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Seghesio Shines On

March 10, 2011

Visit Seghesio Family Vineyards & Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., and you will see a small plaque with the number 56 on it. For Peter Seghesio, part of the third generation to operate the family-owned enterprise, the plaque brings back memories of a time before he was born.

“At the start of Prohibition in 1919, California had more than 3,000 wineries,” Seghesio told a crowd of 70 gathered at Johnny Delmonico’s restaurant in Madison for a six-course dinner featuring the family’s wines. “By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, there were only 100 wineries left. Seghesio was number 56.”

The winery, established in Sonoma County by Peter Seghesio’s grandfather Edoardo in 1895, has gone through a variety of stages in its attempts to find its way in the increasingly competitive wine market. For many years, it tried to be all things to all people, an approach that Peter and his siblings felt could not be sustained. In 1996, all that changed as the younger generation took over the winery.

“We started changing the way we did business,” Seghesio said. “We focused on Zinfandel, Sangiovese and Barbera, our traditional strengths.”

The winery also began embracing a “greener” lifestyle with a partial emphasis on organic farming. Production dropped from 120,000 cases per year to 35,000 cases per year. The wines got better, the prices went up and Seghesio began developing a reputation for it red wines, particularly its Zinfandel.

“Zinfandel first arrived in California in 1862,” Seghesio said of the grape with roots on both sides of the Adriatic Sea, but one that has become synonymous with American viticulture. “Thirty years later it comprised 90% of the state’s wine grape crop.”

The balance, of course, has shifted since then, but Seghesio continues to draw on vineyard lands that have been in the family for more than 100 years. Sustainability has always been a goal, but biodynamics is not an alternative at the moment, Seghesio says. The resulting wines have all garnered top marks and have been lauded for their character, especially the Zinfandel. But perhaps the best surprises for Delmonico’s diners – many of whom attended primarily because of their familiarity with the Zin – were the other wines in the portfolio.

Newest to the portfolio – and perhaps least familiar to most American consumers – was the Seghesio Arneis, produced from an enigmatic white wine grape originally cultivated in Italy’s Piedmonte region. The Arneis, which in Italian means “little rascal,” grows on five acres of Seghesio’s Keyhole Ranch vineyards. Flavors of pears, melons and almonds gather on the palate, contrasted by a pleasant minerality that keeps the light fruit from cloying. The wine is stored sur lie until bottling and shipping, giving added character to light-bodied refreshment.

The Arneis, which hadn’t even been released yet, was served with Delmonico Chef John Akhila’s sweet corn and lump crab meat profiterole with lobster succotash. The wine’s light fruit raised higher the standards of the mildly flavored appetizer course. This became the norm throughout the evening.

Various Zins were served with various interim courses, but let’s concentrate on the two wines we hadn’t before tried.

The goat cheese ravioli sphere served on bacon agro dolce arrived with the Seghesio Sangiovese. The wine, sourced from clones of varietals that appeared in the U.S. with Edoardo Seghesio in the 19th century, suggested savory spices and dark fruits, bright on the palate with velvet undertones and excellent depth. The sphere, which arrived as a single serving on a small spoon, disappeared in a minute, but the flavors of the Sangiovese lingered lovingly on our palates.

The Seghesio Barbera, the evening’s final wine, was produced from bud stock clipped from some of the Piedmonte’s oldest vines that Peter Seghesio himself brought back to Sonoma County. (“Smuggled” is such an ugly word.) The wine’s normal acidity levels had been balanced and flavors of dark fruit brought forth, resulting in a surprisingly rich and exciting palate. Served with pan-seared bison tournedos and hibiscus/dried cherry couscous, the wine once again lingered long after the food had disappeared.

Peter Seghesio and his siblings had apparently made the right decision taking the family’s wines in the direction they did 14 years ago. I doubt anyone in the room that evening felt any differently.



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