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Fewer varieties and less buses at the new Viansa
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Since Vintage Wine Estates acquired Viansa Winery in Sonoma, Calif., in 2013, the Santa Rosa-based company has spent millions improving the tasting room and planting new vineyards of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The Burgundian varieties would be a natural fit for any winery located in the Carneros AVA, but are new for Viansa, which for most of its nearly 30-year history produced many different wines from a range of Italian varieties. Almost all of those Italian varieties have since been pulled as Vintage charts a new course for the winery.

Viansa was founded in 1989 by Sam and Vicki Sebastiani after Sam and his family parted ways over how to run the historic Sebastiani winery in Sonoma. The couple built the winery on a hilltop that almost literally is at the gateway to Sonoma Valley wine country for people driving from San Francisco and Marin County. It’s prime location and successful event business earned it a large wine club and strong tasting room sales.

In 2005, a divorce and more family discord led to Sam Sebastiani and his children selling the winery for $31 million to the venture 360 Global Wine Company. The firm was a newcomer to the industry and after quickly running up tens of millions of dollars in debt it went bankrupt in 2007. The hedge fund Laurus Master Fund — which had been Global’s source for the cash to buy Viansa — took over in the bankruptcy auction.

Laurus was reportedly able to clear the winery of debt but the during the financial tumult wine quality began to suffer and Viansa earned a reputation as an event center and just the first or last stop for buses, limos and tour vans filled with undiscriminating tourists. The winery was listed for sale at $15 million in 2013 and Vintage Wine Estates purchased it for an undisclosed price.

Soon after the acquisition, Vintage built a large building to serve as an event center and replace a tent and made several other improvements to the hospitality side of the business. Almost all of the Italian grapes were pulled and replaced with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In all, the company has invested $6 million in improvements to the property. Wine production moved to a shared space with the other Vintage winery Girard Winery in the cluster of wineries on Eighth Street East in Sonoma.

Stephanie Peachey, vice president of direct to consumer sales for Vintage, said the focus for Viansa will be DtC sales through the tasting room and wine club. She said Vintage wants to continue the tradition of hospitality first begun by the Sebastianis, but with a more focused approach to winemaking.

The winery used to offer more than 60 different wines in the tasting room and that has been winnowed down to about half that with the goal to reach even fewer brands over three different tiers. While estate Pinot and Chardonnay will have a prominent role, the winery will purchase gapes from vineyards that demonstrate the best of Sonoma County’s diverse appellations. 

One of the cooler new additions are viewing platforms built into the hillside. Most of the covered platforms are available for private tastings, but one stays open for all visitors to take in the view of the restored wetlands. 

Bus and limo tours are welcome again, as long as they have a reservation. 

Amy Ludovissy was promoted from assistant winemaker at Girard Winery to winemaker for Viansa. She says she still works closely with Girard winemaker Glen Hugo (both literally and figuratively as they share a winery) and Marco Di Giulio who oversees the Girard program and Sonoma County wines.

Ludovissy grew up in Iowa where she gained an interest in wine helping her father with his home winemaking hobby and that interest in winemaking persisted even after she became a teacher. She eventually signed up for night classes in winemaking through the Des Moines Area Community College and after finishing that program had internships in New Zealand, Napa Valley and Australia before landing a job at Girard where she says she found her “winemaking family.”

Now she’s taking what she’s learned abroad and at Girard to enhance and expand the Viansa portfolio. “We’re trying to really elevate the wines and the tasting room experience,” Ludovissy says. “What I’m trying to do now is build those long term contracts and relationships.”

Ludovissy is particularly proud of Zinfandel from the Moon Mountain AVA in Sonoma Valley and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Sonoma Mountain AVA. “The natural tannin that comes out of this vineyard is just wow. You don’t want to rush these wines.”

There are no plans to remove the Sangiovese vines near the top of the hill and the tasting room to maintain a link to the estate’s past and because the vines still make good varietal wine as well as a great addition to a red blend. Ludovissy said the rockier soils of the hill are a better fit for the Italian variety than the thick clay soils of the low lying areas.

Looking ahead to the 2016 harvest, Ludovissy said she’s relieved to see everything moving along at an average pace to produce an average crop, which is just fine after last year’s yields came in 40% to 50% lighter than normal. “This year is looking to be an average harvest, which is really good coming off a light harvest.”

Grape quality is also looking quite promising, but as Ludovissy was speaking with Wines & Vines in early August she didn’t want to get too far ahead of herself. “I think it’s going to be a good harvest — but knock on wood — I don’t want to jinx myself.”


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