After selling the Sebastiani winery, Don Sebastiani couldn't stay out of the wine business so he started a négociant firm with his sons Donny and August. In 2001 they decided to start a company that produces inexpensive but accessible red and white wines from areas all over California. The company likes to highlight relationships it has with growers and winemakers, in an effort to personalize the respective lines they produce. From a marketing standpoint this is a great idea for a brand aimed at Millennials, who have shown a desire to be more connected with the wines they're drinking.
What, you might ask, is a négociant? Their role is huge in France, specifically places like Burgundy and the Rhone, where they take the grapes and/or wines from numerous smaller growers and winemakers, then bottle and sell it under their own label. The négociant model isn't seen much here in the United States but perhaps our most famous person would be Cameron Hughes. If you've ever had Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin, or Jaboulet wines from France, you've had négociant wine.
Don Sebastiani started Don Sebastiani & Sons to produce négociant wines here in California, among their projects are The Crusher and Project Paso. You may already know the Smoking Loon and Pepperwood Grove brands, also produced by the Sebastiani company. I recently participated in a Twitter Taste Live event for The Crusher wines and am tasting my way through his Project Paso selections too. Each brand is slotted at a different price point, The Crusher being priced at a suggested retail of $18. I'm not sure how firm that price is though, because often a "suggested retail" is not what you pay at your local supermarket or wine store.
With that in mind, here are The Crusher wines from Don Sebastiani and Sons:
2009 The Crusher Chardonnay - If you like California chardonnay, this one is for you. Think Sonoma-Cutrer, Gary Farrell, and Robert Mondavi examples. Creamy, buttery oak with hints of tropical fruit and red apple lending a touch of acidity. The 2009 Crusher sees 65% malolactic fermentation and 80% new French oak barrels, lending that rich, almost voluptuous mouthfeel so many people love. At 13.5% alcohol, I only felt the increased weight on my palate and didn't detect any burn on the finish. The consensus in the tasting was that this is a very accessible, crowd pleasing style. My only concern is the $18 suggested retail, which is too high for what you get. That being said, this chardonnay is more readily available for around $14, placing it squarely in the right category. B-.
2010 The Crusher Pinot Noir Rosé - Made with 97.5% pinot noir and 2.5% viognier, this was a highlight of the tasting for me. In addition to the gorgeous pink color, the viognier added wonderful white flower and peach aromas to the lip-smacking summer berry notes I picked up. All the fruit here is from the Clarksburg area, soon to be it's own AVA. I liked the balance between acidity and the residual sugar, so this isn't a "fully dry" rosé, rather it's got a touch of fruity sweetness that adds a bit of body. I think almost everyone in the tasting liked the ruby grapefruit, melon, strawberry, and swish of cranberry we tasted. At $18, it bests many rosé's in that category, but the real-world price of closer to $13 makes this an incredible deal. B+ and STRONG BUY.
2009 The Crusher Pinot Noir - A true, single varietal pinot noir for a change, with all fruit sourced from the Wilson Vineyard in Clarksburg. Although a touch high on the alcohol at 13.9%, it's almost undetecable. I smelled baking spice, black cherry and a hitn of toasted oak. What struck me as most interesting wast he way the spice and oak aromas framed the cherry, I may have swirled and smelled this wine longer than anyone else during the tasting. Really good acidity lightened the wine's mouthfeel, spice and sweet cherry lent interesting textural components and the dusty earth mixed with campfire reminded me that this is pinot noir, after all. Winemaker Greg Kitchens did a nice job balancing ripe fruit with the restraining acidity. Just wish that alcohol was closer to 13.3-13.5%. B, BUY recommendation. At around $20, this is solid wine and an honest purchase but when you shop around and find it for $13, it becomes a great bottle to crack open with your friends.
2009 The Crusher Petite Sirah - The best wine of the night for me, and the recent winner of a Double Gold/Best in Class award from the California State Fair Wine Competition. For once those giant competitions get something right! There's 97% petite sirah and 3% alicante bouchet in here, but what that alicante does is lost on me. My palate just isn't sensitive enough I suppose. What the '09 The Crusher petite sirah does though is to wow my palate. It's big, dark chocolate notes, earth and berries and smoke on the nose. I even got some fascinating aromas of candied orange peel and mixed berry pie, this was the most complex nose of the entire lineup. I think everyone or almost everyone absolutely loved this petite sirah for it's silky smooth tannin, ripe berry flavors and the awesome hit of savory beef jerky that carried through to the finish. Across the country this is between $10 and $14 a bottle. What are you waiting for? A-, STRONG BUY recommendation from yours truly.
2009 The Crusher Cabernet Sauvignon - Surprisingly, a 100% cabernet sauvignon, cabernet sauvignon. It seems like most cabernets these days have small bits of merlot, cabernet franc, even syrah or zinfandel in them. I think that in this 2009 The Crusher cabernet, Greg Kitchens was going for a more restrained style, to showcase the Clarksburg AVA. The result is a cabernet with earth and herb notes framing black currants on the nose, what I termed "very nice, straightforward bouquet" in my notes. I enjoyed the initial mouthfeel with ripe black fruit but then things went a bit awry. The tannins haven't integrated yet and create a chunky, somewhat disjointed mouthfeel which carries over into an uninspiring finish. I prefer terroir-driven cabernets but with that comes the expectation of an elegant, integrated structure. I did however enjoy the earthy flavors that carried through, they kept the finish from being a complete disaster. Since this is an '09, I have a hunch that in the next few years it'll get a lot better and is just going through a "dumb" phase right now. At it's suggested retail, a definite PASS right now because you can buy a bottle of 2007 Franciscan cabernet for $17 that blows most sub-$20 cabernets out of the water. At $12 like I've seen the Crusher go for on wine-searcher.com, it's something to buy and hold because it's got potential. C+, at this point.
Don Sebastiani & Sons is making some good wines, that much is clear. They're leveraging contacts within the industry to source high quality grapes and using talented winemakers while keeping the prices low. I've been tasting through another series, their Project Paso lineup and hope to have that up for you next week. It'll come in at a lower suggested retail, $14, and so far has been fairly good. With two more wines to taste, I'm hoping they really knock the proverbial ball out of the park.
Another fun tasting hosted by Mike Wangbickler of Balzac, I love how they're reaching out to bloggers all over the country to spread the word about these wines. Coming up soon is a tasting of wines from Navarra, Spain, also hosted by Balzac. I can't wait for that one so stay tuned!
The wines listed here were media samples for review purposes.