Coming to California for the first time had me visiting the town of Sonoma, and how could I miss Sebastiani Vineyards? It was a great feeling, to stand inside of a winery with such history. Then I moved here and began working with families with lots of history. What I learned over the years is that each one has its family dynamic, and for better or worse… like in all families… it always plays itself out in an evolutionary way. Unless a family is totally immune to dysfunction, and how many families have that going on, time is going to change the landscape. Not all families are supposed to stay together for the next 400 years, most especially in America… Blessed are they who can, but this isn’t Europe and land of the chateaus… [Image borrowed from the Don & Sons site: Donny is on the far left, Don is standing, and August sits in the lower right hand corner.]
The Sebastiani family has had a shift it in its dynamic and ownership, from the time I visited in the early 1990s, and fortunately the players have all been able to positively move forward. When all you know is “wine,” imagine trying to get into the automobile or peanut butter industries, let’s say.
[Image of August Sebastiani (left) and Donny Sebastiani (right) at their sister’s wedding rehearsal dinner this summer]
I got to interview an iconic family member… Donny Sebastiani of Don & Sons, a family that’s landed squarely on its feet from over the years of changes. I first asked my Facebook friends, “If you could ask Donny Sebastiani any question, what would it be?”
Jeff Lawson of Midwest Wine Guy:
[Q] What is the biggest misconception about winemaking (from the general public) and how do you educate people about what you really do?
[DONNY] I don’t know of any misconceptions about winemaking, but I can say that people do get confused ~ or there’s a lack of comprehension ~ regarding being a négociant, which is how we now do business. Wine is an unusual background. Take the iPhone, for instance. People know about it, and know about Steve Jobs, but they don’t have a deep knowledge about how the iPhone is made and how its parts are sourced. Wine consumers ARE curious about how wine grapes are sourced, and sometimes “being a négociant” creates more questions than answers.
Cameron Hughes is a perfect example of a négociant. I don’t know Cameron, but I think he lives in San Francisco, not where you’d expect a successful vintner to live. His is the “virtual winery” model. He’s very successful with his wines, too. He’s able to control quality and supply consistently great wines. I think of that as one “end” of the supply spectrum.
On the other “end” of the supply spectrum are my friends at Gundlach Bundschu. They’ve built a reputation for a classic estate winery – they’ve grown, crushed, made, blended, and sold their grapes and wine on the same ranch for 150 years! We build rapport with grape growers, and have the opportunity to buy other people’s grapes. We’re also in the spot market for buying grapes. We work with our growers throughout the season, our staff is in constant contact with our sources, and we’re negotiating buyer contracts. We have a supply strategy that is less vertically integrated.
We are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum – closer to the négociant side, but not as far as some people think. We build rapport with grape growers, and have the opportunity to buy other peoples grapes. We’re also in the spot market for buying grapes. We work with our growers throughout the season, our staff is in constant contact with our sources, and we’re negotiating buyer contracts. We have a supply strategy that is less vertically integrated.
Chris Kassel of Chris Kassel’s Inoxicology Report
[This one reminds me of a question I asked Ted Turner, and although he thought I was being “cute,” I actually was interested in Ted’s internal thinking. He actually revealed a lot to me in his answer, even though he said very little. Body language is so revealing… Chris’s question is similar. Chris is a hilarious writer, by the way…]
[Q] If you could be any kind of animal, what would it be?
Hum… That’s something I’ve never thought about. It would have to be something fast, strong, and powerful. Something independent, like a lion or tiger. I wouldn’t want to be an elephant… I like window seats on an airplane. An elephant wouldn’t fit. It would have to be a lion, because it’s king of the jungle, and is strong and powerful.
Carolyn Blakeslee, a consumer:
[Statement] I’d like Don Sebastiani to know that I’m really impressed with the wines his family is putting out these days. It ain’t my Dad’s Sebastiani from the ’70s! 🙂
My questions and Donny Sebastiani’s answers.
[Q] Tell me about your journey. You were born into this business; did you ever think about going in another direction, and what made you continue the wine path?
