You might think that if your family name was carved above the local theater, bus depot and other public places in a tony northern California town -- not to mention emblazoned upon many million cases of wine -- you'd take it easy and live off the fat of the land.
Not so for Don Sebastiani Jr. who, after budget meetings with his Chicago-based sales force, spent his free evening with a local journalist -- me -- discussing the next phase of his family's 100-year wine-growing heritage. He even took public transportation to do it.
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Ross' choicePinot Noir
Don & Sons
Sonoma Coast, Calif.
• Suggested retail and availability: About $20 at specialty grocers and wine and liquor shops (distributed by Stoller Wholesale Wine and Spirits Inc., Franklin Park)
Business relationships mean a lot, especially when sourcing one of the hottest products in the nation. In this nation's wine business, that product is Pinot Noir. With deep roots in Sonoma, the Sebastiani family has tapped some of the finest fruit from neighbors in subregions Petaluma Gap and Carneros to produce this rich and firm Pinot Noir that has an inviting aroma and cherry-berry flavors accented with chocolate and a silky finish. Fuller than many Pinots, Don & Sons will satisfy with a range of dishes, from the richest seafood (plank-grilled salmon) and poultry (roast turkey) to red and white meats (lighter steaks, chili, pork chop suey …)
"The big picture is to turn over a healthy business to our children," Sebastiani explains. "Our strategy is to sustain that business by constantly evolving, acting on opportunities, taking risks. It's all part of being a family company."
The company began in the 1800s, when Samuele Sebastiani followed the Gold Rush to California. He then followed his nose to kitchens of Italian immigrants settling in the hills outside Sonoma, where they mined quarries for rock, not gold. Samuele sold bulk wine to the quarrymen and -- as the legend I retell has it -- used their stones to pave the road to San Francisco and sell his wine to thirsty 49ers.
"I haven't heard that one about paving roads," Don laughs, "but I may use it!"
Samuele's son, August, evolved to bottling value-priced jugs. In the 1980s, his son, Sam, evolved to premium varietal wines, winning critical but not popular acclaim. As business foundered, another of August's sons, Don, was summoned from a career in politics to stabilize Sebastiani Vineyards. Don tripled production to 8 million cases, then -- in a decision that baffled the wine industry -- sold winemaking operations, vineyards, the historic Sebastiani Winery and the Sebastiani brand name.
"Marketing a family business without the family name is interesting," Sebastiani says with a smile.
In 2005, Don Sr., Don Jr. and siblings launched The Other Guys (TOG), producing popular-priced wines with catchy names including Plungerhead Zinfandel, Hey Mambo Sultry Red and Pennywise Petite Sirah. By 2010, The TOG's affordable quality had swelled production to 169,000 cases.
"Then I get the call from Dad," he laughs. The decision had been made to spin off TOG into an independent company. "Those calls are another part of family business."
Today, Don Jr. helms Don & Sons, producing appellation-driven wines for wine-savvy customers, including:
The Crusher Petite Sirah (Clarksburg): Full-bodied red with saturated blackberry and cherry flavors, mouth-coating texture and chewy tannin to pair with grilled meats and rich stews. As described by Sebastiani, "It's our in-your-face wine." ($12.99)
B Side Red Blend (Napa Valley): East of Highway 29, manicured Napa vineyards give way to a wilder, hilly terrain. While Napa made its name on structured elegance, this lush blend represents another side of Napa, with heady enjoyment, rustic flavors of dried fruits, coconut and molasses and firm tannin, to pair with red meats. ($24.99.)
Sivas-Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma County): "'Sebasteia' is our name's origin; 'Sivas' is a modern derivation. The wine is an homage to Samuele and August, who laid groundwork for the family's future," Don Jr. says. It's pure California-style Cab, with bold berry and plum flavors and accents of vanilla and cardamom from oak aging. Pair with red meats. ($18.99)
Before parting, Don Jr. approaches another aspect of every family business. "Dad gets the press, but Mom deserves a lot of credit for our success, too."
He explains that not only does Mom keep her family's hearth and home, she also shares her heritage through cuisine by creating recipes such as White Bean-Artichoke Spread with Bruschetta and Bread Crostini for daughter, Mia, and their Mia's Kitchen Sonoma-based gourmet shop.
Then, with all bases covered, Don Sebastiani Jr., scion of one of the world's most successful winegrowing families, waves, smiles and heads toward the Red Line.
• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.