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Another generation thrives in food and wine industries; family setting withenough 'blue sky' for everyone

Don and Nancy Sebastiani must have done something right to have all three of their kids thriving as masters of their own food and wine domains.

Siblings Donny, August and Mia Sebastiani are in fact fourth-generation entrepreneurs, building on the legacy begun by their great-grandfather Samuele, who came to California from Tuscany in 1895. Within 10 years he had opened a winery; by the 1930s, he was rich.

Samuele's son August took the family's wine business to another level, moving beyond bulk wine into marketing varietals. When he died in 1980, his widow Sylvia, along with their two sons, Sam and Don, 12 years apart in age, were left to carry on.

But family rifts can make a straight line crooked. In time, Sam left to open Viansa Winery and Don, after selling parts of Sebastiani, including the 8-million-case brand Turner Road Vintners, to Constellation in 2001, started Don Sebastiani and Sons (Don & Sons). That left sister Mary Ann Cuneo to run the family company. She sold Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery to winery magnate Bill Foley in 2008.

Don & Sons was nicely moving along. Donny, 35, was appointed president and CEO, and his younger brother, August, 33, was working with him. A negociant firm, Don & Sons finds good wine throughout the state to blend and market as its own creations.

Among its brands are Smoking Loon, a long-standing juggernaut, as well as Pepperwood Grove, The Crusher, Aquinas, B Side, Il Donato and Project Paso. There is also a line of wines labeled Don & Sons, including Don & Sons Sonoma Signature Series, a pinot noir and chardonnay crafted from Petaluma Gap grapes.

"It's a unique and exciting time," said Donny Sebastiani of Don & Sons. "We're all running companies at different stages and different levels but we're all relatively successful and growing."

August notes that when his father, now 60, was his age there was some highly publicized conflict within the Sebastiani family and, in the spirit of not repeating the sins of the past, by 2010 it made sense for August to run a business of his own.

"The lesson he learned is allow siblings their own blue sky," August said. "The way he's positioned our three companies is exactly that."

He went off to run The Other Guys, which was originally a division within Don & Sons and under August's tenure as managing director grew from 5,000 to 140,000 cases. (It doubled from that in 2010.) The business also makes and markets wines and recently expanded into spirits. It is smaller than Don & Sons, and always on the hunt for cool, offbeat things to do.

"General (George S.) Patton said, 'Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results,' " August quoted. "That's my style. I don't want to micro-manage."

The successful wines produced by The Other Guys include Leese-Fitch, Hey Mambo, Plungerhead, Pennywise, White Knight and MooBuzz. The spirits side is made up of Masterson's Rye Whiskey, Uncle Val's Gin and Kirk and Sweeney Rum.

Meanwhile, Mia Sebastiani, 26, has taken over the reins of Mia's Kitchen, a pasta sauce and olive oil company spun out of Don & Sons in 2011. Originally, it consisted of a wine called Mia's Playground. She started making a wine-reduction pasta sauce.

"It was $24 for cooking wine that nobody knows how to use," Mia quipped. "If people don't know anything about wine, they won't buy a $20 bottle of wine. It's the same thing with food. If you don't know anything about food, I say cook more. We try to make it an everyday-gourmet type of thing."

Mia's Kitchen's pasta sauce is inspired by Nancy Sebastiani's own homemade recipe. Her cooking continues to bring the family together every Sunday for sit-down dinners.

"We're really loud Italians," said Mia, unabashedly. "We eat a lot. Mom cooks a lot. The kitchen was always the place we'd hang out."

Younger than her brothers by 10 and eight years, with the toughness to speak her mind, Mia describes her childhood as akin to being raised by three dads. A free spirit, she was independent as a child, climbing trees and playing drums, guitar and piano.

"If someone had asked me at 18 years old if I'd be in the family business, I would have laughed," she said. "But everything fell into place naturally. I started cooking more in college for my friends and one of the first recipes was my mom's tomato sauce. I watched her do it so many times."

Mia's namesake company grew by 800 percent last year, selling 42,000 cases of pasta sauce throughout the country, including to many Safeway stores and Whole Foods.

Mia meets with her two brothers quarterly, no parents allowed, to provide what August describes as a "35,000-foot view of each others' businesses," helping provide perspective on new products, marketing plans or positioning.

With three kids and a fourth to be born any day, August says that in the end what he really admired about his dad growing up was his work-life balance; he always made himself available to coach Little League and otherwise be with his kids.

"To have as many things going on as he did, that he was around was amazing," August said. "That's the stuff that matters. It's why I want to be successful in my business, for them."

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at virginieboone@yahoo.com and followed on Twitter @vboone.

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