Burt Williams, whose iconic Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs from Sonoma inspired a cult following of consumers and winemakers alike and helped spark California's Pinot renaissance, died yesterday from complications of Parkinson's disease. He was 79.
Williams and business partner Ed Selyem started making commercial wine in 1981, working out of a garage in Fulton, Calif., a one-stoplight town on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. Within the decade, they established Williams Selyem as one of California’s original cult wineries and showed a skeptical wine world that California indeed had great terroir for Pinot Noir. Their wines routinely earned outstanding scores.
"Burt had a vision, and it launched Russian River to stardom," said winemaker Tom Rochioli, whose father, Joe, was among the first growers to work with Williams. Joe Rochioli called his old friend, "A classic, an icon."
Bob Cabral, now the winemaker of Three Sticks, took over from Williams soon after Williams Selyem was sold in 1998, and he put it this way: "Burt changed the landscape of how all Pinot Noir growers and winemakers approached their craft."
Burt Williams was born in San Francisco in 1940, but his family moved north to Sonoma County after his father died. He graduated from Sebastopol High School and was soon hired as a printer, arranging lines of metal type to print the San Francisco Chronicle.
A reserved man but not small, Williams could be both gruff and charming. "He was quiet and shy but very witty," recalled winemaker Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton.
Williams was already fascinated by wine in his early twenties and made wine at home in the 1960s. By the late 1970s, he joined forces to make wine with his Forestville neighbor Selyem. At the time, Selyem was an accountant and wine buyer for a local grocery. Their first wine was Zinfandel, a passion for the duo, and they named their brand Hacienda del Rio, after the bridge they both lived near on Russian River. They soon changed the name to Williams Selyem to appease another winery named Hacienda.
Williams was a self-taught winemaker but a voracious reader of winemaking books. With little cash to spare in the early days, he and Selyem relied on old stainless steel dairy tanks for fermentors. French oak barrels were scarce at the time—especially those from the François Frères cooperage, which became Williams’ favorite once their budget grew.
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It was a 1982 Pinot Noir from Rochioli Vineyards that first drew attention to the winery. Pinot Noir was a minor player in California at the time. A handful of pioneers like Hanzell, Calera, Davis Bynum were making good examples, and future stars such as Kistler, Dehlinger, Sanford were coming on the scene as well. But the grape was considered finicky and difficult. Williams Selyem brought new consumers to the grape and helped spark a growing interest.
Early on Williams focused on the "Middle Reach," a specific slice of Russian River Valley along West Side Road that includes Allen and Rochioli vineyards. "He had a very strong sense of the personality of a vineyard," winemaker Tom Dehlinger recalled. "He had a lot of respect for the growers and could see their point of view. It was a true partnership."
Williams and Selyem for many years retained their day jobs to support the winery and their families. Selyem courted sommeliers and key wine buyers and built a devoted mailing list.
By the late 1990s, as several prominent California wineries were sold, rumors that Williams Selyem was on the market spread. Former San Francisco 49er quarterback Joe Montana was said to be interested. In the end, the partners—who owned no vineyards and leased a winemaking facility—sold the brand and operation to New York businessman John Dyson for $9.5 million.
Williams remained briefly at the winery but moved on, buying a 40-acre property off a remote logging road in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley in 1998. He planted 12.5 acres of Pinot Noir and named it Morning Dew Ranch, selling the grapes to several wineries before he sold the property in 2015.
While Selyem retired to homes in Hawaii and Alaska, Williams remained in California and kept a finger in the wine business, attending occasional tastings and events. In April 2016, Williams was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and at first remained active, even visiting Burgundy later that year, but eventually the central nervous system disorder took its toll.
"There was something about his touch that is unrivaled, something about his intimacy with Pinot Noir," Brewer said. "He had a commitment to a place. He was a product of Russian River. He was Sonoma."
Williams is survived by his wife, Rebecca, two daughters, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.