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Bill Lynch: The good neighbor I remember

For as long as I can remember Sebastiani Winery has been a part of our town. Although it is several blocks from what we consider downtown Sonoma, it is inside our city limits (but just barely).

A May article in the Index-Tribune (“Production to Cease at Sebastiani Winery,” May 10) reported that it will soon cease to exist. First, the grape crushing and wine making will go, then all barrels and storage tanks, leaving behind mostly large empty buildings.

Established by Samuele Sebastiani in 1904, and for decades the pride of the Sebastiani family, it was purchased by the very large Foley Family Winery organization in 2008. The Foley president was quoted in the IT, “This is not a spot that anyone would choose to locate a modern winery.”

Perhaps not, but I’ve always thought having our wine makers working and living among us was part of what made Sonoma so special.

I lived less than 100 feet from the winery when I was a schoolboy. The area then was much busier than it has been for the last two or three decades. Less than 50 feet from our back door, trains pulling large tank cars stopped, filled with wine, and then huffed and puffed their way east and then south to Oakland and beyond.

The winery was bustling with workers, and there was a large fruit cannery where the big parking lot is today.

Many of our neighbors were from Italy and worked at Sebastiani Winery and the cannery. Their English was as rich in Italian as the dinners they cooked from ingredients they grew and chicken and rabbits they raised in their back yards. I loved it when they invited me to dinner. To this day Italian food is my favorite.

Nobody seemed to mind the trucks, the trains, traffic, noise or the chickens as I recall. They were as much a part of our neighborhood as we were. The Sebastiani family provided a lot of people with good jobs, and the whole area was rich in activity, accents, and the kind of flavor that you can still find in traditional winemaking regions of Italy and France, where the vineyards and wineries are integrated with communities where people live.

The winery area was also “kid central,” vibrant and alive with families with children. Spain Street and Fourth Street East and the unfenced front yards of our neighbors are where we played. Even the trains were a source of amusement. We’d put pennies on the track and then retrieve them after the steel wheels would turn them into very flat copper discs.

I remember those days and the people who were our neighbors and friends with great fondness. The sights, sounds and scents I can never forget: the smell of fresh crushed grapes, then later the wine fermenting, the pickers in the vineyards, the grapes running up the conveyor to the crusher, seeing August Sebastiani in his striped overalls keeping careful watch on all parts of his operation. Although he lived in a very big house on the hill above the winery, we still considered him far more than the owner of the winery. He was our neighbor and knew us all by name. His children were our playmates and all the neighborhood adults looked after us all.

So, I question if it must be true today that the intersection of Spain and Fourth Street East at the northeast corner of our city is no place for a modern winery.

OK then, how about a not-so-modern winery – something “old world,” old fashioned, with a hands-on owner like August? We don’t have to bring back the trains, or even the chickens. But how about a “traditional” winery, less industrialized than the Foley operation, but owned and operated by someone who values being a Sonoman, who would want to get to know us, and call us friend and neighbor?

I think there is still a place for that where it has been for so many years.

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