John JuergensSebastiani Vineyards Remaking a winery

For many of us who came of age during the 1960s and '70s, Sebastiani Vineyards is a very familiar name. Having been weaned on European wines, my first experiences with California wines was not all that pleasant because what I had were the inexpensive wines that came in half-gallon bottles with handles on them. However, I was introduced to Sebastiani wines on my first trip to San Francisco and the wine country in the early 1970s, and I learned that they made some very serious and elegant wines in addition to their large volume wines.

Sebastiani Vineyards are some of the oldest in California, going back to 1825. Franciscan missionaries planted vines to make wine, which, in addition to sacramental purposes, I'm sure they used to soothe their jangled nerves due to the pressures of taming and converting the natives in that area. Samuel Sebastiani, an immigrant from Tuscany, Italy, acquired the vineyards in 1904, and the family has been producing quality wine ever since.

As the California wine industry gathered steam during the 1970s, Sebastiani, as most other rapidly growing wineries, had to make a decision about the direction they would go to grow their business. Many wineries pursued the path of inexpensive quaffable wines that they promoted on a national level while maintaining a line of limited production, high quality wines for regional consumption. These inexpensive "jug wines," as they came to be known they frequently came in 1.5 liter or larger bottles that sold inexpensively were very popular and provided the cash the wineries needed to expand and to buy additional land and vineyards. But on a national level, many of these wineries got tagged with the image of producers of cheap wines of low quality, and Sebastiani was one of them.

A few years ago the Sebastiani family decided to recreate its image by selling off its "jug wine" business and to focus on making only premium varietal wines. I had an opportunity recently to taste a large panel of these wines and want to share my tasting notes.

2001 Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River
A nice straw color with classic aromas of herbs, a hint of grass, flinty minerals, and citrus. The wine delivers nice fruit forward flavors on the front end, which slowly evolve into a nice crisp, clean finish of tart lemon. This makes an excellent salad wine when paired with vinegar based dressings, and would go well with a lemon and pepper chicken or fish dish. An excellent wine value.

2000 Chardonnay, Sonoma County
This wine has all the finesse and richness of wines that cost as much as twenty dollars. It is well integrated with a nice acid-to-forward fruit balance, which gives the wine a velvety feel across the palate. It has elegant aromas of tropical fruit and melons laced with hints of smoky oak. While the oak comes through on the taste, it is well restrained so that the nuances of butter, melons, and vanilla easily emerge. This is a wonderful Chardonnay at a very modest price.

1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County
This is a medium to heavy bodied wine with classic Cabernet characteristics of cassis, leather, cedar, and dark berries in the nose and on the palate. The tannins are unexpectedly mild and the acids are right where they need to be to make this a very drinkable wine now or to hold for no more than 2 years.

2001 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
This is one of the best Pinots in its price range to come out of California in a long time. It is rich with black cherry and intense raspberry aromas and flavors, with a slight touch earth. It has a silky texture across the palate and ends with an elegant, lingering finish of ripe berries.

1999 Merlot, Sonoma County
This is a straightforward uncomplicated wine with nice aromas of cedar, leather, coffee, and a slight vegetal or herbaceous quality, all of which also come through on the palate. The wine delivers nice fruit forward quality with moderate tannins.

2000 Merlot, Alexander Valley
Alexander Valley consistently produces wines of finesse and depth, which are illustrated in this wine. There are complex aromas and flavors of cedar, nutmeg, eucalyptus, leather, coffee and chocolate. The wine delivers medium to high tannins that should smooth out with two to three years of aging. Definitely a wine to buy and cellar to enjoy its potential.

2000 Zinfandel, Sonoma County
This is a lighter style Zinfandel with nice forward fruit of ripe black berries and raspberries. Although it doesn't have the intensity of the more massive style Zins, it still delivers robust fruit flavors in an uncomplicated manner, and its soft tannins and mild acidity allows it to work as a cocktail wine or to match with a wide range of foods from steak to chicken to pasta dishes.

2000 Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley, Old Vines, Domenici Vineyard
This vineyard designated wine has more complexity and intensity than the Sonoma County version and packs a greater punch with its concentrated flavors of dark berries and brambles. The wine is laced with black pepper spiciness, toasted oak, and hints of vanilla. This is a classic example of what Zinfandel can and should be.

2000 Barbera, Sonoma Valley
This is one of the best examples of an American style Barbera I have tasted in many years. It expresses nicely the slightly rustic character of the grape without being stuffy or stodgy. It is a moderately intense wine with rich flavors of dark blackberries, cedar, black cherries, plums, tobacco and toasty oak Its moderate tannins make the wine very drinkable now, but it will last for a good five years.

1998 Mourvedre, Sonoma Valley, Old Vines, Domenici Vineyard
For fans of the Mourvedre grape this wine is pure nectar of the gods. It has intensely rich and spicy flavors imbedded in a slightly rustic but elegant framework. The wine has luscious notes of cedar, black pepper, blackberries, black cherries, and mixed spices and an wonderfully seductive velvety texture.

1999 Cabernet Sauvignon "Cherry Block", Sonoma
This is one of the flagship wines of Sebastiani and it is in very limited supply because of its restrained elegance and hand-crafted quality. It has the complexity and depth of a fine Bordeaux, but also expresses up front delicious flavors of black cherries, currants, cedar, oak, chocolate, and maybe a hint of anise. The firm tannins are still very evident and the wine needs at least a couple more years to begin to open up and demonstrate its true character.

Unfortunately, some of these wines the Cherry Block, Pinot Noir, and the Mourvedre are in very limited supply or completely sold out in the current vintage, and, therefore, are not widely available. However, they are still worth looking for in some of the larger cities and in some restaurants.

If you haven't tried Sebastiani wines lately, you need to do yourself a favor and check out the wines available in your area. You are in for a very nice surprise, particularly in the quality you get for the price.


July 28, 2003

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