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The Legendary Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs
By Ed McCarthy
Nov 10, 2009
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Burt Williams was a newspaper printer in San Francisco.  His friend, Ed Selyem, was an accountant/ wine buyer in Forestville, a small town in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley.  What both friends had in common, besides living in Russian River Valley, was a passion for Pinot Noir.  They became weekend winemakers in 1979, using a local garage as their first winery.  They made their first commercial Pinot Noir in 1981, under the name of Hacienda del Rio, which they changed to Williams & Selyem in 1983.  Four years later, Williams & Selyem’s 1985 Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir won the top prize at the 1987 California State Fair! 

How indeed did Williams & Selyem become so good so fast?  Burt Williams, the winemaker, will tell you that it was finding the right vineyards, and making wines that he himself liked to drink.  But Ed Selyem, who handled the commercial part of the winery operation, will also tell you that Williams had a flair for making Pinot Noir.  Whatever the reasons, Williams Selyem (they dropped the ampersand in their name, and later, the hyphen), attained cult status for their Pinot Noirs, and were instrumental in establishing Russian River Valley as arguably the prime region for California Pinot Noir--although lately, the Sonoma Coast is giving the RRV strong competition.

I first met Burt Williams in the early 1990s.  It had been my second visit to their winery on Westside Road, a rather unimpressive building located near the town of Healdsburg.  On my first visit, I met the affable Ed Selyem, who couldn’t do enough to make me feel at home.  But Burt Williams, dressed in his characteristic farmer’s overalls, was a different story.  He looked serious, and in fact was a little grumpy, as he asked me what I wanted.  When I said to Burt that I’d like to taste through a range of his Pinot Noirs, he looked at me as if I were crazy.  It was if I had just asked him to lend me a few thousand dollars.  His attitude seemed to be, “Who the hell is he to taste all of my small-production Pinot Noirs?”  At that time, Williams Selyem made only about 4,000 12-bottle cases of wine annually, and there was a two-year wait to get on their mailing list (just about all of their wines were sold directly to consumers, other than the small quantities that went to a few top restaurants in California and New York).

I definitely had to prove my mettle.  Williams poured me a couple of his basic Pinot Noirs, and I guess he liked my comments, because he went on to pour me everything he made--including his excellent Chardonnays and Zinfandels, a small sideline of the winery’s production. 

About two years later, Burt Williams honored me by showing up in Napa Valley for a book signing of my first book, Wine For Dummies (co-authored with Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW).

In 1998, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem sold their winery to a long-time fan of Williams Selyem, John Dyson, who also owns Millbrook Winery in New York’s Hudson Valley.  Dyson hired veteran winemaker Bob Cabral to take over winemaking duties, on Burt Williams’ recommendation.  Bob had been making Pinot Noirs in Russian River Valley and was familiar with Williams Selyem wines.  After a somewhat challenging transition, Cabral settled into the job, and has not only kept up the quality of the wines, but has also increased its limited production to about 12,000 cases. 

There is still a 9 to 12-month waiting list to purchase Williams Selyem wines, but now at least you can find some of these highly sought-after Pinot Noirs in high-end retail shops and some restaurants--especially the five regional Pinot Noirs.  To buy any of the 12 single-vineyard Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs, their four fine, flavorful Chardonnays or four amazing, old-vine Zinfandels, you really have to get on the winery’s mailing list.

Wiliams Selyem’s five relatively larger-production Pinot Noirs are its Central Coast, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, and Westside Road Neighbors.  The first four range in price from $34 to $46 (winery’s price); Westside Road Neighbors, a blend of top Russian River Valley vineyard sites, costs $67.  All of Williams Selyem’s 12 single-vineyard Pinot Noirs are limited-production; they range in price at the winery from $54 to $100.  Actually four of them are very reasonably priced at $54, with only one costing $100.  Five are from Russian River Valley vineyards, four are from Sonoma Coast, two from Mendocino County, and one from San Benito County on the Central Coast.

The winery has one price for its four small-production Chardonnays, $50, and, having tasted them, I consider all of them a great value.  Likewise for Williams Selyem’s four red Zinfandels; all cost $48.  Although I’m not a Zinfandel fanatic, I think that all of Williams Selyem’s intensely flavored Zins are really special.  All Williams Selyem Chardonnays and Zinfandels are single-vineyard wines from Russian River Valley.

Williams Selyem’s Pinot Noirs have some characteristics in common.  They are so well-balanced that the alcohol, usually around 14%, is well-integrated, as is any new oak which has been used in making the wines.  They exhibit a general freshness of character, with tart red fruits usually predominating in flavor.

I spoke to Bob Cabral at the winery in the spring, and he was really excited about 2007, the current vintage.  Bob is a man who does not deal in hyperbole; he glowingly told me that 2007 was the best vintage that he has ever worked.  As a result of Bob’s enthusiasm for the wines and my own tasting at the winery, I set up a tasting of twelve 2007 Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs this fall, the five blended Pinots and seven of the twelve single-vineyard Pinot Noirs.  Of the five single-vineyard Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs I did not taste, the two most renowned were the Allen Vineyard ($78) and Litton Estate Vineyard ($100).

I tasted the 12 Williams Selyem 2007 Pinot Noirs blind on two separate occasions during the same week, and as my reviews will indicate, the wines lead me to concur with Bob Cabral’s opinion of the vintage.  The 2007 vintage is outstanding, particularly for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and certainly for Williams Selyem’s wines.  It is probably even better than the excellent 2005 vintage, and at the least on a par with the exceptional 1991.  A vintage to buy.

The second obvious conclusion is that the tastings confirmed the general excellence of Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs, and made me understand more deeply why the wines are so sought after by lovers of Pinot Noir.