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05.23.2007

1993 Williams Selyem "Rochioli Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma

93_williams_selyem.jpgIt's not every day that I get to tell the majority of the wine world that they're dead wrong, so forgive me if I savor this a little. There is a widespread belief in critical circles that California Pinot Noir does not age well. Like all blanket stereotypes there is some truth to this, especially among those wines that are made in the lush fruit-driven style that is popular these days. And furthermore it may be true that California Pinot Noir can't age as long as Burgundy can (though we're about a decade away from even being able to put that to the test). But forget generalities for a moment and lets talk about real world, real wines, real criticism.

Every single wine critic of note suggests that this wine, and any other California Pinot of this age, is past its drinking window.

To which I say, based on my experience with this and several other wines of similar age that I have popped open recently: horseshit. Now don't try this at home with your average $15 Pinot kids, but there are a number of better made Pinot Noirs from Sonoma County that are at 14 years of bottle age and going strong, with gorgeous fruit and....well, I am getting ahead of myself. The tasting note comes later.

We don't have a Cru classification in the US (we just have mailing lists and release prices) but if ever there were a candidate for a Grand Cru Pinot Noir in California, this wine would certainly be at the top of the list by anyone who knew much about the subject.

Williams Selyem winery was founded in 1981 by Burt Williams and Ed Selyem, two friends who started making wine together in their garage in Forestville, California in the late seventies just because they loved the stuff and wanted to drink more of the stuff and loved a challenge. A few years later, what started as a hobby became an avocation, and in a few more years, a cult phenomenon. Over the course of a decade or two Williams Selyem winery played a major role in establishing Sonoma County as a premier winegrowing region, and establishing California as a world-class Pinot Noir producing region.

Surprisingly, the two didn't start with Pinot Noir as a goal, they actually were more excited about Zinfandel (which William Selyem still makes) but it was ultimately Pinot Noir that captured the majority of their attention, and the attention of the wider world when their 1985 Rochioli vineyard Pinot Noir (the grandpappy of this little bottle, you might say) was the winner at the California State fair in 1987, and the winery was simultaneously awarded the designation Winery of the Year.

At that point Williams Selyem was still just two guys in a garage, marshalling an army of friends to meticulously hand pick, hand sort, and hand crush small lots of grapes from what were at the time, relatively young but clearly very high quality vineyards. One of the more established vineyards was Rochioli vineyard, which, depending on who you ask, may arguably be the single most famous Pinot Noir vineyard in California, and certainly remains one of the most respected (and expensive) sources of Pinot in the state.

At the time that Williams Selyem began getting fruit from them, the Rochioli family had already been growing grapes on their farm in the Russian River Valley for nearly 20 years, and were already beginning to make a name for themselves with their own estate wines. Williams Selyem primarily has access to grapes from a section of vineyard known as the River Block, a flat, wide expanse of ancient floodplain that sits on benchland above the Russian River a few minutes outside of Healdsburg.

By the early Nineties, William-Selyem had become one of Sonoma County's first cult wineries. People were waiting years to get on their mailing list, and the wines were selling out before they ever got the chance to hit retail stores. But about that time, Burt and Ed were ready for a break after nearly 20 years of winemaking, and sold the winery to its present owners, John and Kathe Dyson in 1998. While the ownership and winemaking team has changed, the demand for the wines has not.

Currently the winemaking is done by Bob Cabral, Lynn Krausmann and enologist Adam Goodrich, with little deviation from the strictly minimalist approach taken by the founders. Today, like in 1993 when this wine was made, no mechanical pumping is ever done to the wine, nor any filtration, and the wine is aged in a mix of French oak of which about 50% is new. Babied through the entire winemaking process process, apart from a forklift and a press, nearly everything is done by hand by this small group of individuals under Cabral's careful direction. Williams Selyem's success as a winery has afforded it the luxury of being able to make no compromises when it comes to winemaking, which includes the ability to be a bit more European about working with the wine -- the wine takes as long as it takes -- to ferment, to age, to sit in the bottle.

So let's get back to the bottle, shall we? Through a couple of new friends who were long time California Pinot collectors, I had the opportunity to get my hands on a couple of cases of aged Pinot Noir from several top producers, and among them were several bottles from the early Nineties, including this one. To my great fortune, they were all purchased on release directly from the winery and aged in a temperature controlled cellar, and so (with the exception of one unfortunate bottle the other day hat had a leaky cork) were in perfect condition.

I can't begin to tell you how lucky I feel to be able to drink this wine, and how gratified I am to know just how awesome these well-aged California Pinots can be. I'd be foolish to urge you to go out and find them, because you never know what's happened to them or where they've been in the last 15 years, but if you happen to have access to some, they are certainly a treasure.

And to all the other wine critics out there: you better add 10 years to your "drinkability window."

Tasting Notes:
Light to medium blood red in the glass, this wine has an alluring nose of red apple skin and smoked meat aromas. In the mouth it is unbelievably silky and sexy (think: Sophie Marceau in a camisole) with perfect poise and balance. Like a prism refracting a sunbeam into different colors, the red fruit core of the wine resolves into caramel, redcurrant, raspberry, cedar and other flavors that lift and soar through an incredible finish that is both weightless and penetrating, if you'll permit me to romantically juxtapose concepts. I do believe the term I used at the time to sum up the wine was simple: Rockin'.

