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February 15-21, 2006

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Wine Tasting Room of the Week

Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery

By Heather Irwin


Lowdown: In a series of transformations that would make Madonna proud, Sebastiani Winery has weathered a hundred years of winemaking in Sonoma, constantly reinventing its product to satisfy the fickle American wine market. Surviving Prohibition with a contract for sacramental wine, becoming a major player in the (shudder) era of jug wines and finally, emerging as a potential force in super premium wines, the chameleon-like winery always seems to have the next big idea at just the right moment. But is this aging star running out of ideas?

With a family history that is both rich and troubled, the Sebastianis have been a major force in the development of the wine industry in Sonoma—and, in fact, in all of California. But as is true with many winemaking families, in-fighting and politics have fractured the family into separate camps and caused the winery to stumble at times. Third-generation winemakers Sam and wife Vicki Sebastiani broke several years ago to create the nearby Viansa Winery. Sibling Don Sebastiani stepped down from the helm of the family winery in 2000 to create a wine negotiant company that now markets wines like Screw Kappa Nappa, Smoking Loon and Pepperwood Grove.

Currently leading the company is Don's sister, Mary, and her husband, Ron Cuneo. The couple have stabilized the winery and continue to be a strong force in the future direction of the family business, but so far no groundbreaking vision of the future—like that of Don's mega-approachable, moderately priced wines—has emerged. Instead, the winery has stuck close to its roots, relying on many of the traditional wines it has found success with in the past, like the Cherry Block Cabernet Sauvignon and "Eye of the Swan" Pinot Noir Blanc. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The winery is charming and warm, with wines that are mostly straightforward, honest affairs without all the hype and hubbub of younger wineries. And with one of the best picnic areas around, the busy Sonoma tasting room is always abuzz with folks eager to taste a little bit of wine country's glorious past. Still, the question remains: Who will lead Sebastiani into the future?

Mouth value: Sebastiani does the classics very well. Its 2004 Dutton Ranch Chardonnay ($25) has a nice mix of oak to fruit and is an easy-drinking wine that pairs well with food. The '02 Cherry Block Cabernet ($75) is the winery's most critically acclaimed wine, winning over critics with its big cherry and red fruit, though it may need a little more time to develop in the bottle to really see some complexity emerge. The 2003 "Seccolo" Red Blend ($30), called the "Soul of Sonoma," is one of the most immediately drinkable wines on the list, with lots of black cherry and round oak. If sweet wines intrigue you, the 2004 Sylvia Sebastiani Symphony ($13) has lovely peach, apricot and floral aromas that would be great on a summer afternoon with fruit or a salad.

Don't miss: Sebastiani loves your pooch almost as much as you do. Water dishes are located around the property, and the winery has held a canine festival overseen by resident pup, Rubee Sebastiani, the past two years.

Spot: Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery, 389 Fourth St. E., Sonoma. Tasting fees range from $8 for three wines, or $18 for the Proprietor's Tasting. Open daily. 707.933.3230.


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