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Wine family's broken dream
Financial pressures and sibling rivalries bring down Sam and Vicki Sebastiani's vision for Viansa Winery

Sam Sebastiani had long hoped that Viansa, the winery he and his now ex-wife Vicki built on a wind-swept hilltop south of Sonoma, would one day pass into the hands of their children.

A third-generation vintner, Sebastiani learned his craft at the side of his father, August, one of American's best-known winemakers, and he wanted the fourth generation of Sebastianis to carry that tradition forward at Viansa.

Yet, in ways that echo the breakup of the Mondavi family wine empire a year ago, the saga of how Sam and Vicki Sebastiani lost their beloved Viansa dramatizes the difficulties winemaking families face in passing their traditions and fortunes to the next generation.

In the spring of 2004, it appeared the time had come for Sam and Vicki's children to take Viansa into the future.

The couple announced they had turned ownership of the Tuscan-style winery over to their seven children, three of whom would work at the winery full time. The transfer was heralded in a press release as "the beginning of a brand new century of Sebastiani winemaking, as the family's next generation takes the reins of Viansa."

A little more than a year later, that century had ended.

Financial pressures, the failure of Sam and Vicki's marriage and sibling rivalries all eroded the foundation upon which Viansa was built.

The legacy Sam Sebastiani intended to leave to his children is now in the hands of a Napa Valley-based penny stock company headed by an investment banker from Connecticut and backed by an offshore hedge fund.

Two of his children have been fired from the winery. A third, his adopted stepson, struck a deal behind the family's back to run the winery for the new owners.

Sam Sebastiani now wonders what the future holds for the place he struggled to build not just as a business, but as a place his family could call home.

"You just don't want to see what you built burn down, or slough down the hill," Sam Sebastiani said.

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