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11.23.2008

2006 Williams Selyem "Hirsch Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast

06_selyem_hirsch_pinot.jpgWe don't have a Cru classification in California (we just have mailing lists and release prices) but there are a few vineyards in the state that would most certainly be at the top of the list. Their names are well known to those wine lovers who can afford the generally expensive wines they produce, and one of them is unquestionably the Hirsch Vineyard.

First planted in 1980 by farmer David Hirsch, the Hirsch Vineyard is located on the mountain ridges above the northern California town of Fort Ross at 1500 feet above the ocean surface and 3.5 miles as the crow flies from its crashing waves. One of the pioneers of a region known as the Extreme Sonoma Coast, this 72 acre vineyard is planted mostly with Pinot Noir which thrives above the fog line in the unique and powerful mix of sunlight and cool ocean breezes. Within several years of its planting, the vineyard was recognized as one of the top sources of Pinot Noir in the country.

Williams Selyem winery is one of the main advocates and customers of the Hirsch Vineyard, and the Pinot Noir they make from this vineyard every year is almost always one of the finest in California.

Williams Selyem 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, wanted to drink more wine together, 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 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 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, marshaling 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. They quickly found themselves with the demand, and the capital, to invest in a proper winery.

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 oenologist Adam Goodrich, with little deviation from the strictly minimalist approach taken by the founders. Even today, 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.

This particular wine was aged in 67% new oak and 37% 1-year-old oak barrels for about 16 months before being bottled unfiltered.

Tasting Notes:
Light garnet in color, this wine has an elegant nose of raspberries, cherries, and crushed herb aromas. In the mouth it is equally as elegant, even distinguished, with gorgeously textured flavors of raspberry, red apple skin, hints of citrus oil, and a woody undertone that provides a base note to the brighter flavors. Perfectly balanced, this is a beautiful rendition of Pinot Noir that gives ample time to reflect as much in its long finish.

Food Pairing:
This would beautifully accompany a nice charcoal roasted quail.

Overall Score: around 9.5

How Much?: $72 to mailing list customers, though it goes for $95 and higher in retail stores.

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.

Comments (5)

ali smith wrote:
11.24.08 at 10:06 AM

Ahh - I'm still kicking myself for opening a bottle of their 1997 with 3 others at the Slow Club in San Francisco in 2003. It was absolutely amazing, rich, smooth, elegant - all the "big-words". Ha. I talk about the William-Selyem Hirsch vineyard often. Truly Magical...

Mike Petonic wrote:
11.24.08 at 10:57 AM

Thanks for the writeup. My fiance and I are both on the WS list, and twice a year, really look forward to hitting River Road and picking up our allotments. We aren't really cheating, because we weren't even engaged when we both signed up for the lists (but we're glad to both be on the list).

Another interesting red is what David Hirsch is producing himself from his own vineyards. Someday, we'll have a dinner party where we compare similar vintages from the two producers and see if they have anything in common with each other than having grapes roughly from the same area.

Dylan wrote:
11.25.08 at 6:38 PM

I really enjoyed Burt and Ed's coming-of-wine story. Anytime I hear about an idea that was pulled from the ground up, it just motivates me to push myself further. With hard work and passion for what you're doing, it's possible.

Dan Murphy wrote:
12.28.08 at 9:50 PM

Actually, that would be "bass" note.

Alder wrote:
12.28.08 at 10:43 PM

Dan,

Actually I did mean what I wrote, though your word works as well -- I'm a fan of music metaphors. By using the word "base" as opposed to bass, I am referring to flavors and aromas using the vocabulary of perfume which refers to the complex scents of a perfume being built off of a "base" aroma of one kind or another.

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