Sale of pioneering Sebastiani Vineyards caps legacy rooted in family differences

  • Visitors touring Sebastiani Winery in Sonoma Saturday morning view historic old barrels,now dry, with hand-carved ends. Tour guide Michael Bridgeman mentioned the Sebastiani sale during his walk with visitors Jeannie Pagnotta and Danny G of Mill Valley and Bob Crenshaw of New York.

The decision by the Sebastiani family to sell their namesake winery rather than conquer their internal divisions will bring to an end a family business that formed Sonoma's wine identity for more than a century.

"This is a benchmark transaction because the Sebastiani name has been synonymous with Sonoma and with California," said Robert Nicholson, principal of International Wine Associates of Healdsburg. "I am sure it was a difficult decision within the family of pioneers in the wine business. But sometimes selling is the right decision."

Don Sebastiani, the 55-year-old son of second-generation winery leader August Sebastiani, confirmed Saturday that the decision to sell the family vineyards was not unanimous. He declined to discuss specifics.

"There were differences of opinion," he said. "We have our differences behind closed doors. When the doors are open again, we come together."

Sale of Sebastiani Vineyards, which had been in the family since 1904, had been rumored to be in the works for some time. But the announcement to employees late Friday of the purchase by the Foley Wine Group of Santa Barbara came as a shock to many veterans of the industry.

"I heard rumors out there, but only got them confirmed when I met friends for our usual Saturday morning breakfast," said vineyard owner Angelo San Giacomo. "I knew August, we grew up together, and that family's been putting our pinot and chardonnay grapes in their wines since 1974."

The sale ends an entanglement of relationships that started to unravel nearly 30 years ago with the death of August Sebastiani, whose Italian immigrant father Samuele Sebastiani founded the winery in 1904.

August's wife, Sylvia Sebastiani, became the powerful matriarch of the family, while elder son Sam Sebastiani stepped in to run the winery in 1980.

After six years, she removed him amid reported concern over his heavy spending on winery promotion and management direction, and gave the reins of power to younger son Don Sebastiani.

Sam Sebastiani went on to found Viansa Winery, which he sold in 2005 to an investment group, and he now spends much of his time on his ranch in Nebraska.

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