Food Pairing:
Drinking this wine makes me forget about food. Though I was eating when I drank it with some good friends some time ago. We paired it with a roast guinea hen over faro salad that was divine.

Overall Score: 9.5/10

How Much?: On release it was probably a head-slapping $40.

These days you can buy one if you really want it, for $225.

Comments (23)

Richard Chan wrote:
05.24.07 at 12:07 AM

I had an 86 of the same wine with Fred Williams a few years ago and it was lively and kicking. Certainly good but lack the complexity of a great burgundy. Nevertheless, it is reassuring to see that CA pinot can age indeed.

Mike wrote:
05.24.07 at 6:15 AM

Alder,

What was the alcohol on this wine? What is your take on how this impacts aging of wines from this era versus today? I've had some 97's lately from flowers and kistler that are going strong.

Arthur wrote:
05.24.07 at 7:57 AM

Alder,

I can tell that the experience of drinking this Pinot was both enchanting AND REFERSHING. I am very familiar with the feeling - but then I have this weird notion that some significant bottle age is a requisite of wine.

Now and then I come across a few bottles of Central Coast Pinot (mostly Santa Maria Valley) from the mid 1990s that have the same character and complexity while some 2003's taste like dried leaves and molases. Those that have lasted, generally were released SEVERAL years after the vintage. That is part of a different approach to growing, harvesting and vinification. Sadly, from talking to those who make these wines, they seem to feel that they are the last few to do so. After all, aged Pinot is quite the antithesis to ripe, goby, 'hedonistic' juicy berry flavors.

St. Vini wrote:
05.24.07 at 10:30 AM

"think: Sophie Marceau in a camisole"

BEST.....TASTING NOTE.....EVER!!!!!

Dr. Vino wrote:
05.24.07 at 1:17 PM

Wait, you tell people not to generalize about the (lack of) aging potential of US pinot noir and then you write up only one bottle to the contrary while making sweeping generalizations? Seems quite inconsistent. What were the other pinots in your cases?

I had the 95 Williams Selyem Allen Vyd last fall and it was definitely past its prime.

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
05.24.07 at 1:42 PM

As an Oregon producer I am a bit nervous to post on a blog about California Pinot Noir. One of the things one must consider is that not everyone has the same idea as to what 'prime' or 'past its prime' is. What maybe 'Rockin' for Alder might be 'tired' to someone else or vise versa. I also think one needs to consider the nature of the 1993 vintage. The longevity of this wine might reflect the season more than the producer. Hats off to Alder for not only finding this wine but putting out a blog that sings the praises of mature Pinot Noir ( most, even from CA, are drank much to early ). Nice shot across the bow of the rest of the wine writing community.

Alder wrote:
05.24.07 at 2:09 PM

Tyler,

Thanks for the comments. Actually, I don't tell people NOT to generalize about California Pinot, I AGREE with their generalization, but then I go on to say that critics (and the public at large) specifically (not generally) do not see aging potential in the right terms. That is specific to this wine, which I decided to review, but also for others. You are right to ask "what others," however -- I am referring to wines from Rochioli, Williams Selyem, Robert Mueller, and Littorai, in the Russian River Valley, and my experience also shows that Navarro's Methode la Ancienne from Anderson Valley should be put in this camp as well.

If you look at the drink dates for vintages 1991 - 1997 from all critics (Tanzer, Burghound, Parker, Spectator, etc.) most show the early nineties wines as past their prime and the mid-nineties wines about to get there.

I disagree.

Alder wrote:
05.24.07 at 2:13 PM

Jerry,

Thanks for the comments. You're correct that one person's "rockin" may be another's over the hill. It's probably worth mentioning that I have a pretty low tolerance for oxidative and heavily aged characteristics in wine. The 1960's Bordeaux that everyone raves about generally gets pretty low marks from me -- not enough fruit left to make it resemble what I enjoy tasting in wines. My point here is most certainly to say that these older CA Pinots (from vintages other than 93 as well) are definitely appealing to perhaps less esoteric palates.

Alder wrote:
05.24.07 at 3:10 PM

Mike, label says 13% alcohol. I don't know enough about alcohol levels and aging to be able to comment. From what I've read there is not definitive evidence about how alcohol affects ageability.

I've just popped open a couple of 97s recently myself that are really phenomenal.

David C wrote:
05.24.07 at 4:48 PM

This reminds me of an '82 Jensen Vineyard Pinot from Calera that I was lucky enough to try a couple of years ago - 1994, I believe. (It had never left the cellar, so storage conditions were immaculate.) The wine was incredibly vibrant, showing very little brick color or any other obvious signs of age. That wine was 22 years old then, and still had a good ten years left, imho. Apart from the storage conditions, vineyard site and winemaking are huge components of ageability. Calera happens to be sitting on some of the only exposed limestone in CA - not an accident that the same is true for the Cote de Nuits.

