Working Hard To Change Nothing (Williams Selyem Recent Releases)

William Seylem old typeface

There was so much that I didn’t want to like about Sonoma’s storied Williams Selyem.

  • The too-cool-for-school exclusivity of their mailing list.
  • The imposing fortress-like facade of their “barrel-evoking” tasting room and its “wall of bottles.”
  • The fact that they used terms like “barrel-evoking.”
  • That current owners John and Kathe Dyson were former mailing list members (how cute!).
  • That the label typeface they use was so old that it had to be recreated from scratch when their printing went digital.
  • The way that their wines get collectors all google-eyed, shooting prices up on the secondary market.
  • The friggin’ goats.

The problem with trying to be a Williams Selyem hater, though, is that when it comes to their affable, knowledgeable staff, and their consistently excellent wines, there’s just not enough bad there to hate…

And so, just like that, after sampling the first wine in the lineup, my stupid little agenda during my tasting room visit was all blown to hell.

John Dyson has stated that, after purchasing Williams Selyem from its original owners in 1997, “I’ve never worked harder to change nothing.” The bottom line is that Williams Selyem formula (their mission statement: “Make the Best Wines, from the Best Grapes, from the Best Growers”) isn’t broken. It works for just about everyone with the arguable exception of budget-minded wine lovers, who are unlikely to encounter the wines without some effort (and even more cash outlay).

By the numbers, Williams Selyem now produces about 20,000 cases across 36 wines, using fewer than 10 grape varieties, farming 80 acres on 4 estate vineyards and utilizing 19 sources of purchased fruit. That’s a little bit on the complicated side of things, from a winemaking perspective, but I’ve yet to really encounter an example of their wines where things aren’t working. Well. Usually very, very well.

Williams Seylem Chenin Blanc

crowd pleaser2014 Williams Selyem Limestone Ridge at Vista Verde Vineyard Chenin Blanc (San Benito County, $35)

If you didn’t expect a Chenin to kick off the tasting notes for a WS visit, that’s understandable, and it’s by design; I didn’t expect to kick off my tasting there with a Chenin, either. But I’m happy that they decided to lead with this perky little number for my visit. The soils at Limestone Ridge are, predictably, limestone, and the wine sees some time in concrete eggs and about eleven months on the lees. With all of its crisp verve, it needs some of that creaminess. Tropical fruits, and flowers on the nose, but the mineral, juicy, focused texture steals the show here.

Williams Seylem Chardonnays

elegant2013 Williams Selyem Unoaked Chardonnay (Russian River Valley, $40)

For being unoaked, this Chard isn’t lacking in rich, leesy yeastiness. It’s also not lacking in citrus, yellow apple fruit, white floral aromas, or Dr.-No-levels of laser-like acidity. The wine finishes with a hint of toastiness that’s actually welcome because of how lovely it is. If you like your Chablis, this is one of the closest U.S.-based impersonations that you’re likely to find.

1WD_Badge_KickAss_thumb1_thumb.jpg2013 Williams Selyem Drake Estate Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River Valley, $70)

White flowers, white peaches, and white-hot-bright purity. This is intense in its youthfulness, balancing opaque power with transparent energy. I’m not really sure what that means, either, I just know that i wanted to sit for a good long while in its lemon-rind-filled gaze.

Williams Seylem Pinot Noirs 2013

elegant2013 Williams Selyem Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (Sonoma County, $60)

My least fave of the lineup that I tasted at WS, but only because it was so closed off, young, and reticient right now. There are dark cherry fruit, leather, earth, and tea aromas working there way out of this, however, and in the mouth it’s substantial, structured, and grippy. Give it time, people, give it time…

1WD_Badge_KickAss_thumb1_thumb.jpg2013 Williams Selyem Westside Road Neighbors Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley, $70)

Maybe if a cadre of super-powerful ninjas lived next door to you would you have neighbors that rival the grapes that made this chewy, spicy, leathery, and deeply aromatic Pinot. Sweet dark plums, violets, and structure for days.

Williams Seylem Pinot Noirs 2012

1WD_Badge_KickAss_thumb1_thumb.jpg2012 Williams Selyem Ferrington Vineyard Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley, $70)

Cola? Earth? Deep, dark, plum and berry fruits and notable spice? Yeah, you’d expect that from really good Anderson Pinot. What you might not expect is how lithe this wine feels on the tongue, rather than coming up all powerhouse on you like so many AV Pinots. Overall, excellent and enticing; a heavyweight, but one that can move with deceptive rapidity.

1WD_Badge_KickAss_thumb1_thumb.jpg2012 Williams Selyem Rochioli Riverblock Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma County, $80)

Daaaaaaaammmmnnnnn. Red plums, funky earth, perfumed florals… this is serious, seriously delicious stuff. The mouthfeel is just as gorgeous, fantastic, and take-no-prisoners as the nose; structured, with great scaffolding for aging, both in tannic framework and lively acids.

Williams Seylem Estate vineyard

1WD_Badge_Sexy_thumb1.jpg2013 Williams Selyem Papera Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley, $60)

Quite a fun way to end things. While this is, for sure, an intellectual take on Sonoma Zin, there isn’t so much overthinking going here as to detract from its potential sexiness. Juicy black plums, tea leaf, spice, cherries, and even some bergamot… who’d have thought this 93-year-old vineyard could look so hot?






  • Bob Henry

    Wait? What! No comments posted here yet . . .

    Okay, I will step into the breach.

    I was introduced to W & S circa 1989, when a friend of Burt and Ed’s invited me (and about 20 other fellow wine enthusiasts-cum-collectors) to join them at a private luncheon in Los Angeles.

    I “thought” I was pretty conversant with winemakers in California at the time.

    But who were these “poseurs” who looked like they had just stepped off of a vineyard tractor à la bib overalls-attired Bartles & Jaymes? (The rest of you can look up that cultural allusion when you get home.)

    My skepticism was quickly displaced by the “Oh My Gawd!” transcendence of their wines. (A near complete vertical tasting of every Pinot Noir they had ever made in their short history.)

    At the end of the luncheon, they asked us if anyone was interested in signing up for their mailing list.

    EVERY FREAKIN’ HAND WENT UP in the room! (And justifiably so.)

    I am glad to have tasted their wines since practically their inception dating back to the original “Hacienda del Rio” label.

    Dude, it’s about time you played “catch up”!

    (The way you did when belatedly discovering another California treasure: Stony Hill.)

    Next stop: introducing you to Terry Leighton, Ph.D. and his long-aging Kalin Cellars wines.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Bob. I think. :)

      I can’t be on every boat that goes out, but happy to be late than to miss this one.

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