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Great Wine Only Comes from Great Grapes

“I knew where the good vineyards were and fortunately, in the 1970s and 1980s,
there were plenty of good grapes since few were making Pinot Noir.”

Burt Williams

One of the keys to the success of Williams Selyem Pinot Noir was that Burt had been in the Russian River Valley from an early age and knew where the best vineyards were. In the 1980s, few were producing Pinot Noir so he was able to take his pick of fruit from the finest sites. He wanted, even demanded the best fruit and was willing to pay top dollar to get it. He always paid by the ton, never by the acre and all contracts were on a handshake basis (except Olivet Lane Vineyard which was a simple one-page signed contract).

As noted previously, Burt sourced Pinot Noir from Joe Rochioli’s West Block beginning in 1980. The widespread accolades for the 1985 Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir and Burt’s influence on Joe's son, Tom, led the Rochiolis to begin making their own Pinot Noir from the Rochioli vineyard.

In 1987, Joe Rochioli introduced Burt to Howard Allen who owned a 32-acre vineyard dating to1972 that was located directly across Westside Road from Rochioli’s Vineyard and was farmed by Joe. Allen Vineyard became a single-vineyard bottling in the Williams Selyem lineup that same year.

Howard Allen became well-acquainted with Burt as they walked Allen’s vineyard together many times. Howard would say, “It's the working together with the winemaker that creates great wine.”

Allen Vineyard also was the source of the first Williams Selyem Chardonnay in 1992. Burt crafted 150 to 200 cases of Chardonnay annually from Allen Vineyard. The wines were barrel fermented, aged 11 months in 50% new and 50% used French oak barrels with once-weekly lees stirring.

A long-term relationship was established with Bob Pelligrini who owned Olivet Lane Vineyard on West Olivet Road. Williams Selyem released the first Olivet Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir in 1987. Cohn Vineyard (1987), Hirsch Vineyard (1994), Coastlands Vineyard (1994) and Previous Mountain Vineyard (1996), all located in the far western reaches of the Sonoma Coast, and Ferrington Vineyard (1993) in the Anderson Valley also joined the winery’s portfolio.

Rochioli Riverblock Vineyard, planted in 1987, was added to the Williams Selyem lineup as a vineyard-designated Pinot Noir in 1994. The Rochioli Riverblock was groomed to replace West Block fruit (the West Block was pulled out after the 1997 vintage due to phylloxera and virus infestation) and the grapes were used initially in 1988 in the Russian River Valley blend. Later, the grapes became the “Riverblock” vineyard designate, and finally the Rochioli Riverblock vineyard-designated Pinot Noir.

Some grape sources came and went. Iron Horse Vineyard provided Pinot Noir in 1981 and 1982, Dutton’s Arrendell Vineyard was a source from 1982 to 1986 and both the Cohn Vineyard and Buena Tierra Vineyard were grape sources briefly. Some vineyards, such as Thieriot Vineyard (now B.A. Thieriot) located in the far reaches of West Sonoma County, were never deemed suitable.

Across the street from Thieriot Vineyard was Summa Vineyard where Burt first sourced Pinot Noir grapes in 1988 for the first Williams Selyem Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. Although the vineyard was buffeted by wind and consumed by fog, and often suffered poor fruit set and very low yields, Burt had tasted wines made from this site and was enamored by the potential. The exact clones that were first planted at Summa Vineyard around 1980 have been open to conjecture but Burt believed these old vines were a Swan selection.

Burt bottled five vintages from this Summa Vineyard: 1988, 1991, 1993 (a combination of Summa Vineyard and Coastlands Vineyard was also produced in this vintage), 1995 and 1997. Joan and Scott Zeller, who owned the vineyard, demanded $1,000 per ton for their old vine grapes, an exceptionally lofty amount at the time. Burt took over farming of the vineyard but yields were challenging or simply not enough to make a commercial wine in some vintages. In 1991, only one ton of Pinot Noir was harvested from 2 acres producing two barrels. Yields were minuscule in 1989 and 1990 and no usable grapes were harvested. Because of the yearly farming costs, Burt charged $100 for the 1991 Summa Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, the first California Pinot Noir to sell for triple digits. Burt figured if people wouldn’t buy it, he and Ed would drink it. Williams said about the price, “C-note or c-none.” The 10 cases offered were snapped up in a day and the rest Burt and Ed kept for themselves.

The 1995 vintage of Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir was priced at $125. Burt was infatuated with the 1995 Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir. The 1997 W&S fall mailer described the wine in glowing terms. “You need a dictionary for adjectives. I’ve tasted practically all of the best producers’ Grand Cru red Burgundies for vintages well over a decade including 85s and 90s. I’m sorry, without prejudice, there has been nothing close to this wine.”

Although the vineyard-designated Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs were most desirable, the appellation wines, made from declassified lots of the vineyard designates, were also superb and aged surprisingly well. The Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast appellation Pinot Noirs made under Burt's guidance were released first in 1988. The Russian River Valley Pinot Noir was offered again from 1990 through 1995 and the Sonoma Coast blend was offered from 1988 through 1990 and 1993 through 1995. A Sonoma County blend was made from 1981 through 1984 and again in 1994, 1996 and in 1997.

Williams Selyem never owned any vineyards although, in 1987, Ed Selyem told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, “Our goal is to purchase some agriculturally-zoned land in the lower Russian River Valley so that we can continue to produce this quality of Sonoma County wine on our own property.” This goal was never realized for several reasons. Both Burt and Ed were still working their regular jobs initially along with Burt making wine and Ed selling it. An estate vineyard would have meant another job. In addition, the partners felt they had access to the best vineyards that were already farmed by excellent growers. They were able to work with mature vines and the access to older fruit meant that their wines would potentially be rise above the competition in quality.

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