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posted: 9/12/2012 8:00 AM

Good wine: Historic vineyard bottles Sonoma's essence

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Like many small businesses in America, Sebastiani Vineyards has weathered storms of growth and decline, re-concepting and restructuring, family dispute, sale, resale and re-re-sale.

Now, this historic property has embarked on a course of high quality and good value never envisioned by its founder more than a century ago.

Samuele Sebastiani traveled from Tuscany, Italy to Sonoma County, Calif. in 1895. Like the '49ers before him, Samuele saw fortune in the Sonoma hills, not in gold but in cobblestones to pave the streets of a burgeoning new metropolis, San Francisco. As profit from his quarries grew, Samuele purchased vineyard land, supplying wine for bulk bottlers in the East and the new American immigrants who enjoyed wine as a traditional part of their daily meals.

At Samuele's death in 1944, his son, August, and daughter-in-law, Sylvia, purchased the winery from the estate. August became one of California's most respected winemakers, supplying popular jugs for the 1970s wine boom and building production to 4 million cases by the time of his death in 1980.

Sylvia assumed Sebastiani's management along with children Mary Ann, Don (a California Assemblyman) and winemaker Sam. Visions varied widely.

Sam saw Sebastiani's potential for quality and shared his vision at the first sales meeting. "He assembled heads of marketing, sales and production and held up large jugs in each outstretched hand." relates Mark Lyon, Sebastiani winemaker since 1985. "He said, 'Gentlemen, this is the future!' then let the jugs crash to the cement floor. There was wine and glass everywhere!"

Under Sam's charismatic direction, Sebastiani focused on premium varieties and designated vineyards, such as "Cherryblock" Cabernet Sauvignon, a collectible to this day.

The rest of the family (and accountants) saw production plunge by half. Within six years, Sam was out; Don was in.

The vineyard expanded production to 8 million cases, under a value-oriented label, Turner Road. Then, in 2001, amid industry queries of "Why now?" the family sold bulk operations to a national marketer. In 2008, the historic Sebastiani winery and 150 vineyard acres were sold to entrepreneur Bill Foley.

Now, according to Lyons, the only storms Sebastiani concerns itself with are natural ones.

"Mother Nature wags our tail now. I don't play roulette with her to satisfy market trends, to get a 15 percent alcohol wine or a 'Wow!' from wine writers." (This wine writer, who prefers well-balanced wine, generally less than 13 percent alcohol, takes no offense.) "Our wine is not a commodity; it is an expression of Sonoma. If you really want to know what Sonoma is capable of doing, here it is."

This writer adds, for a taste of American history, here it is:

2010 "Sonoma County" Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel ($15-ish): For pure and refreshing grape flavor with enlivening finish, Lyons picks early to retain natural grape acidity and uses a light hand with oak. (See Chardonnay notes in our previous Ross' Choice.)

2008 "Alexander Valley" Cabernet Sauvignon ($28) -- Brilliant robe, but without thickness, hints at rich but not ponderous fruit flavor. Forest floor aromas -- combining herbs, dark fruit, damp earth and wood -- signals to this nose "Alexander Valley." The palate possesses heft but balance and appealing texture, a formidable companion to red meat, the richest poultry and grilled vegetables.

2008 "Cherryblock" Cabernet Sauvignon (available on Sebastiani's website, $90): Erupting flavors of ripe blackberries and currants, defined by sturdy, built-to-last tannin. Lyon has worked with the original old-vine Cabernet block since 1985, adding small amounts of fruit from other Sonoma Valley sites sharing similar terroir. "Our goal is to create a complete and compelling wine, epitomizing the elegance, structure and aromatics unique to Sonoma Valley."

• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at food@dailyherald.com.

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