Sunday, September 21, 2014

Point of Brew: Casa Sebastiani and the Sonoma wine country

Casa Sebastiani in Sonoma  was built by August and Sylvia Sebastiani in 1947; it is surrounded by a profusion of flowers that attract scores of hummingbirds and an olive grove and citrus trees. Old live oaks provide shade and the stone façade speaks of the old times when Samuele Sebastiani in 1904 bought the vineyards of the Franciscan fathers, that were first established in 1825, to found his winery. Michael Lewis/Courtesy photo

From page A9 | August 15, 2013 |

Even the most avid brewer, when he wanders into the wonderful world of wine once in a while, takes great delight in it.

I had that experience in the past few days because a special birthday pulled our entire family of 15 members together in one place in the wine country of the Sonoma Valley: we rented Casa Sebastiani, which was the home of the Sebastiani family for many years. It is just up the road from the Sebastiani winery. The house is beautifully located on a hill overlooking the valley and vineyards and the winery itself as well as parts of Sonoma, and, being walking distance from the Sonoma plaza, it is both countrified and urban. We enjoyed the place no end.

The house was built in the 1940s perhaps to be a Tuscan villa or a Mexican hacienda or something. It has a stone exterior and a red tile roof, and there are lots of arches around windows and doors. And of course, being on a hill, there are stone stairs leading intriguingly to nooks and crannies and interesting corners.

As the sun moves, so one moves from one patio to another; and there are lots of places for the grandchildren to explore. Predictably, there are orange and lemon and olive trees throughout the several acres of grounds as well as some large shady oaks for the children to climb in.

But it was the wine country itself that was most beautiful. We variously enjoyed it on foot on several trails through the hills, by bicycles and, of course, driving. I suppose it is always hard to exactly define what gladdens the eye, but there is a certain symphony of rounded yellow hills with the bright green vines marching up and down and across them interspersed with large old trees and stone buildings that, for the most part at least, fit in. There is the added special idea that this lovely landscape is not an accident nor purposeless, but a deliberate creation of farmers growing grapes for making wine.

The wine is what draws tourists by their many thousands to Sonoma and we spent some considerable time finding and visiting wineries. Having first visited these areas many years ago when tasting wine was a free gift (and so buying a bottle of wine almost mandatory) I will not pay up to $20 to sniff half a dozen wines in damp glasses. I’m willing to buy a bottle and enjoy it with others overlooking the vineyards, or with a picnic, and we did that.

I guess making wine is the opposite of making beer. Winemakers require special varieties of grapes grown in special locations (we had a lot of fun with “terroir”) under weather conditions that determine the quality of the vintage; from excellent grapes, skilled vinification and aging and wise blending almost inevitably yields good wine. The grapes bespeak the wine: there are red grapes and white ones and wines to match. It’s pretty much a straightforward two-dimensional process: viticulture and enology.

Brewers, on the other hand, take the quality of their raw materials for granted; barley is made into malt with extraordinary consistency to meet a required analysis. Malt can be made in many shades of color from white to black, touching on almost every hue of yellow through brown and even red along the way, and into a wide range of flavors from mild to intense. The malt does not bespeak the beer.

The skill of the brewer is to select among these materials and brew them in such a way as to make the company products or (for a craft brewer) to make the beer of his imagination. Brewers also use hops, which are available in many varieties and forms, and can be used in several ways in the brewing process; this adds a third dimension to beermaking.

But brewing lacks the charm and beauty and grace and elegance of winemaking; wine connects directly to the land and wineries are in the middle of vineyards in beautiful countryside made more handsome by their presence. People visit the wine regions of the world, not just for the delights of the product, but for the delights of the landscape.

Nobody, as far as I know, visits the barley-growing states of our northern tier to see the field of waving grain and there are no breweries there. Breweries are hot and sweaty and steamy and (dare I say it) industrial places all the time (not just at harvest/crush); they are easy to admire but not easy to love.

Beyond the joys of being with the family gathered, my days at Casa Sebastiani in Sonoma reminded me of the charms and delights of wine, and why so many fall under the spell of what is, at the end of the day, a simple product. To a certain extent, craft brewers and craft breweries have captured some of that magic for beers.

But beer and brewing will never connect to its landscape in the way that wine does, and so will always lack that special, quite indefinable, something that wine and winemaking possess in spades.
— Reach Michael Lewis at Comment on this column at



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