Williams Selyem retrospective dinner with Burt and friends

Since the mid 80s, I have been blessed to discover, purchase, cellar and drink many bottles of Williams Selyem wines made by my friend, Burt Williams prior to selling the winery in early 1998. The wines have survived the test of time and remain as viable and wonderful ever since release.

Often, Ive been encouraged to create an event to celebrate the treasures these wines have and one such experience just occurred and in this case, we were graced with Burts presence as well.

A group of us enjoyed a fine dinner in the elegant inside dining room of the Stonehouse restaurant at the world class resort, the San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito.

Each person brought wines to share, all but one of which was one of Burt`s from 1997 and older. The added bonus was that he reviewed each wine, vineyard source and uniqueness along with vintage details. It was as always for me, a fabulous learning and educational experience.

In all the years I`ve known Burt, he has always been so willing to share, whether it be with lay people or wine professionals. This includes any and all of the above as well in depth winemaking techniques and inside stories of the people involved in all facets from the vineyard to the bottle and beyond. Some of those pearls are included herein.

After the initial nice sparkling wine, we proceeded to pour up vintage starting with 2 Pinot Noirs from 1995, 3 from 1996 and 1 from 1997 with a 1991 Zinfandel closing out the dinner.

2002 ROEDERER ESTATE l`ERMITAGE BRUT- in magnum, this Anderson Valley sparkler had so much going for it; bright acidity, full and rich flavors, pleasant mouthfeel and complexity to nourish and prepare the palate for more to come albeit in the still wine version.

1995 WILLIAMS SELYEM RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY PINOT NOIR- Burt calls this the Italian Pinot Noir since the fruit came from 5 different vineyards, all owned by 5 Italian descendants; the base wine comprising about 25% of the total came from the East Block of Rochioli Vineyard; it was bottled 11 months after fermentation; it had medium red to dark viable color and a fruit profile of red and black raspberry with black cherry and a touch of smokiness coming in late; it had a light to medium body and was silky soft on the palate; it stayed the course and held on for a quite pleasing finish; elegant, sophisticated and wondrous wine in perfect balance.

1995 WILLIAMS SELYEM RIVERBLOCK VINEYARD PINOT NOIR- this is the 2nd bottling from this 6 year old vineyard block since it was individually designated in 1994; it was never labeled as being from Rochioli until after the sale in 1998; compared to the RRV, this was a bit lighter in color as well as body and weight; it had wonderful fruitiness consisting of spicy, cinnamon infused cranberry and red cherry aromatics which continued on and were joined by fresh strawberry flavors; it finished a little on the dry side, but up until then, it gave lots to pleasure.

1996 WILLIAMS SELYEM SONOMA COUNTY PINOT NOIR- Burt commented this was their entry level wine priced in the $30-35 range and made from rejected fruit for vineyard designated wines from 5-7 different vineyards each year; for an entry level wine, it sure did have some pleasing qualities; the nose suggested a big bowl of fresh dark fruit, but the taste profile was more of wild somewhat tart red cherry/ berry; it changed so much in the glass with time and got better and better.

1996 WILLIAMS SELYEM ALLEN VINEYARD PINOT NOIR- I`ve always had a good experience with Allen fruit from Burt whether it be his Chardonnay or Pinot Noir; this held the course and provided wonderful aromatics and tastes of vibrant red and black cherry and plum with a touch of sandalwood and talc in the background; it had layers of complexity and depth and just kept on unfolding and revealing; it was charming and elegant, and so soft and easy on the palate; as an add on, Burt commented Allen used the same clone as Rochioli which is located across the road.

1996 WILLIAMS SELYEM FERRINGTON VINEYARD PINOT NOIR- in magnum; Burts gift for us on this evening extended to this marvelous bottle; Ive stated many times that one of the brilliant decisions he made was to bottle and retain a large quantity of wines in magnums; the longevity of these Pinots and even the Chardonnays has been lengthened by this larger bottle format evidence in this beauty; the Ferrington vineyard was planted in Anderson Valley in 1989 using 2 clones and the first vintage where fruit was used to make wine was 1992; this bottle needed time to open up; with increasing expressions, it evolved into a serious Pinot with a darker fruit profile of black cherry, blackberry after first coming in with strawberry and red raspberry and cherry sprinkled with baking spices; full body, complex and long.

1997 WILLIAMS SELYEM ROCHIOLI VINEYARD PINOT NOIR- historically this is one of the all time best wines Burt made IMHO; I`ve had many and some in magnum and all still have not reached maturity at age 18+; the fruit for this came from the West Block planted in 1969 on top soil 8 feet deep with gravel on top; this bottle had an unusual lingering nose of flint, graphite and lead pencil that sat on top of the concentrated dark fruit; the wine was full on power with a hint of finesse; complex, good mouthfeel and a long finish sealed the deal.

1991 WILLIAMS WELYEM ZINFANDEL- I`ve had many a bottle of this wine and it has consistently impressed although this particular one was enjoyable, it was a deviation from the normal profile; the fruit came from the Leno Martinelli vineyard which was planted in 1905 and not mentioned on the label since it was the next to last vintage Burt was able to access from this vineyard; the nose had more Port and Sherry like character; I learned early on to not swirl the glass so much in order to get more of the nuances in a less intense way which enhanced the experience immensely; the taste was more of dried, concentrated black currant with some raisin and black mission fig notes; the alcohol content on the label showed 15.6%; Burt stated the wine was extremely high in acid with a low pH and low sugars, typical from this vineyard.

To have iconic wines made by an icon in the world of Pinot Noir was truly a special treat. All in attendance raved over the amazing consistency throughout vintages and vineyard designates as well as the longevity of Pinot Noirs 20-25 years old and still going.

Burt commented “All my wines were made the same”. For me, they are the standard bearer for new world Pinot Noir and I`m thankful for evenings like this one that memorialize the exceptional quality and long lasting treasures they give and I receive .


Great notes Blake. And yes, California Pinot Noir is capable of aging … beautifully.

Thanks for notes Blake. I’m getting weepy thinking back on those Allen wines back from the day.

I also get a sense of Burt from your notes. Wine is good, but there’s nothing like a great friend!

Oh, man, I have some cellar rummaging to do.

Thank you for that great note!

Great notes Blake! As an aside, do you feel that the Bob Cabral era pinots will have the same longevity as the Burt era wines? I probably will never find out since I drink mine before they can age past 6 years of vintage date!

Well said, Blake. I’ve only had a few Pinots from his era, but they remain benchmarks for me.

Its a good question Bob. I did the same in that I continued to buy all WS wines after the sale and have drank most up to and including 09. I liked most across the board. The 99 Allen was not good and may have been a bottle variation, but learned there were some challenges with that one. Then I had the 00 and it was not so good either. I still think the vineyard sources and the acidity levels are such to support longevity andI I`ll look forward to finding out in another 5+ years with the few I have saved. One thing for sure, I do believe the winemaking techniques make a huge difference with all other things being n a similar place.

Good pick up Matthew. You are right on.

Thanks Jim. I salivate just re-reading the notes as well as the emails I received from those who were present and shared their joy over our evening. The wines simply hit all the right spots for me and do so on a consistent basis; I can`t ask for more.