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The "New" Williams Selyem
By Gerald D. Boyd
Mar 22, 2011
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If you were making wine for years in a collection of funky old buildings, it wouldn’t be out-of-line to think you’ve been given a “new” beginning, after moving into a multi-million dollar winery shaped like a wine barrel.  Such a regenerative move was made by Williams Selyem winemaker Bob Cabral and his staff in July 2010 when most of the staff moved down Westside Road a short distance from the original winery that was started by Ed Selyem and Burt Williams.

Of course, a new $15 million winery doesn’t ensure that the wines will be better, no more than a new suit makes a new man.  But it helps.  When I visited with Cabral at the new Sonoma County winery earlier this year, he conveyed a sense of pride and satisfaction in the new place as we poked into nearly every corner and behind every barrel in the winery.  Mostly, he had a big smile on his face and at times I thought he might start rubbing his hands together as he pointed out the additional space and equipment.  The new winery is part of an on-going effort to upgrade Williams Selyem by John Dyson, owner of Millbrook Vineyards & Winery in New York state and Villa Pillo in Tsucany, who purchased the Sonoma Co. winery in 1998.

Let’s be clear, Williams Selyem Russian River Valley wines are only available at the winery, through a mailing list, and at a few select restaurants in California and other major cities.  So why write about wines you can’t buy at your local store?  Read on and, hopefully, it will all become clear.

California boasts a number of good sites for growing Pinot Noir, like Santa Barbara, Carneros and Anderson Valley, but the consensus vote is Russian River Valley, a prime viticulture region that follows the meandering Russian River through Sonoma County, nearly to the Pacific Ocean.  Cabral, who joined Williams Selyem in 1998 after a stint at DeLoach Vineyards, says that in the early 1980s, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem, neighbors in the Russian River Valley who both enjoyed home winemaking, decided to convert their avocation into a vocation and started looking for land to grow Pinot Noir. 

“There were not a lot of people growing Pinot Noir then and Burt and Ed were looking for cool sites for growing grapes in the early 1980s that would give them flavors that replicate Burgundy.  It was Joe Rochioli who showed Burt and Ed the site on Westside Road.”  Over the years, long-term contracts were signed with growers in the Russian River Valley, elsewhere in Sonoma County and in neighboring Mendocino.  When Dyson bought Williams Selyem, he decided to gain even greater control over the source of grapes, adding Drake Estate Vineyard, a former orchard in Guerneville and Williams Selyem Estate Vineyard along Westside Road.  A discovery about apples and Pinot Noir was the deal clincher when Dyson discovered through consultation with the Pomology department of Cornell University that Rome apples, like Pinot Noir, ripened late in the season. 

Today, Williams Selyem produces 15,000 cases of wine, with Cabral hand-crafting an impressive four appellation Pinot Noirs, 14 single vineyard Pinots, plus three Chardonnays and five Zinfandels.  “I’d do more if they’d let me,” says Cabral with a straight face.  “I’m fortunate to have truly unique vineyard sites to work with.”  Still, he is finicky about the grapes he uses. “I buy grapes from a new grower for three years before putting the vineyard name on a label.  It has killed some deals.” 

Is it confusing for the customer to have so many choices for Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs?  “Yes, it is confusing for new customers,” admits Cabral.  But he believes that people who seek out Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs know and appreciate the differences. 

When asked what other regions in California are good for growing Pinot Noir, Cabral was a little hesitant, but eventually decided that “As a whole, the Russian River Valley has the most potential and uniqueness.”  He emphasizes that the differences from one single vineyard Pinot to another is not in the farming.  And what sets Williams Selyem wines apart from other Russian River Valley wines?  “It’s hard to describe but I’d say a style and flavor that is unique to Williams Selyem wines.  I’ve often felt that the difference is we use only one barrel type and one yeast strain and our wines seem to have a texture and age ability  I don’t see in other wines.”  Cabral uses only Francois Frere barrels.

In recent years, a lot has changed with California Pinot Noir, in the vineyard and also the winery, but Cabral believes it took a near disaster in the vineyard to set things on the right road.  “Vineyards have gotten better and I think that the phylloxera scare we had a few years back allowed us to reassess what we were doing in the vineyard with Pinot Noir.”  He also cites new clonal material and denser planting as important changes in the vineyard.  “The key number for Pinot Noir today is three tons per acre,” claims Cabral. 

In the mid-1990s, while Cabral was at Hartford Court, he began to notice that alcohol levels in wine were going up, but he believed that it was his mission to maintain moderate alcohols by selective picking in the vineyards.  “I don’t like high-alcohol wines and I think the public is getting bored with them, but lower alcohol wines are also not to my taste.”  Williams Selyem wines are mostly finished with alcohols of 14% and under, the opposite position taken by many California winemakers today, even for Pinot Noir. 

Since his first days at Williams Selyem in 1988 Cabral has held to that philosophy but now with the new winery, winemaking is more complicated since crushing and fermenting are still done at the old winery, then the wine is pressed into barrels and shipped down the road to the new winery for aging and bottling.  Williams Selyem showcase winery is hidden from the road, up a gated-entry road, poised on the top of a knoll surrounded by vineyards and partly powered by photovoltaic panels mounted on the roof of an adjacent parking port.  Shaped like a huge wine barrel, the extent of the winery is deceptive with the working part mostly set back into the hill. 

A high glass wall forms the front facade, with stacked barrels behind the glass panels.  Inside, a somewhat sterile but spacious reception hall with tasting bar is devoid of any brand promotion, or shelves and tables of wine-related accessories.  The most striking features are the vaulted ceiling with exposed staves like the inside of a barrel and the twin panels on both sides of the access door leading into the winery.  Two large back-lit panels holding bottles of Williams Selyem wines are framed by tiers of clear glass bottles purchased in Italy by owners John and Kathe Dyson.  The flat bottles, designed to hold olive oil, are fitted with stainless steel crown caps and positioned to give the impression of sparkling crystal. The effect is striking and draws the eye immediately on entering the reception hall.

For now, all of this artful design is for the enjoyment and pleasure of the folks on Williams Selyem mailing list, which currently has a 6 to 12 month wait for new members to join the list.  “The natural evolution is that the winery will open to the public, but not in the next few years,” admits Cabral.  Nonetheless, Williams-Selyem has long maintained a reputation for high-quality winemaking, especially among collectors of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.  Now with the transition complete on Westside Road, the future looks very bright indeed.