How Williams Selyem's Sonoma Wines Win Over the Haters

Williams SelyemJoe Roberts

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.
  • Their propensity for using 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 right up.

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 Selyem library bottlesJoe Roberts

2014 Williams Selyem Limestone Ridge at Vista Verde Vineyard Chenin Blanc (San Benito County)

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.

2013 Williams Selyem Unoaked Chardonnay (Russian River Valley)

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 Chablis, this is one of the closest U.S.-based impersonations that you’re likely to find.

2013 Williams Selyem Drake Estate Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River Valley)

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 Selyem ChardonnaysJoe Roberts

2013 Williams Selyem Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (Sonoma County)

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

2013 Williams Selyem Westside Road Neighbors Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley)

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. There are sweet dark plums, violets, and structure for days in this one, folks.

2012 Williams Selyem Ferrington Vineyard Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley)

Cola? Earth? Deep, dark, plum and berry fruits and notable spices? Yeah, you’d expect that from a 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 Pinots from that region. Overall, excellent and enticing; a heavyweight, but one that can move with deceptive rapidity.
Williams Selyem vinesJoe Roberts

2012 Williams Selyem Rochioli Riverblock Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma County)

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.

2013 Williams Selyem Papera Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley)

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 good?


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a.k.a. Joe Roberts. Dad, wine-writer-guy, wine critic, wine competition judge, author, bassist, free-thinker, & occasional hiney-shaker. Opening up highly-pressurized cans of whoop-a** on the wine industry since 2007. Joe is a Certified Specialist of Wine, and the author of Wine Taster’s Guide: Drink and Learn with 30 Wine Tastings.

Downingtown, PA

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