Great wineries not only make great wines, they do so consistently. This year-in-year-out maintenance of quality can prove quite difficult, especially for wineries that practice winemaking in a so-called “non-interventionalist” manner, allowing the vintage to show through the fruit, and allowing the fruit to control the winemaking process. The fact that the world’s best wineries manage to make good, even great wines in difficult vintages makes them truly worthy of reverence, and is a testament to the skills of the farmer and the winemaker.
There are only a handful of wineries in California that, in my opinion, can produce consistently great Pinot Noir, year after year, decade after decade, but there’s no question that Williams Selyem ranks near the top of that brief list. Their name on a label of Pinot Noir is as close as I know to a guarantee of quality.
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.
The Williams Selyem style of Pinot Noir is marked, in particular, by a lightness of color, especially compared with most other California Pinots. This paleness, along with the often crystalline quality of the fruit makes for an easy comparison to top Burgundies.
2006 Williams Selyem “Flax Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a delicate, almost sweet nose of pure raspberry fruit, like someone vaporized the ripest raspberries you could imagine. In the mouth the same sort of ethereal quality pervades the wine. Crystalline raspberry and redcurrant flavors, held aloft by incredibly balanced acidity and hints of light tannins linger into an indescribable finish that gets spicy the longer it persists. My handwritten notes feature the phrase “Hot Shit!” underlined and circled twice. This is the sort of wine you take out the second mortgage on your house to buy as much of as you possibly can. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $54. Where to buy?
2006 Williams Selyem “Rochioli Vineyard – River Block,” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Light ruby in the glass, this wine has a beautiful earthy nose of wet mud and raspberry fruit tinged with scents of violets and orange peel. In the mouth it is beautifully textured, silky slippery smooth, in a way that sneaks around the corners of the mouth where it peeks out and splashes the palate with raspberry fruit and globs of mud, leaving me with the distinct impression that I know what this patch of ground tastes like. Sustained through a gorgeous lengthy finish, the fruit rings like a struck bell. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $75. Where to buy?
2006 Williams Selyem “Allen Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of clean, pure raspberry with a hint of briary green leaves and a notes of brown sugar. In the mouth, it is slippery and smooth with beautiful flavors of raspberry, forest floor, and this fantastic sawdust note that reminds me of the scent of recently hewn redwood planks. The finish persists with great length and pleasure. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $74. Where to buy?
2006 Williams Selyem “Hirsch Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
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. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $72. Where to buy?
2007 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir, Central Coast
Light garnet in the glass, this wine has a bright, crystalline nose of cranberry and Bing cherry aromas that are immediately arresting. In the mouth it is super sexy in its silken texture, and juicy with an aromatic sweetness that offers flavors of bright cranberry mixed with a bit of cedar. These flavors vibrate and swirl in a sort of electric crackling Tesla coil of fruit and then taper slowly, languorously through a very long finish. Most definitely the best version of this particular bottling I have ever had. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $34. Where to buy?
2007 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Light garnet in the glass, this wine has a delicious nose of cranberry and raspberry aromas with just a slight hint of green wood. In the mouth, it is smooth and satin textured with a nice core of cranberry, raspberry and cherry cola flavors. Great acidity makes for an overall juicy impression, and a nice finish seals the deal. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $46. Where to buy?
2007 Williams Selyem “Westside Road Neighbors” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of forest floor, raspberry, and orange peel aromas with some suggestions of exotic woods the more I smell it. In the mouth it is bright, with an elegant mouthfeel and a delightful shifting mix of flavors that range through raspberry, tart cherry and redcurrant. These slide, water-like, as a layer over a foundation of dark loam and that hint of green wood again that sneaks in through the very nice finish. A mix of six vineyards that surround the Williams Selyem property: Rochioli, Allen, Flax, Bucher, Litton, and Bacigalupi. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $67. Where to buy?
Costs listed above are the release prices of these wines. In addition to the above wines, Williams Selyem produces single vineyard bottlings from the following sites: Peay Vineyard, Weir Vineyard, Bucher Vineyard, Ferrington Vineyard, Coastlands Vineyard, Precious Mountain Vineyard, Litton Vineyard, and Vista Verde Vineyard.