Life doesn’t always imitate art; sometimes it comes closer to kitsch. Seen, inevitably, against the lurid pop-backdrop of Falcon Crest, the fraternal scrapping that has divided the wine-making Sebastiani family of California’s Sonoma County has the bouquet of prime-time soap and not cabernet. The trouble began six years ago, with the death of patriarch August Sebastiani, 66. A charismatic man known for his blue-and-white-striped bib overalls and his shrewd business sense, it was he who transformed his father’s small vineyard into the second-largest family-owned wine-making company in the U.S.—exceeded in size only by Gallo. He and his wife, Sylvia, had two sons, Sam and Don, born 12 years apart and strikingly unalike in looks and in temperament. “Sam will be the one to run the winery,” August predicted only months before he died, “and Don will be the politician.”
For a time after August’s death, that was precisely the way things turned out. Sam managed Sebastiani’s 400-acre vineyards and winery. Don continued his controversial career as an archconservative state assemblyman known for his outspoken opposition to equal pay for women and antidiscrimination legislation for gays; he was one of only two assemblymen to vote against a recent resolution honoring Martin Luther King Jr. In 1982, after voting against a tribute to astronaut Sally Ride, Don explained with what now seems gruesome insensitivity, “I don’t mind lady astronauts, as long as they only have a one-way ticket.” Such comments, which nearly triggered a nationwide boycott of Sebastiani wines by the National Organization for Women and the NAACP, generated family friction as well. Concerned by the threat to the company, Sam, who had become Sebastiani’s president, demanded that Don retire from politics or leave the winery. When Don agreed to quit the company, the boycott was narrowly averted. But Don was reportedly resentful over Sam’s ultimatum, and so, it turned out, was his mother.
Although Sylvia, now 69, said nothing publicly at the time, she scolded Sam at a company sales meeting last November, warning him, “If you treat Don like you did before, I’m going to do something drastic.” Snapped Sam: “I am a 45-year-old man. I don’t want to be treated like a child.” In fact Sam had previously ruffled family feathers by drastically altering the Sebastiani approach to wine making and marketing. Before he died, August’s final instruction to Sam was to “go out and make wines that will make Sonoma County proud.” And that was what Sam tried to do.
After he graduated from California’s Santa Clara University with a master’s degree in business, the handsome new president set about changing the very character of the $40 million family business. In an effort to steer the winery away from a jug wine market that seemed about to be taken over by high-powered multinational firms, Sam spent $6 million modernizing the Sebastiani winery, began buying more expensive, higher quality grapes and paid his second wife, Vicki, 41, a former real estate broker, $36,000 a year to promote the winery and cook for business parties. Sources close to the family believe that Sylvia may have resented her daughter-in-law, feeling she had usurped her own role as winery hostess.
Although Sam’s upscaling strategy was endorsed by market analysts as well as by critics, who presented Sebastiani Vineyards with 95 awards for quality in 1985—as opposed to only 13 five years before—profits first dwindled, then disappeared altogether. Sebastiani’s losses last year were about $480,000, after $38 million in sales. A high-ranking company executive says such dips into the red might have been accepted as the price of a costly but sound business master plan if Sam had been less extravagant and more considerate of his mother’s feelings.
“Sam believed it was important to show flair and pizzazz,” says the insider. “But it got to be insidious. There was a helicopter to take him to the airport, chartering private planes, personal housekeepers and baby-sitters, a $25,000 membership in a food-and-wine society and about 10 people doing largely personal stuff on company money. Not to mention about $200,000 in home improvements. The family could have looked the other way if the company was making money, but it wasn’t.”
Such criticism makes Sam see burgundy, particularly the suggestion that he improperly lavished company money on the sprawling, ranch-style home behind the vineyard where he lives with Vicki, their two children and her two kids by a previous marriage. (Sam also has four children by his earlier marriage.) “I don’t know what the hell [my family] is talking about,” he complains. “I don’t know whether they’re making all this up or they’ve just forgotten. Part of that [money] was a $125,000 loan from my mother to redo the house. I don’t know where they get the other $75,000. This place was an entertainment center for the winery. Obviously I spent some company money to fix up my yard, but we did a lot of business here.”
As for Sam’s supposed insensitivity toward his mother, a family member says that, at work, Sam began calling her Sylvia instead of “Mom” and sometimes bought property without consulting her, though she still owns 94 percent of the company’s stock. When he did let her in on his plans, they say, it was often by terse interoffice memo. Though family friends have jokingly begun referring to Sylvia as “Angela”—after Angela Channing, the domineering doyenne of Falcon Crest—she is described by one family member as more an easily influenced homebody than the shrike of the boardroom. There is speculation that her injured feelings may have been played on by Don, 33, who, with his wife, Nancy, and their two small children, also lives in a comfortable estate near the winery. His sister, Mary Ann Cuneo, 38, joined him in objecting to Sam’s management of the company as well. “We’ve got to do something,” Sylvia is reported to have told them at a meeting last fall. When Sam proposed in December that the family put the winery up for sale, Sylvia vetoed the idea. Sam, worried about his position, asked for a lucrative severance contract in the event he were dismissed. He told his brother, “You’re not going to see as much output from me until I know the support is there.” Don says his mother was “extremely upset” by Sam’s demands. “She felt it would have broken the company,” he says. When Sam followed up his ultimatum with a note reading, “Sylvia—either Sam gets put in charge or Sam quits,” his mother saved him the trouble of leaving and fired him.
Although Sam was aware of tensions within the family, he had apparently underestimated his mother’s unhappiness. “I thought she was a hundred percent behind [the changes in the company’s direction],” says Sam. “I felt she would ride this thing out with me…. The least they could have done was to put me on the street in a nicer way.” Now trying to hammer out a final severance agreement with brother Don, the company’s new board chairman, Sam will soon be selling his own premium wine under a new label, Villa Aquila. “There won’t be a chance of my brother or sister coming in to push me out now,” he says with undisguised bitterness. “I’ve had my turn with the family business. Now it’s their turn to prove themselves.”