by The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
When it comes to Sonoma County history, few wineries have the legacy of Sebastiani.
Founded in the late 19th century by Samuele Sebastiani, the winery was one of many launched by Italian immigrants. It was passed down to several generations but ran into a buzz saw when a highly publicized family dispute broke the harmony in the mid 1980s. Sam Sebastiani left to make his own wine under the Viansa label and now La Chertosa. His brother Don left after selling part of the brand to Constellation and currently makes wines as Don Sebastiani & Sons. Finally, in 2008 the family sold Sebastiani to Bill Foley. Painful transitions like this can’t help but affect quality, but it’s a story we’ve heard before.
We have tasted Sebastiani wines for more than two decades and there seemed to be a stage when the brand fell into an uninspiring funk. Foley, who built a reputation on making fine wine and who has been on a buying spree, has restored the luster to the Sebastiani name.
We recently shared a video screen with Mark Beaman, Sebastiani’s winemaker, and Sarah Quider, vice president of winemaking at Foley Family Wines.
You don’t think of Sonoma County for its cabernet sauvignons because growing conditions can be inhospitably hot. But vineyards close to San Pablo Bay benefit from a cooling, maritime influence. Quider said that an early bud break gives grapes a longer hang time and produces wines with higher acidity, lower alcohol and brighter fruit. That separates them from the bolder, higher alcohol cabernets made in Napa Valley.
Foley reduced the number of wines being made by Sebastiani, replanted estate vineyards with a focus on clones and rootstocks and limited yields. The four cabernets we tasted were exceptional, particularly the 2017 Sebastiani Cherryblock Cabernet Sauvignon, a flagship wine made mostly from grapes grown from the best blocks of its Old Vine Vineyard. Dark in color, it has generous blackberry and spice aromas following by plum and dark berry fruit flavors with a hint of tobacco. The blend includes 12 percent merlot and three percent malbec.
Our favorite wine was the 2017 Sebastiani Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon ($72). Planted in 1961, the vineyard yields grapes stubbornly. Beaman said the vines are not sprinters, but marathon runners who hit their stride and produce wines with softer tannins. This one has a cassis nose and layers of cherry cola and blackberry flavors with fine tannins and a long finish.
The 2017 Sebastiani Gravel Bed Cabernet Sauvignon ($72), blended with just enough malbec to make a difference, has a unique and intriguing character. Fruit forward with black cherry, blackberry notes and a hint of dried rosemary and espresso.
The best value is the 2018 Sebastiani Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40). Concentrated cranberry, blackberry and red cherry flavors with good acidity and a bright, young fruit character.
Sebastiani also makes a good, oaky chardonnay for a very reasonable $24 a bottle and a merlot for $24.
Not many Washington producers have the history or the prestige of Quilcela Creek in the Columbia Valley.
Founded by Alexander and Jeannette Golitzin, its first vintage was in 1979 and its premium red wines quickly gained attention beyond the state’s border. The family had a bit of notoriety then. Alexander’s father was a descendant of the winemaker to Russian Czar Nicholas II but he and his wife had to flee Russia at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917.
Alexander, born in Paris, came with his family to California after World War II. One of the first person’s they reunited with was Alexander’s uncle, the legendary Andre Tchelistceff, a Russian émigré.
The family moved to Washington State in 1967 where Alexander worked as a chemical engineer. The more he tasted the red wines from the region, the more he realized they weren’t as good as those from his uncle’s winery in Napa Valley. He launched Quilceda Creek with the goal of making world-class cabernet sauvignons.
About to release its 40th vintage of Columbia Valley cabernet sauvignon, Quilceda Creek is producing four astounding, albeit expensive, wines that fit into the premium category. These are age-worthy wines that attack the palate.
According to Paul Golitzin, winemaker since 1992, the prices offer “incredible value for cabernet lovers compared to wines of similar caliber in regions such as Bordeaux and Napa.”
He said costs are driven in part by the challenges of farming the Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain AVAs. Only 10,000 cases are produced annually.
Members of the Quilceda Creek’s mailing list are given preference in sales – the average wait time to join the list is about a year. After the pre-release sales close, some of the wines are released commercially.
“We strive to be in a league of our own,” Golitzin said.
The proof is in the bottle: The 2017 Quilceda Creek “Palengat” Proprietary Red Wine and the 2017 “CVR” Columbia Valley Red Wine are extraordinary.
Oak Farm Vineyards Mohr-Frye Ranches Block 417 Zinfandel ($35). From Lodi, this zinfandel has a lighter body with plum and cherry notes. This zinfandel has more restraint than many Lodi fruit bombs.
Mettler Family Vineyards Lodi Petite Sirah 2018 ($25). Classic opaque color portends serious wine ahead, but actually this has both elegance and body. Plum and blackberry aromas hand off to concentrated blackberry flavors with a hint of pepper and licorice.
Scaia Garganega/Chardonnay 2018 ($14). This near-even blend from Italy is fresh and unadorned, thanks to its stainless-steel fermentation. A great aperitif, it has a citrus and tropical fruit aroma with apple and mango flavors.
Tenuta Sant’Antnio Nanfre Valpolicella 2018 ($15). This blend of corvina (70 percent) and rondinella has a refreshing, simple quality that makes it a great complement to appetizers and pasta dishes. Vibrant red fruit character.