© 1996 JDM Enterprises
SEBASTIANI THEN & NOWby 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.
COLLECTABLE WINE OF THE WEEK
BEST BUY WHITE WINE OF THE WEEK
BEST BUY RED WINE OF THE WEEK
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