Red Hill Reserve Wines
Sonoma County region
First production of Red Hill Reserve was a mere 1200 cases
Few companies in the United States can claim to be nearly a hundred years old and in the wine industry, those entities with over a century’s longevity can be counted on one hand with a finger or two to be spared. Each surviving entity possesses unique circumstances, but only one or two has actually achieved icon status.
Such is the case with revered Sebastiani Vineyards, the time-tested, family owned and operated winery complex located within the city of Sonoma in Northern California. The company was founded in 1904 by Samuele Sebastiani, who emigrated from his native Tuscany around 1895 and sought work as a stonemason. He quarried the Sonoma Hills for cobblestones that were used to build the famous streets and boulevards of nearby San Francisco.
But Samuele’s heart was truly bound to the grape and the natural similarities of Sonoma and Tuscany caused him to finally buy some land and plant the first grapes that would eventually lead to today’s far reaching wine empire.
After his death in 1944, Samuele’s son August and his wife Sylvia purchased the winery from the estate and began the expansion of its facilities. With a decided vision to the future, the product line was also expanded adding new varietal wines and proprietary blends. Accolades followed and August was soon acknowledged as one of California’s most skilled and innovative winemakers of his time. Along the way he also utilized many of Sonoma’s skilled craftsmen by initiating the now famous hand-carved barrels, many of which are still displayed at the winery.
After August’s death in 1980, the winery continued an expansion process that saw it delve into a number of different facets of the wine business. A number of significant new brands were developed including Talus, Vendage, Nathanson Creek, Heritage, La Terre and Farallon.
Sometime in 2000, a major change in ideology saw the Sebastiani wine empire begin a major downsizing. Large pieces of the company were sold in favor of a more streamlined approach to the new millennium. Family members and company insiders made a unique decision to alter their company’s future by focusing on quality at the expense of their hard earned case volume.
Our gold medal selection for the month, Red Hill Reserve, was one of a number of significant projects that had originated with the confines of the Sebastiani Winery almost eleven years before the company’s fateful decision to downsize. Around the end of 1989, a decision was made to make use of some particularly exquisite fruit that was found in the northern part of Sonoma County.
The soils in that particular area were mostly volcanic in nature, and bore close resemblance to Tuscany’s native soils, where founder Samuele Sebastiani had left some one hundred–plus years earlier. After top sample after top sample arrived, it was decided to put these excellent grapes into good use and create a new single vineyard designate brand. The only name ever given to these fantastic grapes was Red Hill and the name somehow stuck.
First production of Red Hill Reserve was a mere 1200 cases, with most of the production going to a number of area restaurants that could adequately promote the small brand. Even though Red Hill Reserve might have been a bit ahead of its time, it nonetheless did quite well and the entire production process was repeated for the next three years.
A corporate assessment sometime around 1994 saw the focus on Red Hill Reserve and certain other brands change and for a time Red Hill Reserve ceased to be made.
When the major decision to downsize Sebastiani was made in 2000, a spark of life was given to the hibernating Red Hill. Since the marvelous source of grapes had not changed, it was decided to give Red Hill another chance. A particular set of circumstances in the Sonoma Valley and Alexander Valley had produced some exceptional fruit that subsequently was made into Red Hill Reserve Merlot. A similar situation in the Northern Carneros and Russian River growing areas produced some exceptional Chardonnay and the Red Hill Reserve Chardonnay was officially born.
Red Hill Reserve wines will always continue to be produced on a limited and exclusive basis. Those who are fortunate enough to experience these wines will find them also to be of exceptional value. With little or no marketing or overhead costs involved, the consumer is again the main beneficiary.
We know you will enjoy this months Red Hill Reserve wines
Marc Cuneo - winemaker-at-large
At the tender old age of 27, Marc Cuneo is one of the driving forces behind the reemergence of Red Hill Reserves. Marc is the fourth generation of his family in the wine business and speaks fondly of his present calling.
After graduating from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA, with a real estate major, Marc decided to try his luck living in San Francisco. He secured a position with a large wine distributor and spent the next two years learning the wine business. While he found the marketing position challenging, Marc eventually realized that he missed his Sonoma roots and finally decided to return to his family’s business.
‘When I first came back,” he declared softly, ‘I was put into the position of crush oenoligist, checking the different loads of grapes that we were crushing. That was back in 2000, and I guess we crushed about three thousand tons. We had already started downscaling, so the amount wasn’t even close to the 15,000 tons we had crushed before.”
Marc admits to having worked in the winery as a youth putting together six packs for the tasting room and later during high school as a member of the winery’s quality control team.
‘The fact is I’m basically a country kid at heart,” he admitted. ‘I enjoyed San Francisco enough but I really love Sonoma, and this is where I want to live.”
Marc’s current position is director of grower relations puts him in a perfect position to guide Red Hill’s reincarnation. He considers the project one of his main goals and firmly believes the timing is right for Red Hill’s reemergence.
‘Things have changed a lot since Red Hill Reserve was first introduced in the early 1990’s,” he stated flatly. ‘Back then it was believed that many consumers were interested in single vineyard designates of really high quality. Fact is, it seems that this has become a reality only during the past few years. We’ve come a full 360 degrees from the early nineties. In retrospect, I really believe we were ahead of our time when Red Hill was first introduced.”
Red Hill Reserve’s current production is around 2,400 cases, a level that Marc Cuneo expects to exist for the immediate future. The design is to keep Red Hill as an exclusive, small appellation wine that appeals to the serious wine drinker.
‘By carefully selecting the grapes that go into Red Hill Reserve,” he explained, ‘we are able to show the consumer what’s really behind the wine. When you deal with larger production and the ensuing blending that naturally arises, well you are just unable to so what we can do on this small scale.”
Cuneo also credits the almost magical volcanic soils of Northern Sonoma County for producing the quality that is evident in Red Hill Reserve. He strongly believes that great locations make great wines, and the Red Hill area is among his favorite locales.
‘My family has known about the red hill grapes for many, many years. It’s nice that we are finally able to do something about producing wine from some of their better crops.”
What about the possibility of a really bad crop from the area’
Cuneo feels that he will cross that bridge when it happens, but isn’t immune to the idea that no wines would be produced under such conditions. He believes that if great fruit is available then it is his mission to produce some really great wines. He is also the realist should the opposite occur.
It seems that Marc Cuneo ‘s energy and philosophy fits neatly into the future plans for the Red Hill Reserve that his family has brought back to life. Marc is very willing to take his time with regard to growth and flexible concerning the years ahead.
He looks forward to next year and his family’s celebration of its 100 years in the wine industry. While Red Hill Reserve is but a small percentage of the 180,000 cases his family produces, Red Hill Reserve’s present and future are most important to him.
He sees more exclusive arrangements in the upcoming years and is most willing to meet the challenge, provided of course; he is able to secure his precious fruit from Red Hill.