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A Fond Farewell for an Old Pinot Noir

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 17, 2007 12:56pm ET

I figured that I’d never taste the 1991 Williams Selyem Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir again. It was a magical wine the two times I’d had it before, in the 1990s—a taste sensation that was an early introduction of what the Sonoma Coast could offer. But Burt Williams made only one barrel of the wine (about 24 cases) and I know it vanished quickly, as all of Williams Selyem wines did in those days.

When I wrote about my experiences tasting Pinot Noir over the years in our Pinot Noir issue, one lament was that I’d never see how the ’91 Summa had evolved. Then, a few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from someone who had a bottle stashed away in his cellar and he offered to share it with me. His name: John Dyson, who purchased Williams Selyem in 1998.

When Dyson bought the ’91 Summa, in 1994, he did so on the advice of his wife—she absolutely loved Williams Selyem’s wines and had talked Williams into putting her on the mailing list. Dyson stashed the bottle in his cellar in New York, and then forgot about it. Until he read my column, which sent him searching through his cellar to find it.

We agreed to taste the ’91 Summa over dinner, with Dyson’s winemaker, Bob Cabral, and part of Wine Spectator’s editorial team: senior editor and Burgundy expert Bruce Sanderson, and my colleagues MaryAnn Bovio and Tim Fish.

Dyson upped the ante, bringing three more old Williams Selyem wines (a 1990 Summa and a pair of 1991s, from Rochioli and Allen vineyards), as well as a pair of 1990 red Burgundies, a Comte de Vogüé Chambolle-Musigny les Amoureuses and a Louis Jadot Chambertin-Clos de Bèze.

It was exciting seeing the lineup as we settled in at Redd, a restaurant in Yountville. For all we knew, this was the last bottle of the 1991 Summa and we were all hoping it was a good one.

It tasted magnificent. It was still dark-hued, very rich and concentrated, with a youthful mix of plush, black cherry-laced Pinot Noir flavors accented by a wonderful exotic spiciness. Over the next three hours it held together better than any of the other wines on the table, showing no signs of fatigue.

Not far behind was the ’91 Rochioli, hearty and complex, with a youthful mix of black cherry and wild berry fruit. The ’91 Allen Vineyard, which is right next to Rochioli Vineyard and farmed by the Rochioli family, was true to itself, supple, delicate, elegant and lighter in color. The 1990 Summa, while tasty, didn’t have the stuffing of the 1991. It was lighter and simpler, though still quite good.

Of the Burgundies, the Musigny was tannic and intense, with a strong minerally pebble character. At the end of the night we all agreed it was the most tired of the wines and perhaps not a good bottle. The Clos de Beze, though, continued to improve and offered classic Burgundian earthiness, commingling with plummy, dried black cherry fruit.

It was a great night for Pinot. The older Williams Selyem wines more than held their own with the great Burgundian vineyards, and it was a fine send-off for what may have been the last bottle of ’91 Summa.

Paul Manchester
Santa Cruz, CA —  January 18, 2007 12:49pm ET
Wow, those are the kind of tastings that I dream about. I'm a little jealous to be honest with you. One thing that I'm noticing more and more of is certain Pinot's can age remarkably well, including a few that I've had from a local winery in the Santa Cruz/Aptos area called Salamandre. In '93 & '95 Wells (the winemaker) made outstanding Pinot's from the Mattison Vineyard that taste great every time that I go back to them. James, what exactly makes these Pinot's wine remain fresh and structured for so long. I used to think that you had to have a big-structured Cab or Merlot (as in Bordeaux, etc...) to have an age-worthy wine. So is it the tannins, acidity, alcohol level, or what?? for a wine to age well?? Thanks for all of your great work!! PM
Bob Barry
Ridgefield, NJ —  January 18, 2007 7:55pm ET
It's good to be James Laube!
Paul Manchester
Santa Cruz, CA —  January 19, 2007 3:03pm ET
James, not to be a pest, I know that you're super busy. But do you have any thoughts to my question on Pinots that age well as I stated at the end of my blog above?? Thanks.
Dan Murphy
Tampa, FL —  January 11, 2008 3:10pm ET
Wow, I'd be able to die and proceed promptly to heaven after that one. The greatest California Pinot that has ever graced my lips is the 1997 Olivet Lane from WS, introduced to me courtesy of the Wine Spectator, I might add.

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