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Viansa Winery - Sonoma County Winery

Viansa Winery leads Cal-Ital Charge with Santerra Cellars Wines

The inspiration for the name of Santerra Cellars is literally “holy earth” in Italian, and the phrase speaks worlds for the true meaning behind the southern Sonoma County winery. Santerra Cellars was created almost ten years ago by the highly successful Viansa Winery as a vehicle to extend and help educate its customers as to the heritage and traditions of the founding Sebastiani Family whose origins are traced back directly to wine-rich Tuscany of Chianti and Sangiovese fame.

Santerra’s first release came in 1995 and was oddly enough, a first class cabernet sauvignon from the 1985 vintage that had gracefully aged at the winery. That year, a total of only 5,000 cases of all varietals were eventually released, wines that were chosen for specific flavors and for each wine’s equally specific interaction with regard to ethnic Italian food.

The winery readily admits to the fact that there are no certain criteria with regard the wines selected to be included in the Santerra portfolio. The varietals must be Italian in origin, and must specifically reflect the flavors and subtleties that are included in fine Italian cuisine.

To that end, the wines are made in a classical style that embodies centuries of winemaking patience and experience. Grapes are selected from around twenty various vineyards both in Sonoma and other selected Northern California and Central Coast microclimates. The grapes are then segregated into specific lots and the best are placed into individual barrels to age for varied times until they reach fruition.

At that time, the wines are reevaluated and directed to specific points to be blended together in the same manner that Italian wines have been vinified for centuries.

“It’s been like that for many, many years in Italy,” stated winery spokesman Paolo Mancini. “The secret to the wine’s success is in the blending. The blending creates the subtle flavors that are so important in Italian cuisine. When a wine is made correctly, it will compliment the food in a manner that is unequalled for the palate.”

To that end, the uniquely successful Cucina Viansa Restaurant, run and owned by the winery, that is located in the Sonoma Plaza offers Santerra Cellars customers an opportunity to pair its highly-rated cuisine with a number of wines in a full service restaurant setting.

And by mid-June, a San Francisco tasting room will be operational that the winery describes as “experiential,” or a place that offers wine buffs a rare opportunity to compare intricacies in both food and wine in a near didactic setting.

Since its inception, Santerra Cellars has grown to around 10,000 case production, but is reluctant to predict whether it will continue to grow.

“It is certainly our ultimate intention to grow Santerra,” admitted Mancini, “but where and how is another question. When the most important aspect of our operation is quality, it’s hard to say when we will get bigger.”

The seven children of Viansa founders, Sam and Vickie Sebastiani own Santerra. Jon, 33, serves as president, Lisa, 39, is director of public relations and Joe, 35, heads the company’s olive oil production that fits in neatly with the Santerra operation. While the remaining four brothers and sisters own a similar piece of the company, none are involved in the day-to-day operation of the business.

When you consider Santerra and Viansa’s production together, the two produce a total of thirty-five different wines, a large number for the relatively small wineries.

Even with such a large selection of potential wines to draw from, Santerra Cellars line of wines remains unbowed in its attempt to combine its family’s rich Tuscan historical and cultural backgrounds to the newer climes of wine-crazy Sonoma County.

“The place we chose to build our winery is perfect for our needs,” Mancini added. “It reminds everyone of Tuscany and its people are warm and open to learning. Our mission is to teach the wonderful lesson of food and wine and their incredible relationship to each other. We are truly blessed by our surroundings.”

While a great distance separates Tuscany from Sonoma, it is apparent that Santerra is certainly doing something right. Santerra’s clear focus on its stated mission and its continuing progress in both selection and quality make it a real comer in the Cal-Ital segment of the wine business.

We hope you will enjoy this month’s taste adventure from Viansa Winery.

Jon Sebastiani -

At the tender young age of 10, Jon Sebastiani found himself engaged in the centuries-old art of vine suckering. Suckering, as it is known, involves the pulling of tiny growths from vines at the point where the root meets the soil. If the suckers are not removed, they rob the nutrients from the vines and generally affect vine quality. It is one of the rudimentary jobs one can have starting in the wine business.

‘I can tell you that I was soon an expert at suckering,” related Sebastiani, 33, now the president of Viansa Winery and Santerra Cellars. ‘I did so many of them that I got real good at it fast.”

After obtaining his driver’s license at sixteen, Jon immediately began selling wine for the company. While he finished high school in nearby Napa Valley, Jon worked a number of jobs in his family-owned wine business including laboratory and cellar work and other essential tasks. When he realized his expertise lay in business and marketing, Jon then attended Santa Clara University and eventually graduated from its business school. After graduating, Jon rejoined the company in 1992 and became its director of operations. At the time, there were a total of only seven employees in the smallish company.

More than a decade later, the number of employee number has steadily grown and today numbers around 250 when all of the company’s combined operations are considered. Through it all, Jon Sebastiani has remained dedicated to a specific goal.

‘My family has always considered it our mission to provide our customers with the means of gleaning something educational from our winery’s wine production. We took a look back at our family’s history (centered around the small Tuscan town of Farneta, near the brick-walled city of Luca, a main wine producing region) and decided to dedicate ourselves to helping spread the word about Italian varietals and their intrinsic relationship to Italian cuisine. We were aware that many of our customers were already familiar with the popular varietals such as Chardonnay and Cabernet, but knew little about the vast array of fine Italian varietals that was available.”

Through both Viansa Winery and Santerra Cellars, Jon and his family began the intricate process of introducing those Italian varietals to the American wine palate and public.

‘It actually started out as ‘do you choose a wine for food or a food for wine’’” he explained. ‘We also had the added problem that most Italian varietals were totally unfamiliar to the American consumer.”

Jon and his family carefully selected the proper means of disseminating information on both the wine and food aspects of their business. This included a spectacular Italian Marketplace located at the winery that is very educational in its presentation along with a self-service restaurant in the Sonoma Plaza. For their efforts, Santerra and Viansa have become well known as leaders in the important tutorial aspect of the wine business.

All this has brought great personal satisfaction to Jon Sebastiani. A no-nonsense type with a great sense of direction and feeling for the future, he has also been responsible for the formation of a national organization called The Wine Brats, a group that seeks to demystify wine and educate the Generation X drinkers of the future. With fifty-five chapters nationwide and tens of thousands of members, the organization is today’s most influential wine force among young adults.

Additionally, the Wine Brats’ Guide to Living with Wine, co-authored by Jon is a best seller in the wine and entertaining category of books. Clearly, the message seems to be getting around.

Jon still sees a great deal of work ahead and is willing to meet the task head on.

‘One day,” he said a bit plaintively, ‘ it is my fondest hope to have consumers aware of grape varieties such as Tocai Fruilano and Arneis, and be able to use them in context with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. When this happens, I will know that our wineries have done their job well.”

It is necessary that youthful visionaries such as Jon Sebastiani are around to spread their individual dogmas, for such is the future of the wine industry. In the case of Santerra Cellars, its wines occupy a perfect niche that has been crying for some expertise for quite some time. If history and performance are the deciding factors in its continuing evolution, it is destined for continued success.

In the case of Jon Sebastiani, such success has already been achieved.