If you’d been at the Plaza in 1904, you might have seen a young man in a horse-drawn wagon delivering jugs of wine.
His name was Samuele Sebastiani.
On the strength of a handshake, he had acquired a small winery with the promise to pay it off from the sale of wine. Sometimes he also hauled cobblestones from Schocken’s quarry nearby. As a fourteen-year-old among a wave of Italian immigrants, he had arrived from Tuscany in 1895.
Sebastiani leased the Vallejo family vineyard. Within five years, Samuele bought the vineyard and was shipping wine to the East Coast.
Samuele’s Determination in the wake of the Prohibition
His business kept growing right up to Prohibition in 1920. Like many Italians, Sam couldn’t understand how drinking wine could be a crime. But always adaptable, he got a sacramental and medicinal wine license. It amazed him how many people got sick and turned to religion.
With the right word, you could get a drink at the Toscano Hotel. It was a game. If the establishment lost, the fine was written off as an expense. Meanwhile, Sonoma’s acreage in grapes actually increased because they could be shipped and sold, legally, to home winemakers. Only twenty percent of California’s wineries survived; one of them was Sebastiani. The Sebastiani Theater, which he built just before Prohibition ended in 1933, stands as a testament to Sam’s success during a tough time.
After Samuele died, his family put the Sebastiani name on the bottle and expanded into premium wines.
In the 1970s there were still places you could fill your own jug straight from the barrel. But having survived phylloxera, Prohibition, and the Depression, wine was becoming big business.
By 1980, Sonoma and Napa were branded “The California Wine Country” and tasting rooms soon popped up around the Plaza itself.
After a century in business, the Sebastiani family sold their winery to a corporation in 2008. Elsewhere in Sonoma, born of the same mix of dreams and determination, there always seems to be another small winery just getting started.