September 20, 2021

Uncorked: Sebastiani gives wine drinkers a thrill ride

Precipitous drops, white-knuckle speed and hairpin turns are just inspiration when Mark Beaman makes wine.

The Sebastiani winemaker grew up in an agricultural family in Walla Walla, Washington. He studied environmental geology, joined the Peace Corps, started a business in East Africa, and eventually returned home where he found his calling as a winemaker. He’d even spent time in Hawaii as a winemaker on Maui before his current post at Sebastiani.

Like his career, he wants wine drinkers to go on a journey.

“I want to create a good roller-coaster ride,” Beaman said. “Wines can be like a firework show, where there’s a lot of bang at the beginning, a fruit load, and also early extraction with lots of fruit tones and voluptuousness. Alcohol extracts a lot of tannins, and you can overdo it at the end in an effort to make an accessible wine.”

The Sebastiani Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley 2018 ($40) gets it just right at a bargain price. There’s blackberry, black currant and vanilla flavors at the start. Baking spice and tobacco pipe fill the space left behind after the fruit fades, and a fresh herb medley of flavors wraps things up nicely.

“The mid-palate is where the art comes in,” Beaman said. “It’s very important on how you pick fruit for it and blend later on. Cab can be ‘a doughnut’ and drop where tannin, acidity and oak take over.”

There was no hole in the middle of either Sebastiani cabernet.

With warm days and cool nights during the growing season, the Sebastiani Cherryblock Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley 2017 ($125) is full-flavored yet has some decidedly feral notes. It is wine, laced with acidity and tannin, that is excellent today, but should begin to unravel its best characteristics in several years.

Daytime temperatures don’t peak quite as high as Alexander Valley, but with cool nights, the fruit flavors remain fresh as they are draped with layers of intrigue. The vineyard is loaded with old vines planted in the 1960s, so yields are naturally low, which shows in the intensity of the wines.

There is dusty coffee aroma on the nose, with black currant and plum flavors. There’s a big mid-palate, where spice rack, blackberry, plum, beef jerky and a savory, loamy earth emerge with a big, intense mouthfeel. Beaman pointed out a “miso soup note,” in what was a wide-ranging experience.

It takes some extra work during harvest to dial in this flavor profile.

“We pick the south-facing side before the north,” Beaman said. “We often pick the same vines twice to get the best we possibly can. These old vines from the 1960s are not high yielding and really struggle to grow. Cabernet sauvignon, the way these vines grow, really lives up to its billing as the ‘savage red.’ This is a site where the vine needs to suffer, and it does that just about right here.”

For the Sebastiani Butterfield Station Chardonnay, North Coast 2019 ($19), there were flavors of butterscotch, honeysuckle, pear, cotton candy, and it had a little hint of flinty rock.

While there’s no way to be certain, the suggestion was Sebastiani could be the longest continually operating winery in the country. Beaman was at the Mission Vineyard, which dates back to 1825, for a Zoom call last week.

If Prohibition hadn’t occurred, how could that have affected the domestic wine industry?

“If there wasn’t Prohibition, we could be 20 years ahead or maybe 60 years ahead of where we are because of all that was lost, all the techniques,” Beaman said. “In the early 1900s, we started to build momentum and make money in the business, and there was public awareness of what was going on.

“Having wine with a meal, the European-dinner model, was embraced,” he said. “But that was shut down by Prohibition, and it shut down the clock on what was a huge opportunity in the United States. The 1970s proved the potential of the wine industry in the U.S.”

Beaman and his colleagues continue to fulfill that potential and push the bar further harvest after harvest.

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at