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Williams Selyem – Deep into Pinot Noir’s Heart of Darkness

By Karen MacNeil
November 2, 2016

It took two hours to get there in the soft, heavy rain. After years of drought, the rusted-shut sky split open and down came dark raindrops the size of saucers. It could not have been a better day to taste most of the 26 current pinot noirs from Williams Selyem. Even the air smelled right—damp, rich, savory.

I tasted with winemaker Jeff Manghas, a man who struck me as having a right-brained pinot noir kind of mind, but a man who is also an academic. (Among other things, he hopes to write a book on sources of pinot noir clones in California). Mangahas joined Williams Selyem in 2011 and considers Burt Williams (the original winemaker) his mentor.

Below are a few of the surprising things I learned—some of them about pinot, some about Williams Selyem, some about Mangahas’ views on winemaking. Plus reviews of the top wines.

• In the early days when he was on a shoestring budget, Burt Williams made his pinots in old dairy tanks (Sonoma being home to lots of dairies in the 1970s and 1980s). The Williams Selyem wines are still made in dairy tanks which the winery now has to scour the country to find. According to Mangahas, the tanks are exquisitely made with perfectly finished welding and can be sterilized so that no off or other flavors migrate to the wine.

• Mangahas thinks that pinot noir shouldn’t be cropped too low. If it is, the sugar ripens faster than the tannin in the wine, leading to coarse tannin—which in turn won’t lead to the sublime texture for which great pinot is known.

• Mangahas thinks that richness in pinot noir is about its volume. How does the wine fill up the palate?

• The three flavor descriptors that Magahas would use to describe Russian River Valley pinot noir are cranberry, spice, and black tea.

• The Sonoma Coast is more similar to Burgundy than Oregon is. In Oregon, pinot noir doesn’t have the level of acidity that pinot from Sonoma Coast or Burgundy have. Plus Oregon’s nights are warmer than most coastal appellations in California.

WILLIAMS SELYEM “Ferrington Vineyard” 2014 (Anderson Valley, CA) $ 65

Distinctive and beautiful. Very sheer with a minerally savory character. Anderson Valley pinots are among the least fruity and most savory of all pinots in California.

92 points.

WILLIAMS SELYEM “Calegari Vineyard” 2014 (Russian River Valley, CA) $58

Thanksgiving in a glass. Beautiful cranberry-spice flavors plus something savory like sautéed mushrooms. Terrific, sustained arc of flavor from the first second to the last.

92 points.

WILLIAMS SELYEM “Lewis MacGregor Estate Vineyard” 2014 (Russian River Valley, CA) $85

Juicy and hedonistic with cranberry-plum flavors and a bolt of exotic Asian spices. Tight on the palate at first, so drink slowly and watch it unfurl in the glass.

93 points.

WILLIAMS SELYEM “Allen Vineyard” 2014 (Russian River Valley, CA) $82

Soft fleshy feel right off the bat. Then straight into flavors of spice and sassafras. Effusive and charming. Drinking it is a sustained sensory experience, like looking down a really long road.

95 points.

WILLIAMS SELYEM “Rochioli Riverblock Vineyard” 2014 (Russian River Valley, CA) $82

Superb, rich, spicy and exotic. Aromas of old books, old furniture, tea, and damp earth. Elegant. The flavors almost seem insistent. I love the choreography, the way the wine speeds up then slows down.

95 points.

WILLIAMS SELYEM “Hirsch Vineyard” 2014 (Sonoma Coast, CA) $82

Gentle at first, then builds to a spicy character that seems almost saline. Perhaps no surprise for the vineyard is on the second ridge in from the Pacific Ocean. The most umami-ish of Williams Selyem pinots.

94 points

WILLIAMS SELYEM “Coastlands Vineyard” 2014 (Sonoma Coast, CA) $75

Light and ethereal. Loads of precision. Focused flavors of spice, salt (it’s on the coast of course), pepper, and tobacco. A very structured pinot which I’d love to taste again in a few years.

95 points