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Nobody's Fool

James Laube
Posted: February 3, 2000

Nobody's Fool
By James Laube, senior editor

The assumption: John Dyson bought a lot of blue sky by paying $9.5 million for Sonoma's Williams Selyem Winery in January. That's partly true. Despite all their fantastic Pinot Noirs the past few years, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem didn't own any vineyards--not a single vine. All their grapes were purchased; all their grape contracts were handshakes with growers--nothing in writing. They didn't own much of a winery--four walls, a ceiling, a couple of fermenters, a few racks of barrels. Theirs was about as spartan an operation as one can have to make wine. So they took Dyson to the cleaners for $9.5 million, right?

Not so fast. Dyson's no fool. He's already in the wine business, with diversified interests in California, Tuscany and New York, where he lives. So he knows full well what he's getting into. He also appreciates the value of the Williams Selyem name and reputation. Most wineries never achieve the kind of universal acclaim and loyal following that Williams Selyem has built in the past 17 years, not to mention the lofty prices they get for their wines. He's acquired two vintages, 1996 and 1997--the former is at least good to very good, if small in total production; the latter could well be a watershed year for Russian River Pinot Noir, as early signs are the '97s are dark, rich and complex, not to mention plentiful.

Dyson has also signed winemaker Williams to a contract for another two to three years, and he could stay longer if he's happy with the new arrangement. If Williams, who's 56, decides he wants to keep on making wine without the hassles and distractions of running a business, then he could well hang on for another decade. Now that his retirement is financially secure, he may find winemaking even more pleasurable. The reality is that no one makes wine forever, so even if he decides to quit, Dyson has at least a couple of years to pick Williams' successor.

The lack of vineyard ownership presents a challenge. But for now, Dyson has reached agreements to buy grapes from some of the same growers Williams Selyem did, foremost among them Rochioli Vineyard and Allen Vineyard, both in Russian River Valley.

Moreover, Dyson himself is a grower who owns 580 acres of vines in California's Central Coast, so seeking out new vineyards, or even buying and planting his own, may be part of the plan. He does intend to increase production, which should be a blessing for consumers. But he'll likely keep the focus on Russian River and Sonoma County Pinot Noir, which is what Williams Selyem is known for.

The main reason Williams Selyem looks so attractive is that this brand is especially well-positioned to enjoy the groundswell of interest in California Pinot Noir. With the rise in quality of the Russian River Pinots being made by Williams Selyem, Rochioli, Gary Farrell, Dehlinger, Kistler and many others, the potential for even greater Pinot Noir is enormous. Add to that the sheer number of wineries setting their sights on Pinot: Simi, Ferrari-Carano, Marcassin, Siduri, Caymus and Flowers, an upstart vineyard that owns the promising Camp Meeting Ridge.

I've had genuinely mixed emotions about the sale of Williams Selyem Winery. I hate to see Williams and Selyem quit after all the wonderful wines they've made. These two nobodies proved you could be somebody in wine if you paid attention to your grapes and used common sense making wine. Williams has displayed an uncommonly gentle touch for making sumptuous, multilayered wines. Even winemakers who've been trying for years to master Pinot Noir just can't seem to put it in the bottle the way he can. Finding a replacement for him won't be easy.

John Dyson faces a number of obstacles, not the least of which is securing long-term grape sources for a company reliant on individualistic wines. He may have paid a ton of money for Williams Selyem, but sometimes that's the price you pay when you want to start out at the top. The guess here is that he intends to build on this winery's successes and make even better wines, not ride on its coattails.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor James Laube, in a column that's also appearing in the current issue of Wine Spectator. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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