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Production to cease at Sebastiani Winery in downtown Sonoma

It is the end of an era for Sonoma’s largest downtown winery. Foley Family Winery plans to lay off most of its workers at the Sebastiani Winery and close its winemaking operations at the eastside facility. The winery’s tasting room and administrative offices in Sonoma will remain open, however, according to Foley President Shawn Schiffer.

Bulk storage for outside clients will also be wound down in the months ahead, Schiffer said, adding that Foley currently has no specific plans for the buildings that will lie vacant.

Managers of the Sebastiani operation, which was purchased by Foley in 2008, held a series of meetings in April and May and told its production and winemaking employees that 30 employees will lose their jobs in Sonoma.

“This is not a spot that anyone would choose to locate a modern winery,” Schiffer told the Index-Tribune about the Sebastiani production facility. “A variety of factors (have) led us to the conclusion that the Sebastiani site is not the right place to bear a large share of our manufacturing needs. The size and layout of the facility as well as environmental concerns like the encroachment of the surrounding residential neighborhood and public access trail all played a part in our decision.”

Schiffer said that the site and its surrounding neighborhood have struggled with issues of truck traffic. “The neighbors have been very patient,” he said, citing some recent issues that included a Sebastiani truck knocking down a fire hydrant, as well as environmental concerns.

The Foley-owned Ferrari-Carano facilities at Dry Creek and Alexander Valley in Healdsburg will take over the bulk of the production for the Sebastiani label.

“Our Ferrari-Carano production sites are state of the art facilities that will allow us to safely achieve higher quality control and more efficiency than we can at Sebastiani,” said Schiffer.

The Sebastiani Winery tasting room in Sonoma.
The Sebastiani Winery tasting room in Sonoma.

In a similar move, last week Gallo announced that it had laid off most of its production workers at the Clos du Bois facility in Geyserville and move production to other Gallo wineries.

While Foley spokespeople are presenting the move as a long-overdue relocation of production facilities out of a residential neighborhood, others are questioning whether it’s an attempt by the company to break the workers union.

Sebastani currently has about three dozen union production workers whose jobs are impacted, according to Luis Martel, the Modesto-based president of the local 186 winery and distillery workers union that includes Sonoma.

The Index-Tribune reached out to two Sebastiani union employees who spoke on background about their jobs but were uncomfortable speaking on the record in the midst of the negotiations between the union lawyers and the Foley lawyers.

“These employees are afraid and their back is against the wall,” said Martel. “Foley wants to transfer all of its production but not its union production workers to another site. Or maybe they plan to give everyone a severance and then reopen with temporary (non-union) workers. Either way, it’s not right.”

Schiffer said that Foley is working with union representatives “to negotiate a fair settlement for the impacted employees in accordance with the terms of their collective bargaining agreement.”

“We haven’t agreed to anything yet,” said Martel.

The Sebastiani winery was founded in Sonoma in 1904. Wine production has occurred continuously at the site since 1904, including through Prohibition and the Depression, according to the winery’s website.

Sebastiani is located on the east side of Sonoma’s downtown, occupying the equivalent of two city blocks on either side of Fourth Street East. Its production and storage buildings run along the town’s bike trail. A multi-million dollar remodel of its tasting room and hospitality center was completed in 2001. There are about 32 acres of vines situated around the winery.

The Sebastiani winery was purchased by the Foley Wine Group in late 2008 for an estimated $47 million, from Mary Ann Sebastiani Cuneo, Sam Sebastiani and Don Sebastiani. At the time of the sale, the winery produced 280,000-cases annually, according to the Wine Spectator. Around 160,000 cases of the Sebastiani label are now produced annually, according to employees.

As for the long term future of the City’s biggest and oldest winery, Schiffer said, “There are no plans to sell Sebastiani at this time.”

Contact Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.

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