically notes of blackberry, backed up by the earthiness of walnuts. The chardonnay offers crisp flavors of citrus and pear, with a light, buttery finish. Both bottles sell for less than $20 and were designed with winemaker Greg Kitchens to offer a big nose with a more delicate flavor profile to better pair with a variety of foods.
“We wanted to make a really elegant, medium-bodied wine. In America, very full-bodied wines are really popular. It’s like, if a 12-ounce steak is good, a 16-ounce must be better. The same is true for wine,” Don Jr. said. “That’s not my style or taste. Our wines are meant to be served with dinner.”
To understand the Sebastiani’s business model today, it’s necessary to go back to company origins in the wine industry. Samuele Sebastiani immigrated from Italy and opened the Sonoma winery sometime around 1904 – Don Jr. admits the exact year is a bit fuzzy.
“He was a wildly successful guy,” Don Jr. said. “He was operating a winery successfully during prohibition.”
In the 1940s, Samuele’s son, August Sebastiani Sr., bought the winery from his father. “He didn’t inherit it, he bought it. He was always proud of that,” Don Jr. said.
Don Sebastiani Sr. took over in 1986, and continued to expand the winery’s portfolio of labels, which at its height included dozens of labels from all over California and beyond. In 2001, the family dropped all labels except for those from Sonoma.
“We went from an 8-million case winery to about a 200,000-case winery,” Don Jr. said.
That same year, Don Sr. launched his new business Don and Sons, which he operated with sons Don Jr. and August Jr. Don Sr.’s sister, Mary Ann Sebastiani Cuneo, took over operations at Sebastiani Winery until 2008 when the family sold the business to Foley Wine Group, which has carried on the winemaking traditions established by the Sonoma family winery.
“As far as being a steward of the family business, (Bill Foley) has done a really great job,” Don Jr. said.
With Don and Sons, the family was able to take their vast knowledge of the wine industry and apply it to making and selling wines sourced from vineyards all over the world.
“The beauty is you’re not tied to any specific appellation or vineyard. You’re able to be driven by quality and value,” Don Jr. said. “The downside is you don’t have a tasting room.”
The business quickly took off, finding a niche in the under $25 market, with successful labels such as Smoking Loon, Pepperwood Grove, B Side and Aquinas, many of which are blended in Napa. But it focused on brands that didn’t directly tie into the family’s legacy as one of the winemaking pioneers of California. The Don and Sons label is the first attempt to bridge the history of the Sebastiani family with its new business model. It has been picked up for distribution at Whole Foods and Safeway, and is also available at donandsons.com. Don Jr. said it was heartening for the Sebastianis to be making Sonoma County wines again.
“At the end of the day, we’re in the wine business and that’s the best place to be in the world,” he said.