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old wine in a new bottle
vintner sam sebastiani continues his grandfather's journey

by F&L Primo
(return to wine)

You might as well say that winemaking is in Sam Sebastiani's veins. The grapes he grows and the wine he crafts are a part of his being. Sebastiani, his wife Vicki and their children have built a unique boutique wine business near the same land in Sonoma his grandfather settled over 100 years ago.

The family recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of Viansa (a melding of Vicki and Sam). They started the winery in 1989 after Sam left the original family business to strike out on his own. The new beginning was a struggle. Sam and Vicki had to sell virtually all they owned and as they built the business the couple and some of their eight children lived in a trailer-home at the winery. As customers trickled in, Sebastiani put $20 bills in the cash register to create the impression their new business was thriving. Viansa has come a long way. The 10th anniversary gala did more than affirm the success of the winery; it also retraced the journey Sebastiani's paternal grandfather Samuele made to America in the waning days of the 19th Century. Special rooms at the winery celebrated each point of the elder Sebastiani's sojourn. The banquet hall commemorated his triumphant return to Italy in 1938 after building a life and a legacy in America despite the hardships of prohibition and the Great Depression. There is only one way to complete such a journey: Hard work. "The farmer's shadow is the best fertilizer," Sebastiani says. Viansa, which embodies both the Californian and Italian heritages of Sebastiani's ancestors, is located at the entrance of the Sonoma wine country and resembles the small Tuscan village of Farneta, Samuele's birthplace.

Tradition guides Sam, Vicki and the children as they tend the winery. At home, Sam tries to separate work from family, but in the vineyard all is business. He sees great opportunities for his children - but those opportunities must be earned. "I think there's a greater opportunity," he says. "You have to take their feelings into consideration, but they will have to work. If they do, they'll get a chance to move up in the company faster." Sebastiani pauses and adds with a fatherly touch: "My job is to make sure they don't fall off their tricycle." As Sebastiani has aged, his admiration for his ancestors' toil and heritage has grown. "You don't appreciate your heritage as much when you're young because you have other things going on," he says. "But when you get older and reach a point where you don't have to scratch for your earnings, you start to search for your values. Then, your culture and heritage become more significant to you." Sebastiani's values are a great gift from his grandparents. Although his forebears em-braced their new land, they discovered that they made sense of the world in very different ways than did their American-born friends and neighbors. Italians, he says, appreciate the beauty of life instead of becoming slaves to their tools.

Sebastiani was nurtured by a strong extended family; his grandfathers and one of his grandmothers helped raise him. He spent most of his time with his mother's family, and her father became his mentor. "I spent a lot of time with that grandfather [Giuseppe]," Sebastiani recalls. "He had a way of looking at life differently than we do. He put things in perspective in the long run as opposed to the short term." Sebastiani's grandfathers focused on building relationships rather than accumulating wealth.

see also
Wine Glossary
Piemonte - The King of Wines and the Wine of Kings

related books
Italian Wines 1999
Wine & Cheese of Italy
Alcohol in Italian Culture: Food and Wine in Relationship to Sobriety
Discovering Wine
The Instant Wine Connoisseur
The Taste of Wine

He has visited his native land many times. The trips have always evoked happy memories and renewed old connections. "As you start to slow, at least for me, you start to remember those values you learned when you were young. I was able to go back to family locations and they immediately opened up," he says. "Pretty soon you remember this warmth my grandparents talked about. As you get there, the family picks you up and puts you right back in it and you don't want to leave." The visits have showed Sebastiani how his heritage is echoed in his own outlook. "I literally walked into the church where my grandfather was baptized, walked up to the baptismal fountain and started crying when I realized that this is where he had been as a two-month old baby," Sebastiani says, eyes misting.

"It's pretty powerful."

Religious devotion also nourished the family. "One can't be Italian without being religious, if I can say it that way," he observes. Italians have prospered, in part, because of their strong spirituality.

"We didn't create this, God did, and we just kind of go around and water the plants." At the entrance to Viansa, Sebastiani has placed a statue of the Blessed Mother similar to one his grandfather had in his vineyard.

"When my grandfather left Italy, he said to the Blessed Mother 'Please help me.' and when he became successful he thanked her first," Sebastiani explains. "I put the statue here for the same reason, not just to emulate his thought, but because I believe the same thing he believed in."

Vicki Sebastiani's roots are Dutch, French and Irish. While she respects her own ancestry, she has also embraced her husband's heritage - a matter of some pride for Sebastiani. "You wouldn't know that she wasn't Italian," he says, smiling.

While his wife manages the food side of the business, Sebastiani concentrates on producing premium wines. Although mass-produced wines dominate the market, he hopes to cultivate a market-niche that will bring the past and present of the Italian spirit together. Viansa's long-term plan is to specialize in Italian varietals using grapes indigenous to Italy grown in the Sonoma Valley. Viansa began experimenting with Italian grapes in the early 1980s. "All of our estate vineyards are of Italian varieties," he says. Italian grapes rooted in California soil have grown into a symphony of flavors that produce what Sebastiani calls a "harmonic tune." "We've taken varieties from Italy we thought would be interesting," he explains. "We'll never be making Italian wine that tastes exactly like Italy, although they are quite similar. The little changes in soil, in exposure, in latitude change the flavor."

Sebastiani dedicates three of the four winemaking seasons to his grandparents, and one to his father. He picks a wine, notes a special moment from their lives and then makes that the wine of the season. "By doing all this, we're paying homage that we're dependent on nature and the soil," Sebastiani says. Following in the tradition of his grandfather Samuele, Sebastiani makes wine bursting with heritage and love. From the Italian Marketplace - Viansa's food store specializing in home-grown and home-cooked Italian meals and gourmet pantry foods - to the wine, to his preservation of the winery's wetlands, Sebastiani is demonstrating that the American dream of success gains vigor throughout the generations when the Italian spirit is kept alive. His grandparents and father would be proud.

F&L Primo, is a brand new magazine from a husband and wife team who mortgaged their home and cashed in their retirement savings to create a magazine that celebrates the great gift of the Italian American heritage. In each issue, F&L Primo explores Italian American experiences through the trials and successes of the famous, infamous, noble, and unknown to see reflections of parents, grandparents, and ourselves. This article will debut in their first edition, later this year. Interested in subscribing or taking a sneak peek at an upcoming issue? Visit F&L Primo's website.


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