I first visited the village of Sonoma in 1984. The quaintness of this small hamlet, with its tree- and vine-laden central park and a series of hotels, shops and restaurants that surround it on an unhurried, rectangular roadway, is seemingly unchanged from the time of its establishment. The history of the village began with missionaries who settled there in 1823 under Mexican rule. Many original buildings are preserved or restored to their former state. On my recent return, 20 years later, little has visibly changed, but almost all the businesses have tonied up, with art galleries, high-end grocers, refurbished hotels and glitzier interiors behind the rustic facades. I believe the amazing growth of the Sebastiani winery must be partly to blame--or commended--for this. The winery is a long block away from the village square, and its trim, cut-stone entrance, ample parking and "open for business" facade makes it a welcoming tourist destination. The building (originally a livery stable), with warm, age-darkened wooden walls and gorgeous, upscale gifts that surround the massive tasting bar attracts the less devoted wine consumer and their families, as well as aficionados. Celebrating its 100-year anniversary in 2004, gigantic, older generation carved barrels and photos from the past century are proud reminders of Sebastiani's long tradition.
Always a good bet for value and solid, if not inspired, winemaking, Sebastiani has been a Sonoma staple since its bulk wine days. Note that this is the original Sebastiani operation, formally known as Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery. After patriarch August died in 1980, things began to crack at the seams. His sons, Samuele and Don, wanted to run the operation in radically different ways. It was the elder Sam who began to reduce production levels and concentrate on better, higher quality releases. His "Eagle" cabernet comes to mind. Things came to a head in 1986, when matriarch Sylvia, whether by filial preference or business acumen, gave control of the winery to her "baby," Don, in a rather public scandal. Since then, Sam operates another winery called Viansa, and Don runs a second operation under the Don Sebastiani and Sons logo. They produce, among others, the low priced line called Pepperwood Grove. Among the 191 operating estates in Sonoma County, the original Sebastiani Vineyards has made remarkable strides toward becoming one of the finest estates for high quality and fair pricing. I've noticed this upsurge over the last five years, and was anxious to make Sebastiani a stop during my recent California sojourn. Without exaggeration, the tenure of current winemaker Mark Lyon has substantially raised the bar.
I visited Mark in his laboratory, located in a building apart from the visitor center. An adjoining room contains a boardroom-sized tasting table, and each place setting includes its own gleaming, 21st century stainless steel spittoon. This was the most attractive and functional "spit bucket" system I've ever seen. It was connected directly to the plumbing system (a thought that almost made me expect an occasional automatic flush), and curved toward the drinker for easy access. The whole thing resembled an old gramophone speaker, and made expectoration functional and fun. Mark made informative, yet non-self promotional, comments as we sampled. It was a pleasure exchanging ideas in a no-nonsense atmosphere. Not a single wine could be dismissed as commercial or of mere passing quality. Each, whether a total success or not, was rewarding and worthy. Mark Lyon's skills are a blessing for Sebastiani, and a joy for discerning wine lovers to anticipate.
Here are some of the Sebastiani wines I sampled:
2001 Chardonnay, Sonoma $13
Lively fruit floats on a well-balanced bouquet. Luscious fruit impressions and long, satisfying flavors. A bit biting and sharp; nine months will iron it out. Well made, yet easy to appreciate. Good buy. Grade: B
2001 Chardonnay, Russian River $28
Grapes from the highly regarded Dutton Ranch, this is mellow with voluptuous shape and legs! A "velvety" nose. Grand flavors of stone fruit, perfect acidity and ultimate refreshment. Hints of butterscotch on the finish. Topnotch. Grade: A
2002 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast $15
Redolent with cherry like, "sweet" fruit on the nose. A classy build but a bit awkward and backward right now. Give it a year or two. The excellent 2001 may still be available locally. Good value pinot. Grade: C+/ B-
2001 Pinot Noir, Russian River $22
Opens up nicely. Rich, intense penetrating black cherry aromas. Needs swirling and coaxing, but filled with finesse. Quite spicy and mouth filling. Some tart flavor components, yet neither bitter or astringent. Should be delicious in two years. Recommended. Grade: a solid B/ B+
2000 Zinfandel, Sonoma $15
Explosive, with viscously inviting berries, ginger and spice. Tingling, dense and awake on the palate. A bit of typical astringency, but super for hearty foods. Excellent value. Grade: B
2000 Barbera, Sonoma Valley $15
Grapy, earthy and straight on. Excellent physiological fruit in a hearty, in-your-face style. Zingy and tannic, but the fruit smothers the hardness for easy early drinking. Will improve further. Small amounts of petite syrah and zinfandel round out the structure. Grade: B/ B+
1999 Merlot, Sonoma County $17
Genial, polite, understated with subtlety and grace. Herbs and dark cherries intertwine with a splendid texture. Just right in balance, weight and structure. I love how this wine seduces rather than engulfs you. Terrific value Grade: B+
1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma $17
Good, solid, chunky bouquet with a tiny hint of bell pepper (not off-putting). Straightforward, dark, satisfying fruit, with soulful flavors. Not complex, but complete. Beautifully ripe and just beginning to show it's all. Grade: B
The following wine will be released in early 2004.
