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Notoriety Snowballed

“The year we saw it take off was 1987 when we released our 1985.
That was when I knew we were doing something right.”

Burt Williams

Burt was not the first to vinify and bottle Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley, but he was to achieve the most early notoriety. The first plantings of Pinot Noir, or something very close to Pinot Noir were reportedly farmed by the Fountaingrove Winery north of Santa Rosa in the 1930s. The modern era of Pinot Noir viticulture in the Russian River Valley began when the Bacigalupi family planted Pinot Noir on Westside Road in 1964. Rochioli Vineyard followed in 1968 and Joseph Swan’s Trenton Estate Vineyard in 1969. By 1973, Davis Bynum had released the first vineyard-designated wine from the Russian River Valley, a Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir. Tom Dehlinger released his first Russian River Valley Pinot Noir in 1977.

Awards for Burt’s Pinot Noirs began to accumulate beginning with the 1982 vintage. Burt and Ed believed they needed to gain exposure by entering various regional and state wine competitions. The 1982 Sonoma County Pinot Noir won a Gold Medal at both the Orange County and San Francisco Fairs and earned First Place in the American Wine Pinot Noir Championships. The 1983 Sonoma County Pinot Noir won a Gold Medal at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. The 1984 Sonoma County Pinot Noir won a Double Gold Medal and Best California Pinot Noir at the California State Fair and Gold Medals at both the San Francisco and Los Angeles Fairs. The 1985 Sonoma County Pinot Noir was selected and served at the White House to President Reagan and Prime Minister Mulroney along with guests and also was served to President Bush and the President of the Republic of Costa Rica.

In 1986 Burt was invited and attended the Wine Spectator New York Wine Experience as part of a “Top New Winemakers of the Year” seminar. Burt remembers that George Bursick, Tony Soter, Randy Dunn and Randall Grahm were also honored winemakers.

The notoriety of Williams Selyem Pinot Noir really began to snowball in 1987. The 1985 Williams Selyem Rochioli Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, the first vineyard-designated Pinot Noir produced at Williams Selyem, won a Double Gold Medal and the Sweepstakes award at the California State Fair Competition, becoming the most seminal wine in the history of California Pinot Noir. The wine was voted the best of 2,316 wines entered by 416 wineries. Priced at $16 a bottle, a total of 295 cases were produced. Williams Selyem was also given the distinction of "Winery of the Year.”

When Burt reminisces, he nearly tears-up, saying, “Here was this little winery in a garage competing against over 400 wineries in the wine competition, many of which were quite large.”

An article appeared in the June 27, 1987, business section of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat announcing the top prize won by Williams Selyem and is copied here below. Note the incorrect name of the winery in the article. The early winery mailers written by Ed and sent to consumers referred to the name of the winery as Williams & Selyem Winery later shortened to Williams Selyem, but the two names were never hyphenated.

After the Sweepstakes award, Williams Selyem was showered by accolades from the press and many people, including winemakers and winery owners, flocked to obtain the small production wines. Burt would say, “It put us on the map.” Wine writer Dan Berger said, “Best Pinot Noir in America and a rival to the best in the world.” Respected wine writer Matt Kramer declared, “Williams Selyem is the best Pinot Noir in California. A Pinot Noir of delicacy, finesse and profound flavor.” Anthony Dias Blue, a leading international wine authority chimed in, “Williams Selyem Pinot Noir shines above the rest.” The Wine Spectator’s California wine editor, James Laube, said, “Winemaker Williams has a tremendously intuitive sense of how Pinot Noir should be vinified and how it should taste.”

In 1987, Becky Wasserman visited the winery along with her spouse Russell Hone and Burgundy vigneron Michele LaFarge, and the trio tasted through the 1985 and 1986 Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noirs. The importance of this connection cannot be overemphasized. Becky Wasserman & Co. was founded in 1979 by Becky Wasserman-Hone, an American expatriate who began living in Burgundy in 1968. She was a highly-respected exporter of wines from small domains and shippers in Burgundy and other regions. After the tasting, she wanted 50 cases of the 1985 and 1986 Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noirs to export to Burgundy. Burt could only give her 1 case of the 1985 vintage (most of it was pre-sold or spoken for) and 25 cases of the 1986 vintage. Reminiscing, Burt recalls, “Unbelievable - wow! We had to pinch ourselves. The wine was actually placed on restaurant lists in Burgundy. That’s kind of neat.”

Burt soon decided to place his wines in the best restaurants and resorts on the Monterey Peninsula, knowing that affluent people visited that area from all over the United States. This was extremely beneficial insight for diners were soon calling Williams Selyem from all over the United States, asking for wine. Americans had never tasted Pinot Noir like Williams Selyem and they pleaded for their allotment.

Burt and Ed believed in building their winery through personal connections. They often delivered their wines to restaurants and retailers because they enjoyed meeting the staffs. Paul Root, who owned a retail wine store, Root’s Cellar, located in Healdsburg (now closed), told me of this story. Each spring Burt and/or Ed would arrive at his store’s back door with a truckload of wine. They would off-load it all into the storeroom and leave an invoice on the desk with a hand-written note that said, “Pay us when it’s sold.”

The winery had quickly and unexpectedly achieved cult status, and because of the deluge of people trying to obtain the Williams Selyem wines, Ed came up with the idea of a mailing list to fairly allocate the wines. He knew that the best chance for the winery’s financial security was to sell most of the wine directly to consumers at retail prices. The mailing list also turned out to establish a very personal connection between Burt and Ed and their customers as mailing list members received a mailer with each new release period containing colorful, folksy commentary by Ed as well as tasting notes from both Burt and Ed. Soon, 85% of production was sold to consumers through the mailing list. with 15% held back for the owner-partners and retail and restaurant distribution. I was fortunate to be a member of the mailing list beginning in 1989.

It wasn’t long before the mailing list was full and a waiting list created to handle the overflow. There was simply not enough wine to meet the demand. Tog give you an idea of how hard it was to obtain the wines George Levkoff tells the story of the first time he visited the winery on Westside Road, Margi met him and told him he couldn't buy any wine but she could sell him some swag like a Williams Selyem tee shirt! By 1998, the mailing list and waiting list contained at least 35,000 names! Several staff members were necessary just to manage the lists. Even though Burt and Ed initially only hoped for modest earnings to fund their retirement, Williams Selyem rather quickly received widespread renown and adoration and welcomed the profitability that went along with that popularity.

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