All in the Sebastianis (Second of five parts)
|Four of the seven children of Sam and Vicki Sebastiani, who own Viansa, from left: Jon Sebastiani, president; Joe Sebastiani, olive grove and wetlands manager; Lisa Sebastiani Mertens, public relations manager; and Moira Sebastiani Kelly.|
Sam and Vicki Sebastiani's eventual project is an ambitious shrine to Italian and Californian food and wine, built on the rock-quarry land where grandfather Samuele Sebastiani once worked at the southern edge of Sonoma County.
Most of the land is natural wetlands, but it's also high enough for a great view of the Sonoma wine country, including the southernmost Carneros vineyards, and the perfect spot for a gateway stop for tourists headed north from San Francisco.
A quarter million come by car and busload every year, stopping to see the wine exhibits, taste salsas, mustards, oils, vinegars and such created by Vicki, plus local cheeses from the Vella Co. and of course, Sam's wines.
While the Viansa Center may give some visitors a first taste of wine knowledge, Viansa's wines are aimed at a smaller market that's savvy-curious and willing to pay $20 and more for rare California versions of old Italian grapes. Varietals such as arneis, teroldego and primitivo are Sam's passion. Viansa currently has a dozen varieties and blends, all in historic black glass and other dramatic packages, with prices of $20 and more.
In a radical change of sales tactics, Viansa's wines are not available at retail outlets, even in California. They are sold direct to consumers only at the Viansa center and through the winery's Web site wine clubs, catalogs and monthly mailings. (Deliveries in Florida go through an Orlando shipper who has a retail license and take seven to 10 days.)
That sounds difficult, but Viansa still sells 60,000 cases a year. "It allows them to skip the retail jungle and offer a cachet of rarity. A lot of our customers feel it's nice to have something exclusive, something you can't get at Safeway," says Lisa Sebastiani-Mertens.
She is one of seven siblings who have just this year taken over management of the winery from their parents, who are divorcing. Viansa, an anagram for Vicki and Sam, will still have Sam as a consultant with a big vote, but Sam spends much of his time in a 2000-acre spread on the North Platte River in Nebraska, ranching and building wetlands preserves for waterfowl.
"It gives you a different smile in the morning," he says.
Sebastiani-Mertens says her siblings aren't worried about another schism. "We've seen how bad it can get," she says. She was a school psychologist and a casino dealer before coming back to the family business.
And she appreciates that "Noni Syl," her grandmother, tried to heal tensions by planning family holiday dinners between all the clans. Plus, "We'd get to try some of our uncle's wine before the general public."
|Originally Published on . ©2004
Chris Sherman, who writes about food and wine for the St. Petersburg Times, is the author of "The Buzz on Wine"
Lebhar-Friedman Books, $16.95. He can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or firstname.lastname@example.org