Mark Lyon knows a thing or two about wine. He also knows a thing or two about family feuds.
Lyon has been the winemaker at Sonoma County's storied Sebastiani Vineyards for more than 35 years, and there were moments when the leadership of the company was in question.
Launched by Samuele Sebastiani in 1904, the winery survived Prohibition by being only one out of 10 wineries to make sacramental wine. In 1944, August and Sylvia Sebastiani then made wines under the Sebastiani label. When August died in 1980, the trouble began.
His two sons -- Sam and Donald -- had different ideas of how the winery should be operated, and their mother was caught in the middle. Sam wanted to only make premium wines and got his way -- at least until the bank saw profits drop and expressed concern about the company's solvency.
Sam left in 1989 to make his own wines under the Viansa label, and continued to make great wines for 15 years before turning over its operation to his children. The new operation struggled for a year and was sold to 360 Global.
Don ramped up production of bulk wine at Sebasatiani under the Turner Road label to help the bottom line, and annual production soared to 8 million cases. But Don eventually left to start a very profitable Other Guys operation.
All this while Lyons plodded along, making good wine that still managed to appeal to wine enthusiasts. Today, that wine is at its best -- due in no small part to Mark and to yet another new direction. Sebastiani was purchased for $47 million by Bill Foley in 2008 and an infusion of capital has brought financial help. Production dropped to manageable levels and the focus was solely on Sonoma County wine.
'I never worried about losing my job," he said during a recent visit. 'My whole purpose was to make good wine."
Eschewing the trend toward overblown fruit and high-alcohol wines, Lyon is making restrained pinot noir and lean chardonnays. There is less oak flavor with the chardonnay than we remember from his earlier days of winemaking.
But the flagship grape variety is probably cabernet sauvignon. We were very impressed with a well-balanced Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon and the Sebastiani Cherryblock -- a special vineyard of old-vine cabernet sauvignon that has been in the family since 1919.
Lyon is using some of the Cherryblock fruit to blend with cabernet from his own vineyard to make an old-vine cabernet sauvignon. Made in small quantities, the first release is the 2010. It's very unusual but a novelty at $35 if you can find it.
These wines are great values as Sebastiani has dropped some of its prices to reflect the economy and to revive its popularity.
Here are the tasting notes of our favorites:
Sebastiani Sonoma County Chardonnay 2010. Apple and vanilla aromas precede a softly textured, apple-flavored wine with a hint of oak.
Sebastiani Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($28). Our favorite of the lot and a great value, this opulent cab is blended with petit verdot, malbec, merlot and syrah. It has depth, generous aromatics and flavors of ripe blackberries, raspberries and a hint of olives and mocha. It scored a 91 in Wine Spectator magazine.
Sebastiani Sonoma Cuonty Merlot 2008. The producer makes one of the best merlots in Sonoma County. Blended with cabernet sauvignon, syrah, petite sirah and petit verdot, it has opulent, rich fruit character with black cherry and plum notes.
Sebastiani Cherryblock Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($90). You may not be able to afford this wine, but we show it because it demonstrates the talent of the winemaker and the character of the vineyard. It is a colossal yet approachable wine with complexity and depth of fruit.