Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Williams Selyem, from the other RN74

I first learned about Williams Selyem by following the celebrated sommelier, Rajat Parr, on Delectable. Raj, an expert on Burgundies this side of the Atlantic, is the mastermind behind Michael Mina's RN74 wine program. (RN74 stands for Route Nationale 74, the old name of the highway that runs alongside many of Burgundy Grand Cru wineries.)
Vineyard along RN74

So when Raj pays attention to a new world Pinot Noir, I do too. And this one hails from the Russian River Valley in California.

From RN74 to SR116

Williams Selyem was founded by its namesake winemakers, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem. Thanks to some excess grapes gifted by a grower in 1979, Burt started making wine from his home in Forestville, a small town on California State Route (SR) 116. Over time and with a few vintages of hobby winemaking under their belts, Burt and Ed went commercial in 1983. As fans of Burgundies themselves, Burt and Ed focused on making Pinot Noir.

In 1987, Williams Selyem turned into a cult winery overnight when their Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir beat over 2,000 wines to win the California Fair Sweepstake for the top red wine. With a limited production, the surest way to get Williams Selyem wines was to join the cult winery membership list if you could tolerate a two to three-year wait.

Today, with increased production (although still limited), Williams Selyem wines are a lot more accessible. While I do see the random bottles on retail shelves, they do come at a price premium. 95% of the wines are still sold directly to members. The waiting list has dropped to less than a year with a reasonably low threshold to maintain membership. (You only need to buy at least a bottle in three years.) However, your buying history will impact your future allocation. That allows the more serious collectors to get first dibs on special allocations.

Tasting outstanding New and Old World Pinot Noirs
Russian River vs. Morey-Saint-Denis

Several months ago, we did a side-by-side 2013 vintage tasting of Williams Selyem Bucher Vineyard vs. Domaine Lignier-Michelot Morey-Saint-Denis "En la Rue de Vergy." Same varietal but so different in expressions. The new world Pinot Noir was fruit-forward, perfume-y, and all-around a pretty wine. The old world Pinot Noir was earthy, spicy, and nuanced. Both were simply delicious.

To be fair, Pinot Noir from Morey-Saint-Denis tends to be more powerful and masculine even by Burgundy standards. A more interesting comparison to Williams Selyem Pinot Noir may be Volnay, which tends to be more feminine, delicate, and floral among the red Burgundies. Incidentally, Williams Selyem Pinot Noir often reminds me of a Volnay.

2014 Eastside Road Neighbor
2014 Williams Selyem Eastside Road Neighbor 

Last weekend, as I was dreaming about Thanksgiving, I was inspired to open up another bottle of Williams Seylem. This time, the 2014 Eastside Road Neighbor. (By the way, Pinot Noir is the go-to red for Thanksgiving.)

As usual, the wine was delicately aromatic, full of berries, cherries, and rose petals. The fruit forwardness and floral aromas extend to the palate, accented with some spice and coffee notes. It is medium to full-bodied for a Pinot Noir, with ample acidity and polished tannins. The finish was long and satisfying. As expected, the 2014 Eastside Road Neighbor was a well-made wine that is feminine, elegant, and pretty.

My Verdict: Pinot Noir is an extremely finicky varietal and highly selective in where it will grow well. So oftentimes, a great Pinot Noir tends to be terroir-driven, and the best of them come from Burgundy. However, this stateside version of RN74 is not too shabby either. I would recommend a bottle, if you can find it, for your upcoming turkey feast.