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley $24
Toasty, generous and exotically complex nose. Round, delectable flavors from old vine fruit. A long, succulent finish that satisfies and promises much more. Grand in scale and even enjoyable now. Best after 2006. Worth every penny. Grade: A-/ A
All of Mark Lyons' wines speak truth with a steady hand and an instinct you just can't teach. You won't go wrong with any of his creations. The present is shining, and the future appears brighter still.
Screwless? The most discussed topic in California is neither the grape glut nor weather conditions. It's screw tops! Most Californians I speak with think that it's only a matter of time before the cork and corkscrew go the way of button-fly slacks.
There's a certain critical insularity among the natives, and just as only California could be cocksure about recalling elected officials, so they are as uniquely certain of the future of bottle stoppers. But what goes in the Golden State can easily fall flat in the other 49 "outsiders." The resistance across this country to anything but cork is pervasive. Retailers can verify customer coolness towards aluminum. Despite studies which conclude that natural cork can occasionally taint the flavors of wine by harboring bacterial contaminants, the groans and no-thank-yous that greet screw caps are still predominant. Screw tops produce perfect seals with no contaminants. But will an airtight seal allow wines to slowly, almost imperceptibly "breathe," allowing air over the course of years to help age and mellow the finest of reds? The answer is probably no, and the great fear is that a whole new generation of "Peter Pan" wines will emerge--wines that never age!
A firm named Sabate, not only makes synthetic stoppers, but now makes bacteria-free closures made from cork "flour" and adhesive polymers. This produces a cork-like stopper that also allows oxygen to slowly permeate, thus allowing the aging process to occur.
Other trends? With increasing frequency, producers are making "bag in a box" wines that are slowly released from the bag with no oxygen contact. Arguments are that this method will serve a fresher wine to those who buy by the glass.
And don't be surprised if your proverbial glass of chardonnay comes from a little six-ounce plastic bottle. These too are making headway in the restaurant market. Some fun, eh? I think corks are in no immediate danger, although for wines to be consumed within a year, screw tops seem to be on the horizon. With them, a new vocabulary will follow. There will be requests for screwed or screwless bottles. Bottles will become "screw finished." New verbs and verb usage will emerge. "Honey, have you screwn the wine yet?" "Don't forget to screw the wine before you come upstairs." Finally, inscrutable may mean mysterious, but "unscrewable" may someday mean a wine bottle that has a cork in it.
2001 Le Volte, Tenuta dell' Ornellaia $26.50
This "everyday" red from this famed Italian estate is thrilling. Deep, dark, penetrating bouquet and flavors. Concentrated texture but not overkill. Tannins predict more development ahead, but try this now with a Mediterranean feast. Grade: A
2001 Chardonnay, Hess Select $12.50
The kind of American chard that can blow away global competition in this price range. Fresh and immediately appealing; All fruit aiming straight for the heart. Lovely to sip or accompany light fare. Grade: B+
1998 Rioja Crianza, Montecillo $11.59
Textbook bouquet of fruit melted into autumn leaves and leather. Very tasty and perky with some tannin. Drink now with poultry or beef. Will improve for 2-3 years. A real value. Grade: B
2000 White Graves, Chateau Menault $9.50
States the case for this excellent Bordeaux vintage. This sauvignon/semillon blend has ripe, lemony fruit highlights that glow from the glass. Dry, refreshing flavors with no harsh acids or thinness. Grill some salmon and chill. Grade: B