Williams Selyem's Burt Williams Starts Over

Acclaimed Pinot Noir winemaker settled in Anderson Valley and now makes wine under the Morning Dew Ranch label
Sep 20, 2011

People used to ask Burt Williams why he and Ed Selyem didn’t own a vineyard.

“I was busy making wine and Ed was busy selling it,” said Williams of their days at Williams Selyem Winery. “We didn’t have any spare time. What do you want us to do, four or five jobs?” He laughed, knowing the two home-winemakers already had their hands full.

Williams, 70, who sold Williams Selyem in 1998 after making it one of California’s most respected producers of Pinot Noir, owns a vineyard now. He took his share of the $9.5 million sale price and in 1999 bought 40 acres in Anderson Valley, where he planted 12.5 to Pinot Noir. Williams and Selyem drifted apart after the sale—he hasn’t heard from Selyem in years.

Morning Dew Ranch is in a remote forested site on an old logging road off Highway 128, near Philo. This is where he and his wife, Jan, who died earlier this year, built a convenient two-story home and winery, their home away from their primary residence, in Forestville, in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. Upstairs is the living space; downstairs the tiny winery. The vineyard is a few steps from their front door.

“I thought I’d go through the pain since I’d never owned a vineyard,” Williams explained, and sure enough he has that knowledge now. “We’ve had touchy years, when I didn't make any money at all,” said Williams. “It’s not a money maker. Maybe when the market turns around.”

Until recently, Williams has been a grower, selling all his grapes. But the sluggish economy has slowed payments from wineries and the money trickles in. In 2008, a summer of wildfires was particularly hard on Mendocino vineyards, giving smoke taint to the grapes and, in turn, many of the vintage's wines. Frosts, including one this year, have made their presence known, even though his property is supposed to be above the frost line and out of danger.

Williams made his first Morning Dew Ranch Pinot in 2008 (197 cases made) and it shows that taint, as if it were aged in a heavily toasted barrel. He plans on selling the wine later this year and thinks the smokiness will cut two ways with consumers. Some won’t mind it, he said. It’s part of the vintage. He figures bottle time and aeration will minimize its effect. He also knows some will find the taint a flaw.

The 2009 (228 cases made) is purer and cleaner. Fans of Williams’ Williams Selyem Pinots will find some familiarity. It’s a modestly proportioned wine, supple, fleshy and balanced, with a spicy, floral edge to the ripe berry flavors.

Williams will take a similar approach to selling his wines as he did at Williams Selyem, using a mailing list, using the old P.O. Box 487 in Forestville, 95436.

He and Selyem realized early on that selling direct was the only way to go. Selling through the normal distribution channels only cut into their profits, and at the time that wasn’t an expense they could afford. By the time they sold the winery they had a long waiting list of eager buyers. They set up a business model that many small wineries have copied and benefited from.

“We had to monopolize the flow of money,” he said, “and to do that we had to have our own customers.” The first release, the 2008, is this year. He’s not sure what to expect, but he’s happy to be back in the wine business, this time on all three sides: production, sales and farming.

United States California Red Wines Pinot Noir

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