Great find, Alder! Here's to great old Pinot Noir... I'd love to find out about other Pinot sites and producers that have similar capacities.

David C wrote:
05.24.07 at 5:12 PM

Umm...try 2004 as the tasting date for my last comment. I got caught in the time warp!

Erwin Dink wrote:
05.25.07 at 7:42 AM

Coincidently, I just tasted a 1996 Barrel Select Pinot Noir from Cottonwood Canyon in Santa Maria. It was fantastic and not even close to being past prime. Sometimes its the ones that don't abide by the rules that show us something new.

Jack wrote:
05.25.07 at 10:20 AM

This wine was really on it.

Retro wrote:
05.27.07 at 10:14 PM

Sorry Alder, what were you saying? I could never get past Sophie Marceau in anything...or nothing.

norm wrote:
05.30.07 at 12:52 AM

Right there with you Retro. Alder, please confirm this wine equates to Sophie with her hair down. That bun she sometimes wears is like the leaky cork - you knew the beauty is there, it just was not highlighted and fell short.

Alder wrote:
05.30.07 at 10:56 PM

Heh heh. Definitely hair down.

Jess Knubis wrote:
06.04.07 at 10:10 AM

The whole idea of a wine's abiltity to age has so much to do with balance. In the "old days" wine had to age as it was the only way known to soften tannins and balance flavors. In today's soda pop culture we have wines engineered by food science to appeal to certain consumers' taste perceptions and to be a 'wow' the day it is released.
I search for wines made by winemakers who can find the balance. I'd rather have a wine that takes a few hours to "open up" in the decanter and will age for years than have an over-the top fruit bomb that doesn't last through dinner.
With Pinot Noir makers now getting 14-15% alchohol the problem is even worse. A maker I like a lot is Michael Michaud who's been creating beautiful balanced wines in the Chalone Appellation (Monterey County) for decades. Limited production, great terroir, fair price.

Alder wrote:
06.04.07 at 5:35 PM

Jess,

I align with what you are saying, and agree that I vastly prefer wines that require time to evolve rather than those that fall flat after an hour.

But....

I was just speaking with an accomplished winemaker friend of mine who had the perspective of tasting a set of Joseph Swan Pinots from 1974 to the present at a remarkable tasting. The very interesting thing he shared was that there was one wine from the mid seventies that was by far the best wine of the tasting. Beating all recent vintages, and all the vintages of the 1970s and 1980s.

It happened to be the wine where the grapes had been neglected during the winery building process. The grapes accidentally got the serious hangtime that is de-riguer today. They came in at over 15.5% alcohol (I can't remember the final number on the wine). And yet this wine aged the best.

We can't deduce from this that higher alcohol wines simply age better. There are a lot more variables at play. But this is certainly a datapoint that undermines what a lot of people like to throw around as "conventional wisdom" that the high alcohol CA wines won't/don't age well.

john fischer wrote:
09.04.07 at 2:40 PM

I have been enjoying Pinot Noir for years, in both personal and professional settings. In fact, Clos Vougeot was the first wine in which I smelled anything more than 'wine,' and that smell was violets.

That said, my favorite (and this is somewhat emotionally-based) California Pinot Noir is from Tulocay Winery in Napa...and it happens to age incredibly well. If you love Burgundy, and want to get something like it from the U.S., try some Hayne's Vineyard Pinot from Bill Cadman at Tulocay.

01.24.08 at 6:12 PM

I believe if you want a good aging Pinot Noir, it needs to be medium to a bit heavier; if it's an $18-$22 bottle of wine. Or it defineatley needs to be a reserve.

I had a 2005 Chateau St.Jean Pinot Noir ($19). It was more bold than most I've tasted and believe this would age at least 4-5 years very well. Very, very good.

I also had a 2001 Reserve Pinor Noir from Eryie Vineyeards from Oregon's Willamette Valley,---($26 @ Costco, and $50+ if you're lucky enough to find it anywhere esle.). I must say this was the best pinot noir I've ever had....period. It was so good, It was on my mind everyday for 2.5 months until I could locate more bottles.

It's light, yet very fruity and smoothe. The alcohol is 13% which is perfect for this wine.

Alder wrote:
01.24.08 at 9:29 PM

Chris,

Thanks for the comments and recommendations. In my experience the "heaviness" of a Pinot Noir doesn't have a lot to do with how it ages, except perhaps in the inverse -- some of the heavier Pinots I own do not seem to age particularly well compared to their lighter bodied cousins. The biggest factor in ageworthiness for me seems to be the acidity of the wine, and the fuller bodied wines often do not have the acidity I look for that would suggest ageworthiness.

Matt wrote:
01.22.09 at 6:53 PM

I just opened a 99 Tulocay Nord Family Vineyard Pinot and right out of the bottle it tasted like it could have lasted another ten years. I was worried about the cork, as it had a bit of a leak, but it smells great. It's been decanting for a while now and tastes straight out of burgundy. I'm a native Oregonian, but this stuff if good!

04.21.14 at 7:28 AM

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