Burt Williams was setting type and composing pages for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1979 when he and Ed Selyem, a neighbor in rural Sonoma County who earned his living as an accountant, took a stab at homemade Zinfandel in Selyem's garage. The wine they turned out was good enough to inspire them to start Hacienda del Rio, their own commercial winery, in a two-car garage not far from Joe Rochioli's vineyard in Russian River Valley. In 1982, they made their first Pinot Noir, using Rochioli's grapes. California Pinot Noir has never been the same.
By then, Pinot Noir was no longer a rarity in California. David Bruce had planted a vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, not far from where Martin Ray had some earlier success. Richard Graff had resuscitated Chalone, an abandoned pre-Prohibition vineyard at 1,700 feet in Monterey County. In 1974, Josh Jensen had planted his Calera Vineyard at 2,200 feet on Mount Harlan, a few miles away. In the Carneros District at the southern end of Napa and Sonoma counties, Acacia, Saintsbury and Carneros Creek were making waves. And in Santa Barbara County, Richard Sanford was turning heads, with Au Bon Climat to follow.
But Williams and Selyem believed in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma, which by 1990 had established itself as the place in California for Pinot Noir. No other region seemed able to produce such dynamic, dark, rich fruit character while maintaining the suppleness and essence of a fine Pinot Noir. Rochioli's wines were prominent examples, as were those of Dehlinger, Gary Farrell and Joseph Swan, but the most compelling evidence came from Williams Selyem.
Early on, Williams Selyem bottled the wines of individual vineyards separately. The winery wasn't the first in California to vineyard-designate Pinot Noir (Acacia has that distinction), but Burt Williams made stars of the Rochioli, Allen, Olivet Lane and Riverblock vineyards by fashioning their fruit into compelling and diverse wines, answering critics who thought terroir did not apply in California.
"Pinot Noir seems to have a greater means of expression of place than any other grape variety," asserts Williams, 63, the winemaking half of the partnership. Sitting at the kitchen table in his cabin near Forestville, Calif., fragrant pine and bay laurel trees filling the steep hillside outside the windows, he muses, "Rochioli is right across the road from Allen Vineyard, but they're completely different wines, even though they're the same clones managed by the same man. Pinot Noir seems to do this more than any other wine."
In the late 1980s, the partners took an interest in the developing Sonoma Coast region, specifically the very cool mountains separating Russian River Valley from the cold, foggy ocean. "The grapes ripened about a month later than Russian River Valley's," Williams notes. "We figured we could extend our range because our [Russian River Valley] wines would be finished fermenting before we had to think about Sonoma Coast."
They bought grapes from several growers, including Hirsch and Summa, which made bigger, darker, denser wines than the Russian River Valley did. Williams calls them "the big boys." He priced them accordingly; Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Summa Vineyard 1991 was the first $100 Pinot Noir in California.
"It's something special," he says, his voice rising to a passionate note for the first time in this conversation. "I wouldn't take a backseat to Napa Valley Cabernet. I love Pinot Noir and think it's the best wine."
In 1998, Williams and Selyem sold their winery to John Dyson, a wealthy New York industrialist. "It was time," says Williams, noting that Selyem's chronic back problems made it difficult for him to work, "and it was getting to be too much for me."
As part of the sale, Williams signed a non-compete agreement that expires this year. He has planted 12.5 acres of Pinot Noir on a 40-acre property in Mendocino County. "We'll see," he says. "I'm still young. There should be a crop this year. Maybe I'll make some wine."
Williams already has an inkling of what to expect, having made wine from Farrington Vineyard, over on the next ridge. In the end, as always, it's all about terroir.