Viansa Sonoma Winery - Santerra Cellars
Sonoma County region
Viansa Winery leads Cal-Ital Charge with Santerra Cellars Wines
For the past two decades plus, most visitors to Sonoma County and Napa Valley that traveled the Golden Gate Bridge northward to the wine country have encountered the stunning complex that is Viansa Winery and Marketplace. Originally built as a tribute to their family’s Tuscan heritage, original owners Sam and Vicki Sebastiani truly captured the feelings and spirit of their iconic Sonoma wine family that has been a major player in the Sonoma wine industry for over a hundred years.
The secret to the place’s success is its incredible ambiance. Located on a small hill overlooking seventy acres of vineyards and natural wetlands, Viana is exactly what it appears to be, namely a near perfect doorway into the myriad collection of wineries and estates that make up Sonoma County and Napa Valley.
Viansa Winery and Marketplace prospered from its very inception by producing a number of award winning wines and offering its visitors and customers a keen insight into a little bit of Tuscany nestled near the entrance to Northern California’s premier wine country. Somehow, this idyllic situation slowly changed and in 2005, the winery was sold to a publicly traded company called 360 Global Wine Company. With no previous expertise in running a winery operation, Viansa’s fortunes quickly went downhill. In less than two years, the company’s fortunes had further regressed to the point that 360 Global Wine Company was forced into Chapter 11 reorganization. At this time in 2007, Viansa changed hands again, and is currently owned by Laurus Master Fund, a hedge fund located in New York that had been 360 Global Wine Company’s main creditor.
Spinning forward to present time, it is interesting to note that Viansa’s fortunes have dramatically turned again, witness Viansa’s excellent showing in recent wine tastings and ratings by industry periodicals.
“It’s safe to say that we had a long way to go to get us back into the limelight,” commented Viansa’s co-owner and President Lloyd Davis. Davis was a former executive of Laurus Master Fund who is now calling all the shots for the rejuvenated winery. “Everyone involved with Viansa, or anyone who has ever seen the property, agrees that we have one of the really great showplaces for fine wine in California. It was simply a matter of getting a number of things straight and then applying basic economic and marketing principles to make everything work correctly.”
At its height during the Sebastiani ownership period, Viansa produced about 55,000 cases of high quality Sonoma varietals. That level has been downscaled and Viansa currently produces close to 35,000 annual cases.
“Part of our current production levels can be attributed to the recession,” added Davis. “It’s a simple fact that many customers just don’t have the funds they had a few years ago to buy the wines they would like to buy. But the recession has affected everyone, not just Viansa.”
Davis also said that his five-year development plan has Viansa back to its former production levels and he feels confident the winery can achieve its stated goals.
Viansa has the luxury of owning most of its vineyards in the highly rated Carneros Appellation that surrounds the winery. All of the winery’s estate bottlings are produced from these grapes and assures the company of truly excellent fruit for their leading wines.
“What the former owners did with the property is amazing,” Davis continued. “They used just about all the plantable property and even made allowances for the wetlands project that has garnered so much interest over the ensuing years.”
The wetlands project involved Viansa and Ducks Unlimited, and sought to provide wildlife permanent usage of the wetlands during periodic flooding of San Pablo Bay (the northern extension of San Francisco Bay) that actually touches Viansa’s southern property border. The project involved a levee that has proven to be an unmitigated success to everyone involved.
Viansa Winery and Marketplace is a remarkable story due to its many-faceted makeup. As the doorway to Northern California’s wine country, it is an excellent ambassador to the general public as well as the serious wine drinker.
Most of Viansa’s problems are in its rear view mirror and the leadership displayed by Lloyd Davis and his retooled staff seems to have the proper ingredients for success in the long term. It is fitting that Viansa is once again successful; it is simply too much of a jewel to ever lose.
Map of the area
Ron Goss - Winemaker
Ron Goss was appointed winemaker at Viansa Winery and Marketplace in August of 2006 and brought with him a unique sense of creativity, talent, and leadership that helped form Viansa into the entity it is today. Prior to joining Viansa, Goss had served as premium winemaker at Foster's Wine Estates, and as an associate winemaker at Beringer's.
During his distinguished career, Goss has been responsible for all aspects of the winemaking process, from the coordination of cellar, bottling and vineyard activities, and supervision of wine made at outside plants, through new product development, and promotion of wine brands. Goss has since relocated and Viansa is currently working with a number of highly sought after consulting winemakers in the Sonoma region.
Lloyd Davis - Co-Owner
Viansa Winery and marketplace Co-owner and President Lloyd Davis expected to be part of the financial world for his entire professional career. The Manhattan-born 50-year-old graduated from Adelphi University with a degree in finance and immediately joined the prestigious banking firm known as Irving Trust in 1980. Davis worked his way through the financial world and finally landed with Laurus Master Funds as its chief credit officer in 2005.
‘My job at Laurus was to travel extensively throughout the United States and Canada to check on the 145 investments and 26 industries that we had our money invested in,” Davis recalled recently. I was on the go all the time and really put in some miles. One of the companies I worked with turned out to be 360 Global Wine Company who bought Viansa from the Sebastians.” Davis admitted to having more than a passing fondness for wine and the wine business.
‘I guess it all started with my family and the fact that we always had wine at our table when I was growing up,” he continued. ‘During my college years I became more and more interested in wine. My mother’s next door neighbor even made wine on a small scale at the beginning of the Long Island wine industry explosion.” About ten years ago, Davis took his interest in wine to another level. He became involved in the wine/food pairing aspect of the business, and has translated that interest into his marketing effort at Viansa. He began attending wine seminars and then wine and food dinners that paired unique wines and specific foods to produce specific taste sensations.
‘I found it very fascinating,” Davis added. ‘Even before Viansa, I found myself becoming a serious wine person. When you consider what is available to your palate and how easily you can improve and accent even your simplest dinners, well, to me it seemed the world opened itself up.” When the chance to run Viansa and have an ownership position in the new entity evolved, Davis jumped at the opportunity. For him, running Viansa was almost a dream come true.
‘I thought I worked a lot at Laurus,” he again added, ‘but the winery is a 24/7 job. So far I have worked in the vineyards in my own coveralls, learned how to correctly cut a vine and grapes, and hand select the grapes that will be used. I have even run a tractor to the amazement of my staff. Where else could I get the chance to do all that and still have the time of my life’”
Lloyd Davis’ business expertise has also come into play in a major way. He has firmly reshaped Viansa and has slowly increased its production over the past two years. Viansa now produces some 31 different wines, an attempt by the winery to please the taste buds of practically very consumer.
‘No two palates are alike,” Davis ended. ‘I have kept that in mind as we reshaped our winery.” From the judging results and laudatory ratings so far, Davis’ plan has worked well beyond expectations.
Jon Sebastian - Co-Owner
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, 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.