[DONNY] No, I’ve never thought about any other direction… at all. I’ve always thought about the wine business. My friends also asked me, “Have you ever thought about going to med school?” but, I’ve never thought that way. It’s not like my dad ever asked, either, “Son, Have you ever thought about becoming a lawyer or a banker?”
I have a good relationship with my dad, and I always realized that I had a great opportunity being surrounded by wine, food, and conviviality, it was just a natural path to follow.
[Q] What’s the greatest marketing concept you’ve learned along the way?
[DONNY] To be making stuff that I personally like.
Failures aren’t hindsight for me, either. They’re 20-20 vision.
And, I’ve found the best innovations aren’t “Out of the box.” Out of the box is easy to do. I prefer to find great breaks by exploring ingenious thoughts from “within” the box. this seems to open up the greatest opportunities.
[Q] How has your family supported you?
[DONNY] I have a great working relationship with my dad, my brother, and sister. We all have a wide berth… they’re my business partners when it comes to work. Also, my wife and kids support me for just getting business done.
[Q] What brands are you loving to market?
[DONNY] All of them, honestly.
When my aunt sold the Sebastiani Winery to Bill Foley, it then became impossible to use our names because the name is trademarked. But, my dad and brother wanted to stay in the wine business, so the name Don & Sons reflects the heart of our family and is serving us well. The white and red wine have an understated classiness about them. The fruit comes from cool climate parts of Sonoma County for both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, sourcing the fruit from great families. This one is naturally very near and dear to my heart.
All of our wines are fun to make, sell, and market, though. This is how I occupy my time, and the wines are well received. Everything sells for under $20. It’s a hot category for selling and the kind of wines I personally buy in a wine store.
[Q] What is the greatest challenge for you in the ever increasing shrinking of shelf space from wholesalers consolidating?
[DONNY] Ha… [He laughs out loud.] I see any challenge as an opportunity. So much wine gets put into the wholesale distribution funnel… It becomes tooth and nail to get down to the bottom of it. People are buying more wine, that’s not fading. We can take the competition, though, because we separate the boys from the men by our improvements in our winemaking techniques. We’ve just improved our game, meeting the challenge. As a result of industry consolidation and increased competition in our segment of the industry, our biggest day-to-day challenge is that our margin for error is smaller. Mistakes are more costly. Our competitors are smart and swift.
And… there’s always room for smaller wholesalers. We’re working with smaller distributors and small retailers. The big guys can’t stop selling, they’re always making a pitch. Smaller guys build their sales on trust, and retailers embrace the smaller guys… both for those who distribute and those who make wine.
[Q] Thanks for being a member of PS I Love You. I couldn’t do all that I do without help from the brands who are members. How do you feel about Petite Sirah as a variety?
[DONNY] Our Crusher label is a priority for us, and it also surprised us. It offers a line extension, giving us something to offer alternative distributors. We always have irons in the fire. Sometimes it’s about the supply and sometimes it’s about the marketing. We could sell a truckload of this wine, and that surprised all of us.
[Q] You’re sourcing fruit from around the world. Are you getting to travel?
[DONNY] Not much yet, but I do have Chile in my near future.
[Q] B Side… clever… Who’s coming up with the names?
We all are. It’s different every time. It’s not like we sit around and think up goofy names. It could come from supply, market, or sales needs. The names come from winemakers and winemaking driven opportunities, for instance. B Side came from our winemaker Greg Kitchens… the fruit comes from the flip side of Napa Valley, for instance… the “B” side of the mountain… the Sonoma side…
- B Side
- Don & Sons
- The Crusher
- Project Paso
- Smoking Loon
- Pepperwood Grove
As I noted… families can split apart for so many reasons. It’s very encouraging to me, and it should be for others, that when this happens some families still pick themselves up and create a better “now” for themselves. Don & Sons is just that… A successful, great reinvent…
This final image is of Donny and August at their Grandfather’s Vintners Hall of Fame ceremony. This picture demonstrates the family love that exist, and is exactly how I want my grandchildren to be behaving, when they gather in my honor… This is life as it should be.