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Sebastiani

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The history of Sebastiani echoes the history of winemaking in California. The original vineyard site dates back to 1825, when local Franciscans cleared the land and planted grapes. In 1904, Italian immigrant Samuele Sebastiani acquired the vineyard along with the old stone winery. He had saved the money to finance this venture by hauling Sonoma quarry cobblestones used to pave the streets of San Francisco. Later, he sold his wine by the cup to the quarry workers. Sebastiani survived Prohibition by making sacramental wine, selling juice to home winemakers and turning the winery into a cannery.

After Sebastiani's death in 1944, son August took over, increasing production a hundredfold. From the '60s on, Sebastiani followed the curve that defined California wine, bottling more under their own name, moving from nonvintage to vintage wines, and from cheap jug generics to premium varietals. After August's death, the family weathered a feud in the '80s in which son Sam was replaced by his brother Don, who expanded holdings in the Central Valley and guided the business into an 8-million-case-a-year giant.

This is usually the point in the story at which some multinational conglomerate swoops in, offers an obscene amount of money and gobbles up the family name. And in 2000, that's what did happen, but with a twist. The Central Valley operation, along with six brands, were sold for $295 million, but the Sebastianis kept the name and the historic winery in Sonoma. Today, they are down to 150,000 cases, concentrating on producing premium-quality, value-conscious wines that reflect their Sonoma terroir. If you haven't tried them lately, you should. Here are a few favorites:

2006 Sebastiani Casa de Sonoma Chardonnay, $15.99

This chardonnay is made with grapes from Dutton Ranch Vineyard but with no oak (I promise, you won't miss it). The wine is rich in honeyed, stoned fruit flavors balanced by a nice hit of green apple. Touches of mineral and spice come through on the finish.

2005 Sebastiani Barbera, Sonoma Valley, $23

This wine offers lovely aromatics with rich raspberry, vanilla, licorice and light but toasty oak. Cranberry and very soft tannins back ripe cherry and berry flavors. It has a good varietal character.

2005 Sebastiani Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County, $15.99

A light hit of cedar joins dark cherry and chocolate aromas. The chocolate and cherry carry through in the mouth along with soft tannins and light spice on the silky finish. $15.99 is an exceptional value for this beautifully balanced cabernet.

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