Spring09

[Alumni News]

Richard Cuneo

The business of fine wines

Richard Cuneo Photo Courtesy of Richard Cuneo

IT WAS BIRDS THAT introduced Humboldt State alum Richard Cuneo to wine and his wife.

“The Sebastiani and Cuneo families had known each other for a while,” Cuneo remembers. “One day my mother and I went to visit the Sebastianis. I was involved in ornithology and collecting and keeping birds, so I wanted to see if Mr. Sebastiani had any birds to trade. And that’s how I actually met my wife and became part of the winery.”

Cuneo married Mary Ann Sebastiani, daughter of August and Sylvia Sebastiani, and in 1974 began working for the family winery located in Sonoma, Calif. The 1962 Business Administration graduate and 2008 Distinguished Alumni Award winner lent his business acumen to the winery—he is not a viticulturist—initially as controller and treasurer. More recently, he served as Sebastiani Winery’s Chairman of the Board after stints as both its vice president and president.

“I had a little bit of winery knowledge and quite a bit of business knowledge,” Cuneo says of his early days with the company. “It’s good to have winery knowledge, but if you’re in business, it’s very good to have business knowledge.”

Cuneo’s skill in business yielded results. When he joined the company, the Sebastiani label represented an estimable wine at an affordable price, but was not considered to be in the same league with premier California wineries. Cuneo, his wife and the winery’s staff worked to improve the quality of its product, and in 2001 sold about 90 percent of its labels and production facilities to Constellation Brands, the largest wine company in the world. Cuneo’s strategic decision led to a production cut from 8 million to 300,000 cases annually, allowing Sebastiani to produce higher quality wines that are garnering increased recognition from connoisseurs.

“Our wines have been getting great ratings in the last three or so years,” Cuneo says. “I feel that the Sebastiani name is now increasingly recognized as a superior product. We try to provide a quality wine at a reasonable price. That’s very important because if you’re going to ask $100 for a bottle of wine it better be very, very good. We try to ask $20 or $25 for a bottle and we’ve been getting ratings in publications like the Wine Spectator naming
our Cabernet Sauvignon a best buy, so that’s very satisfying.”

Recently, the remaining elements of Sebastiani Winery were purchased by the California-based Foley Wine Group, marking an end to more than 100 years of family ownership. Before selling the company, Cuneo guided several major projects including an upgrade and reconfiguration of fermentation cellars to the tune of $8.5 million, allowing the winery to coax more complex, piquant flavors from its grapes.

Finally—a requisite inquiry for any winery veteran—which varietal does Cuneo personally prefer?

“The wine I like is kind of a hard sell and it’s called Zinfandel. It’s not a really fancy wine like Cabernet or Pinot Noir. It’s very fruity and berry-like, not too acidic, and it makes a good wine.”