Visiting Williams Selyem Winery in Sonoma County

Williams Selyem Winery has been making wine in Sonoma County since 1981. It was that year that they produced their first vintage of Pinot Noir. Since then their portfolio has been expanded a bit and there are a handful of other varietals in the mix; however they are first and foremost a Pinot Noir House. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit them and taste through some current and older releases, as well as tour the facility. Williams Selyem graciously welcomes visitors by advance appointment. Check their website for specific details. Pulling up to the winery, the facility is impressive in a number of ways. On the one hand it’s a beautiful structure that would look good anywhere. Secondly and somewhat more importantly it fits perfectly into its surroundings. When they built this new winery property a few years back they surely kept the idea of being shepherds of the land in mind. From every angle I walked the facility, inside and out, it literally seemed as if it had been gently dropped into the vineyard land so as not to disturb anything. And in fact numerous trees of significant age are about as close to the building as one could possibly imagine. It’s also an eye-catching edifice inside and out without ever being ostentatious in any way.

William-Selyem is best known for Pinot Noir and their portfolio is dotted with single vineyard designate wines and cuvee offerings. In addition to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and a port produced from traditional Portuguese varietals are part of the mix. One of the interesting production methods that sets them apart is the use of Dairy Bins for fermentation. These large, rectangular bins offer a larger surface area than traditional fermentation vessels. They’re so ingrained in the production process that William-Selyem has a company routinely looking out for additional bins for them to acquire. Once they are purchased, the bins are retrofitted to comply with their needs. While a small amount of wines go out in distribution, 96% of their production is sold direct to consumers. They have had a robust mailing list of admirer’s for years that’s the envy of many others in the industry. Allocations are largely based on time on the list and buying history.

Quite a number of well made and delicious wines passed my lips while I visited; here are my impressions of a handful of selections that particularly stood out that day.

Williams Selyem 2011 Unoaked Chardonnay. The fruit for this entirely stainless steel fermented wine was sourced at three vineyards; Drake Estate Vineyard, Olivet Lane Vineyard, and Lazy W Ranch located on Westside   Road. This was a preview of a wine being released this spring. It’s going to have a price of $37. Orchard fruit aromas fill the fresh and vibrant nose of this wine. Tart green apple flavors are prominent on the palate along with bits of lime and pear. Minerals and an undercurrent of spice emerge on the finish which is clean and crisp. If I were to sum up this wine in one word it would be lovely. Those who aren’t fond of overdone, over-oaked Chardonnay should do whatever they can to acquire their own stash of this wine. It’s beautiful, refreshing and simply a pleasure to drink.

Williams Selyem 2010 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. The fruit for this cuvee style offering was sourcec at a combination of five vineyards; Bucher Vineyard,  Drake Estate Vineyard, the Foss Vineyard, the Lone Oak Vineyard, and Williams Selyem Estate Vineyard. Oak aging took place over 11 months in a combination of new (25%), once used (50%), and twice used (25%) barrels. This wine which was released last spring sells for $37. Both red and black fruit aromas fill the nose of this Pinot Noir. This theme continues through the palate where black cherry characteristics take a starring role. Raspberry, earth, black tea and a gentle wisp of anise all emerge on the finish which has excellent length. Fine acidity provides a firm backbone. This is a really terrific Pinot Noir in the under $40 category.

Williams Selyem 2005 Vista Verde Pinot Noir. This wine was made entirely from fruit sourced at the Vista Verde Vineyard. The location of this vineyard is just south of Holister, near where Calera, another highly regarded California Pinot Noir house is located. Barrel aging took place over 15 months in a combination of new (65%) and once used (35%) oak. At release this wine sold for $49. From the first whiff to the last sip this wine showed itself to be in its sweet spot. At just over seven years old it’s showing subtle cherry aromas on the nose. The palate leads with gingerbread spice notes that are accompanied by red fruits. Earth, sour cherry and a bit of tea are present in the finish which has terrific length. This is a stunning wine at its peak.

Williams Selyem 1998 Central Coast Pinot Noir. This wine was produced from Estate Vineyards located south of Hollister. Their Central Coast release typically spends 10 months in a combination of new (33%), once used (33%) and twice used (33%) oak. The current release sells for $39. At first blush this wine was a bit closed off and honestly I thought it might be gone. However a few minutes in the glass did wonders. Ultimately I was knocked out by how very much alive this 15 year old Pinot Noir is. Good lively fruit marked the nose and palate, with zippy acidity and a core of spices playing along as well. Impressive for its age and well worth drinking if you can get your hands on a bottle. This underscores the importance of balance and its role in the age-ability of wines.

If you’re a Pinot Noir lover traveling to Sonoma County Williams Selyem should be on your short list of producers to visit. This is a relatively small outfit, doing things in a unique manner with consistently noteworthy results. And if for some strange reason Pinot Noir isn’t your thing, the Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Port are quite tasty as well.