By Ryan Snyder
Category: Winery of the Month
Young Italian immigrants Edoardo and Angela Seghesio met while they worked at the Italian Swiss Colony Winery in northern Sonoma County. Sparks flew, and soon they were married and scouring Sonoma County for a tract of land on which to start their own vineyard. In 1895, they purchased a 56-acre ranch in Alexander Valley and immediately began planting Zinfandel vines. After the winery was constructed in 1902, Eduardo left his job and founded Seghesio Family Vineyards.
Seghesio produced jug wine before and after Prohibition, and produced wine for other wineries from World War II until 1983. They began producing wines under their own label, which ended up being mostly mediocre Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Then, in the early 1990s, the IRS knocked on their door and delivered a $4 million bill for back taxes, forcing the Seghesios to make some difficult decisions.
Pete Sr., Eduardo's son, and the older generation found themselves fighting a beast that they didn’t know how to handle. Wine production was at maximum capacity, and the winery had no way of bringing in additional revenue. The elder Seghesios invited Ted and Pete Jr. from the younger generation to join the board and help Seghesio think outside the box. Pete Jr. was handed the reins of the business at the tender age of 28.
After a considerable amount of soul searching, the Seghesios realized they were building a brand that simply wasn’t sustainable. Pete Jr. reflected, “Ted and I were tired of making cheap wine. But, we had a tough time getting the older generation to believe in us. They produced jug wine their entire lives – it’s all they knew. Then one day Uncle Ed said, ‘We're going to be the Jordan of Zinfandels,’ and I knew that he got it. But the guy that took it toughest was my dad.”
Pete Jr. spearheaded the initiative to decrease production and increase quality. He contacted Phil Freese, one of the top 5 consultants in the country, and brought him in to educate the family. “Phil taught me grapes,” said Pete. They immediately began dropping clusters from the vines and downshifted production from 120,000 cases to 35,000 cases annually. Their average price per bottle went from $5 to $22. And before long, they were cranking out cases of quality wine, and made enough money to pay off the IRS.
But what, you may ask, is Seghesio’s philosophy behind producing good wine? “Hard work,” explained Pete. “Get to work early. Get the job done. We know that 80% of making quality wine comes from how we farm the vineyards.” Seghesio is currently making a strong push to use 100% estate-grown grapes to make their wines, knowing they cannot source fruit from other farmers and still expect to maintain the same level of quality synonymous with Seghesio.
They are currently fine-tuning their vineyard practices in a constant effort to increase the quality of their wines. “With the younger vines, we’re planting them with tighter spacing. We’re pruning them to one bud spurs, which spreads the fruit out and keeps the clusters from rubbing against each other. And we’re using smaller berry clones. Over the next few years, you’ll see our Zinfandel really get better.”
Diligence helped carry Seghesio into the spotlight, but the Seghesios know they would be nothing without their heritage. Because of Eduardo’s original vision over a century ago, the Seghesios were sitting on a Zinfandel goldmine. The vines on Home Ranch vineyard and San Lorenzo vineyard are now over a century old, and Cortina vineyard is home to vines over 50 years old. Old vines bring a depth of flavor and complexity that simply can’t be found in fruit from a younger vine.
And the preservation of its heritage is one of the most important factors that keep each of the 10 members of the Seghesio family working in tandem. They come from a family that understands what it means to start from scratch, and they’re constantly teaching the younger generations what it means to be a Seghesio. “We want our children to grow up and see that it takes hard work to make good wine. We want them to get on the tractor, to be out in the fields, to help crush the grapes and smell the Zinfandel,” said Pete. “At harvest time, I’ll take my boys out into the vineyards and we’ll eat ripe Zinfandel grapes right off the vine. Man, they’ll clean an entire vine all by themselves.”
Seghesio produces two Italian white varietals from their Keyhole Ranch estate in the Russian River Valley, an Arneis and a Pinot Grigio. The Arneis is dichotomous, but in a good way, showing a creamy body while maintaining a ripe acidity. Pair this with an asparagus risotto and you’re in for a divine treat. Meanwhile, the Pinot Grigio features notes of green apple, melon and wildflowers with a nice acidity, making it an excellent wine for a steaming hot day.
Shifting to red, the Pinot Noir also originates from the Keyhole Ranch and shows a super-high ABV, with notes of cherry cola and autumn spices. But Seghesio shows its true roots with its red varietals from Northern Italy. The Barbera is ultra-ripe, and displays notes of blackberries, roasted tomato and smoke, and could be one of the best pizza pairings you’ll find. Meanwhile, the Sangiovese has received praise from many a wine geek as being the best Sangiovese produced this side of the pond. It shows black raspberry, blueberry, dried herbs and hazelnuts, with a surprisingly high acidity.
The kingpin of the group is the Omaggio. Italian for “homage,” this SuperTuscan-style wine is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Sangiovese grown in their Home Ranch vineyard. “Our centennial anniversary was coming up and we wanted to make a wine to pay tribute to our grandparents and tie them to the newer generation of Seghesios,” said Pete. “As grapes, Cab and Sangiovese are a natural pairing. Metaphorically, the Sangiovese represents my grandparents’ generation, and the Cabernet Sauvignon represents my generation.” Worthy of its title, this blend features black currant, raspberry and mocha, with unbelievable concentration and formidable tannins. Silence will permeate your dinner table after the first sip of this wine.
Because Zinfandel was the first vine that Eduardo planted, the Seghesios maintain a serious commitment to the varietal they are most noted for. The Sonoma Zinfandel is fruit forward and smooth up front with a feisty finish, and is a phenomenal buy at $17. The Cortina Zinfandel is full of complex, concentrated berries with a gravel-induced smoothness that helps quell its gripping tannins. Seghesio also produces single-vineyard Zins from their Home Ranch vineyard and San Lorenzo vineyard. The Old Vines Zinfandel is made from the three single vineyard sites, and features blackberry cobbler, caramel and a cayenne pepper kick that makes it a real jaw dropper.
In the coming months, Seghesio will extend its Italian portfolio with an Aglianico. “Someone snuck an Aglianico into a blind tasting of Zinfandels, and the darn thing won the flight. Aglianico has a fruit-forward style similar to Zinfandel, but has a greater acidity and a lot more grip.” I’m sure it will be yet another wine from Seghesio that makes you want to stand up after a sip and yell “Salute!” to the entire restaurant.