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Vineyard Deals: Williams Selyem Buys Sonoma History, While Sea Smoke Buys a Neighbor

Sonoma Pinot producer acquires old-vine Zinfandel property Saitone Vineyard; Sea Smoke purchases Rita's Crown

Aaron Romano
Posted: August 10, 2016

Two leading California wineries announced vineyard purchases yesterday. In Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, Williams Selyem has bought the 33-acre Saitone Vineyard, acquiring their first Zinfandel parcel while also preserving a piece of Sonoma history. And in Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills, Sea Smoke purchased the 61-acre Rita’s Crown Vineyard, adding a valuable property to their portfolio. Sale prices were not disclosed.

Saitone Vineyard is home to some of Sonoma County's oldest vines. The property was first planted by Italian immigrants in 1895 and includes 12 acres of 121-year-old Zinfandel vines. The remaining acres contain a diverse array of traditional field-blend varieties, including Alicante Bouschet, Criolla Mediana and Grand Noir.

"We saw the history of the Russian River Valley settlers disappearing under the bulldozer," said Williams Selyem proprietor John Dyson, noting that the next generation of the Saitone family had no interest in taking over the family business. "Now, not only do we have a first-rate old-vine Zinfandel vineyard that we farm ourselves, but an opportunity to take care of a piece of history."

Better known for its single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, Williams Selyem has produced Zinfandel since its inception in 1970, when Burt Williams and Ed Selyem started making wine in a garage. Dyson noted that Williams Selyem once made six different Zinfandels from various leased vineyards, but saw them replanted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The Saitone Vineyard will become one of five estate vineyards in the winery’s portfolio. It has been a source for notable Zinfandel producers such as Carlisle, Bedrock and DeLoach, which will continue to buy grapes.

Williams Selyem plans to produce its first single-vineyard bottling from Saitone this year, and Dyson said the winery is looking to potentially add more Zinfandel vineyards, specifically old-vine parcels. "It’s a too important part of the history of Sonoma to not preserve these vineyards," he said.

Like a good neighbor

Sea Smoke only needed to look next door to find its purchase. Rita’s Crown Vineyard overlooks the Santa Ynez River Valley, and sits adjacent to Sea Smoke’s estate vineyards in Sta. Rita Hills. Situated between 600 to 1,000 feet above sea level, the vineyard is noted for its 61 acres of high-density plantings of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on a south-facing exposure, which offers both optimal afternoon sun and wind influence from the Pacific Ocean, yielding distinctive and concentrated wines.

Founded by Bob Davids in 1998, Sea Smoke has made wines exclusively from fruit grown on the Sea Smoke Estate Vineyard. Rita’s Crown has been a top vineyard source for wineries such as Sandhi, Walt and Ken Brown.

Given its proximity to Sea Smoke, as well as its similar qualities of southern exposures and clay soils, it would seem a perfect addition to the portfolio, yet Sea Smoke's management does not plan to use the vineyard for Sea Smoke wines, at least not yet.

"The purchase of Rita’s Crown will allow us to nurture and improve a spectacular neighboring vineyard with a great deal of potential," said Victor Gallegos, Sea Smoke’s vice president, director of winemaking and general manager. Gallegos added that just farming a coveted vineyard and selling the fruit is a good business opportunity.

Sea Smoke acquired the vineyard from Santa Colina Vineyard. The current vineyard management company, Atlas Vineyard Management, will continue farming it and will honor existing contracts.

Sea Smoke intends to farm the vineyard organically and biodynamically, as they have begun doing with their own vineyards. "Transitioning Rita’s Crown to organic will protect the organic and biodynamic certifications on our estate vineyard," said Gallegos, noting the difficulty in maintaining certifications if a neighboring vineyard does not farm organically. "Also, longer term, prime vineyard land in Sta. Rita Hills is only going up in price."

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