True Grit

The website for Don Sebastiani & Sons features a number of films, ranging from the ridiculous — how to open a screwcap — to the sublime — Crush, a 14-minute documentary about the 2006 harvest. But the sublimity doesn't come from lingering shots of vineyards and grape clusters (though there are plenty of those). It comes from the unvarnished quality of the depiction. This is large-scale negociant winemaking, with winemaker Richard Bruno driving from vineyard to vineyard, crush facility to crush facility, from Paso Robles to Monterey; and the film, despite the poetic flights of the narration, doesn't attempt to pretty it up. Everything is shown in all its industrial grit: concrete crush pads, monster steel tanks, huge plastic bins, trucks and tractors and hoses. I think my favorite moment comes about three minutes in, during a wee hours harvest in Napa. The tractors moving up and down the rows are outfitted with long light booms that bathe the vines in a fluorescent glare. It's like a vineyard on the moon.

The narration is full of talk about family, about traditions being passed from generation to generation. But as the company's marketing chief Donny Sebastiani notes, the families Crush talks about are not Sebastianis — you won't see Don and the boys onscreen. "We really wanted to get away from the image of the winemaker and his kids walking through the vineyards. I can almost guarantee I've never walked through a vineyard with my dad. It wouldn't have been a real depiction of harvest to have us involved. We're not farmers. We're marketers, and we enjoy wine. My dad likes to draw the analogy between the guy who owns the restaurant and the chef. The owner might love eating and drinking, but he's not a trained chef. He lets the chef do the cooking. We do the rest."

Crush is part of the rest. So is the website. "We definitely didn't say, 'Hey, listen, let's develop our website this way,' but we've found that it's a pretty cost-effective way to market wines. If you took the money we spent on Crush and spread it around the country to run some kind of promotion, it would have been like spitting in the ocean." Instead, they put together a film that premiered at the Sonoma Film Festival and has been getting all sorts of positive feedback from the industry. "Not just media types," says Donny. "Even sales reps, saying things like, 'It makes us feel like we're there.'"

And that's precisely the market Sebastiani & Sons is looking to impress. "We're not a big enough company that we can do a lot of consumer-driven stuff. Our sales and marketing is really geared toward the gatekeepers — retail buyers or wholesalers. If we can educate them, make them comfortable with our products" — then, hopefully, they'll pass that feeling on to the consumer.

Not that the website isn't aimed at consumers as well as buyers. Notes Donny, "We don't have the mellifluous-sounding estate on Highway 29 that will generate buzz just because bachelorette parties are driving past it in their limousines. We need to step out. It's a good way for people to come and visit us." That's why the front label of Smoking Loon — one of Sebastiani & Sons' most successful brands — sports the wine's web address, smokingloon.com, "which is pretty unusual."

Unusual is pretty much the byword for the company's marketing strategy. "There needs to be a reason, when your eye is running past it on a wine list, or when a salesman is making a presentation to a wine buyer, for the wine to stick with you." By putting a cigar in the mouth of a loon, the company puts an edge on the whole critter-label phenomenon — a little something to set it apart from the kangaroos and monkeys and fish and such.

"So many wines are just so generic sounding," laments Donny. "I always think about a guy like me, who brings a bottle home for dinner, and the wife says, 'God, it's great. Get another bottle next time you're in the wine shop.' I walk in and I'm, like, 'What was that thing? I know it had a white label with some gold foil, and it was called Running Creek or something like that.' You ask a wine steward that, and you've just described half his wines. But if you say, 'It's the one with the guy who has a toilet plunger on his head,' they know what you're talking about."

Ah, yes — Plungerhead. "That wine has a Zork-brand stopper in it," explains Donny. (The company is nothing if not willing to experiment with alternative packaging.) "The technical term for the inside of the Zork is the plunger — it just kind of snowballed. We didn't want to be crass or crude, but we were trying to be a bit clever. If you walk by the label quickly, you might think it was a nice, sort of upscale label. You have to do a double-take — 'Is that a toilet plunger on the guy's head?' That's the hook." Same with the Used Automobile Parts, the gold-letter-on-glass brand for the company's higher-end Napa claret. "We could have called it 'Don Sebastiani & Sons Pinnacle' or something, and it would have gotten completely lost in the crowd." Instead, the viewer does another double-take — such pretty lettering signifying such a grimy reality.

It helps a little that Plungerhead and Used Automobile Parts aren't the company's flagships — they're non core products, which leaves a little more room for experimentation. Smoking Loon does more of the heavy lifting, alongside Pepperwood Grove. They make everything else possible; sometimes, they're the reason why those higher-end wines get into the winery. "As negociants, we're buying little and big lots from Mendocino all the way down to Paso Robles and patching them together. Some of these lots are blockbusters, and we end up blending them into the Pepperwood Grove mix, which is great. But what if we can make Pepperwood Grove just as good as it is and peel off a couple thousand cases from the 50,000 of Pepperwood Grove? It's not going to have a huge impact on the overall blend, but you can market those 2000 cases as a Dry Creek Zinfandel," one featuring a guy wearing a plunger on his head.

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