Mead On Wine

© 1996 JDM Enterprises
All Rights Reserved
Vol. I No. 8


by Jerry D. Mead

Among the wineries reviewed in the first year of this column, three decades ago, was Sebastiani. Have things ever changed!

The winery itself had been around since Bacchus was a baby, with Tuscan immigrant Samuele Sebastiani buying the old Sonoma building in 1904 after saving his money from quarrying cobblestones. The Sebastianis survived the scourge of Prohibition by making sacramental and medicinal wines, both of which remained legal.

Samuele's son August took over the winery in 1934 and was the first Sebastiani I met. Up until shortly before I started paying attention to wine in the late sixties, Sebastiani had been primarily a bulk winery, one that made wine for other wineries (mostly the ones in Napa).

Bottled and labeled wine was a fairly new thing at Sebastiani when I first had something to say about them.

A couple of things come vividly to mind from those not so distant days. August always wearing bib overalls (admittedly tailor made in later years), his insistence that his wines would always remain non-vintage (they didn't, of course) and that he, or another member of the family would always drop a thank you note if the Sebastiani name was so much as mentioned in passing in print. And it wasn't just to me, but to anyone writing about wine. Of course there were even fewer wine writers than there were wineries, so it didn't give anyone writer's cramp.

Lots more stuff happened over the next 30 years. August died and the winery was taken over by his oldest son Sam (now at Viansa Winery, also in Sonoma). There was a messy family feud, and Mama Sylvia replaced Sam with his younger brother Don (Everyone gets along these days, and everyone is successful.)

The winery has grown from insignificant size to be one of the top ten largest producers in America, and has gone through several style changes over the years...moving from non-vintage to vintage-dated wines, from generics like burgundy and chablis to premium varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, from an emphasis on cheap jugs to an emphasis on top quality, and from making some of the worst white wines in America to making some very good ones.

I'm doing all this Sebastiani history, because I'm doing something really unprecedented. I'm naming three "Wines of the Week" all from the same producer and using a term I almost never use in regards to one of them.

I admit that I use lots of powerful adjectives to communicate to you that I really like a wine, and I probably overuse some of them. But there's a couple of words I intentionally use very sparingly. "Great," is one of them. Even less often than "great" will I call a wine "the best." Those superlatives are just too difficult to justify. But I'm going to use both of them today.


Cherryblock 1992 "Old Vines-Sonoma Valley" Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) This wine named for a family estate vineyard has always been good, but it all came together in 1992 into a very great California red wine that will set on the table with wines selling for three and four times as much (including those famous Bordeaux First Growths) and not be embarrassed. In fact it will remind you of Bordeaux. I'll go a step further. This is "the best" wine Sebastiani has ever made. Maybe it's because 1992 was the first year they pulled leaves in the vineyard to encourage even ripening. Or maybe it was the two years aging in 100 percent French oak barrels (50 percent of them brand new). Massive, intense, highly extracted but totally and completely in balance in every aspect. Ripe berry and cassis fruit flavors build and grow throughout the taste experience, ending with a final burst of intense earthy, mulchy, smoky complexity. Bound to improve for at least a decade, but it is so currently delicious I doubt you'll be able to resist it that long. Exceptional value even at $35. My first perfect score of 1997. Rating: 100/88


Sebastiani 1995 "Sonoma" Chardonnay ($11) Two decades ago Sebastiani didn't own any small barrels to speak of (the cooperage was all large redwood tanks), and now their presence is one of the secrets to this white wine's success. The idea of fermenting in barrels imported from France that cost more than $500 apiece, and only hold 55 gallons, probably has August doing more than turning over in his grave. Very youthful, and will get better over the next year or two. Very forward, tropical fruit, including ripe, almost candied pineapple, and lots of friendly, tasty oak vanillin. Rating: 88/94


Sebastiani 1994 "Sonoma" Cabernet Sauvignon ($11) All the black fruits, blackberry, plum, cherry and currant, are present in the flavor and the wine is beautifully balanced for immediate drinking. That is not to say there is no cellaring potential...the wine has at least five years potential if not more. Some nice earth and wood notes in the lingering aftertaste. Rating: 89/95

Sebastiani 1994 "Sonoma" Merlot ($14) Cherry and cherry stone fruit, with some ripe plum concentrate underneath. More depth of flavor than in many competitor's Merlot releases, many of which seem to suffer from being blended down in this time of shortage. This is the real thing. Rating: 88/88

Sebastiani 1994 "Sonoma" Barbera ($14) Nice enough, but a disappointment because it doesn't live up to the standard of its predecessors. It tends to lightness. It is tasty, though, and will go nicely with tomato-sauced pastas (especially with sausage). Rating: 84/84

Sebastiani wines have broad national distribution, but some of these vintages have just been released and may take a few weeks to reach your market. Cherryblock is a limited production wine and will more likely be found at wine specialty shops and fine restaurants. For help in tracking down a particular wine, contact the winery: Sebastiani, 389 Fourth St East, Sonoma, CA 95476 (707) 938-5532. Ask for Jason.

Wines are scored using a unique 100 point system. First number rates quality; second number rates value. For a reprint explaining the scoring system in depth and a pocket scoring guide, send $1 to: Mead's 100 Points, Box 1598, Carson City, NV 89702


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Latest Update: March 23, 1997