Samuele Sebastiani’s first job in his new country was hauling stones in a horse-drawn cart from Sonoma to San Francisco, using the ferry to cross San Francisco Bay before the Golden Gate Bridge had been built. Sonoma’s stone quarries provided much of the raw material for the streets of San Francisco. After nine years of saving his money, Samuele invested in making five hundred gallons of wine. The grapes were from local farmers in Sonoma, and the winemaking techniques were those he had seen his parents use when he was a boy. “He carted that wine all around Sonoma,” says Donny Sebastiani. “He sold it to the people he knew: local Italian farmers and stonecutters. That’s how his wine business was born. In a way, it was not only the beginning of our business, but also the continuation of what our family had done in Tuscany for generations.”
Samuele quickly established himself as a successful grape grower and winemaker in Sonoma County, but his reach stretched well beyond the vineyard. He opened the Sebastiani Cannery and began to develop the town of Sonoma, creating jobs and building a church, hotel, apartments, a skating rink and even a theater that has now become a historic landmark in Sonoma. “During prohibition and into the depression my great grandfather was industrious. He maintained his winery license to make wines for the church and for medicinal purposes. Around the town of Sonoma, he did, on a private/local scale, what FDR did on a public/federal level – put people to work. At the winery, his cannery, building hotels, the theatre, everything…”
In the 1930s, Samuele brought his son August, the youngest of his three children, into active participation in winery management. Shortly after Samuele’s death in 1944, August and his wife, Sylvia, purchased the family’s winery from his father’s estate.
“My grandfather quickly gained a reputation as being one of America’s most skilled and innovative winemakers. He really had some remarkable achievements – both for the wine industry and for the town of Sonoma. Most notably, he was able to bring quality wine to the general public, and was instrumental in helping shape the way the wine industry is today,” says Donny.
Under August’s leadership the winery expanded and began to sell Sebastiani branded wine to the general public, becoming the first vintner to market premium varietal wines in popularly-priced magnums. It was a whole new category and market for American wine.
“My grandfather had a vision. He wanted to bring quality wine to the general public,” says Donny. “Now we call those wines ‘fighting varietals’ and they continue to be an important part of the wine industry today, helping to grow the overall category. Now, these wines are even being produced in more traditional markets like France and Italy.”
Over his thirty years of running the Sebastiani winery, August focused on these varietal table wines. The success of these wines enabled him to increase the winery’s production volume a hundredfold. In 2011, he was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame in recognition of his lifetime accomplishments.
“He was an innovator,” says Donny. “He introduced a very fruit-forward “Nouveau” Gamay Beaujolais to U.S. consumers and he created a blush wine known as Pinot Noir Blanc. Those are two examples of Sebastiani wines that he created, that helped drive our winery’s rise during the latter half of the 20th century.
When August died in 1980, Sylvia, along with their three children, Sam, Don and Mary Ann, assumed management of the company. “The company’s biggest growth came during the late 1980s, when we built a large-volume, Central Valley-based portfolio of wines which we called Turner Road Vintners. We continued to produce our Sebastiani-labeled wines in Sonoma,” Donny explains, “while we made larger volume varietal wines in Lodi. That area was just coming into its own, and I’d like to think we had something to do with that.
After Sam Sebastiani left the winery in 1986 to start his own business, Don, August and Sylvia’s youngest son, was tapped to run the 100-year-old family company. During his first decade of leadership, Don Sebastiani increased the winery’s production volume threefold by focusing on a full range of varietal wines that positioned the winery in the most lucrative retail price categories.
In 2001, Don Sebastiani and his two sons, Donny and August, established Don Sebastiani & Sons. Today the company is led by Donny Sebastiani, great–grandson of Samuele the Sebastiani patriarch.
In 2005, Don & Sons was named 2005 Wine Star Award ‘American Winery of the Year’ by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. In addition to popular, food-friendly wines by Pepperwood Grove and Smoking Loon, Don & Sons crafts a portfolio of appellation-based wines like The Crusher, Sivas-Sonoma, Aquinas, and B Side Napa Valley to name a few.
“The plan is to continue the progress that previous generations in my family have made,” says Donny. “I want to have a similar impact on the wine industry. We are focusing on appellation-driven wines that appeal to a more wine-savvy audience. These wines, which include B Side, Aquinas, Don & Sons, The Crusher and Project Paso, are sourced from specific wine-growing regions such as Napa Valley, Sonoma Coast, Clarksburg and Paso Robles. At the end of the day, I’ve learned that the best thing a winery can offer is well-made wines of consistent quality. That’s our family tradition, and that continues to be our vision for Don & Sons.”
The family-run business continues to grow by improving the quality of wines while offering customers consistent value across many appellations. Today, the company is expanding it’s product offereing to include other aspects of the “Mediterranean Diet” to create a “Happy Hour at Home” with such products as: small-lot, single-vineyard wines, a line of organic flavored sparkling water and a lineup of craft Blue Weber agave tequilas. The comany was recently named one of the ‘Best Places to Work’ by the North Bay Business Journal for the fourth consecutive year.