Williams Selyem is a totally different wine experience. Unlike most other wineries in the Healdsburg area, you can’t just go to this place. You need to be invited.
This is that winery that I mentioned a while back in my story about wine clubs. I waited for about fifteen months to get on the list at Williams Selyem to be able purchase any of their wine. Then I had to wait a bit longer before the winery released any wine for purchase. Then I had to pull the cash together to order the wine. Then, to actually go see the place, I had to be invited. And finally, I had to be able to go when invited (I had intended to last October but that was when the Bay Bridge was getting the new S-curve so traffic was so dreadful that we had to skip it!) Already a lot of drama, and I’m still stone cold sober.
This winery is famous for their pinot noirs. That’s how I first heard of them. Hegui and I were at a party several years ago where a friend brought a bottle of Williams Selyem pinot. It was absolutely delicious! And I’m someone that doesn’t normally really appreciate pinot noir. Anyway, I later read about the winery in Matt Kramer’s great book, New California Wine. He recommends it highly. It was after that that I first registered to get on THE LIST, and the fifteen months or so clock started ticking.
I don’t know what you think about these exclusive wait lists. Until I was finally admitted to the Williams Selyem “club,” they irritated me. (I’m still a bit miffed that I’m waiting for Carlisle and Saxum, by the way.) It’s so annoying that you can’t just go and buy the wine directly whenever you want, don’t you think? Williams Selyem never really said how long it would take to be accepted. I’d get occasional notices from them that I still had to wait. Until one day, like magic, the acceptance letter came. I felt like I did the day I received my admissions letter from the University of Virginia in 1985. Wow! Now that I’m in, I think that it’s all perfectly fine, thank you very much, and I’m very relieved.
The whole background leading up to visiting the winery is what we most noticed last Saturday as we trooped over to pick up a case of various pinot noirs and some zinfandel that I purchased in a rush a few months ago. It was the official California “pick-up weekend” (they also have one in New York somewhere). Parking was not on site but nearby at their Litton Estate Vineyard. They operated shuttle buses back and forth.
There were signs all over saying something like “Private Event” and “Customers Only.” And I realized that we were all in fact “customers” who had actually bought these wines before we even got there for the tasting event. It almost seems French: buying wines as futures in the hope that they’re good. It’s a brilliant business model that really works. Williams Selyem had sold out of all of the reds that they offered at the pickup event before it even started. One that I tried to order a few months ago, the 2008 Bacigalupi Vineyard Zinfandel, they didn’t have enough to even sell to me then. Good for you, WS!
The party itself was in a tented enclosure. Hegui and I each got our Williams Selyem logo wine glass when we arrived and I entered the raffle for a free autographed magnum of one of their wines. Aside from several 2008 tastings, there was a barrel tasting of the new 2009 Eastside Road Neighbors pinot noir, a pinot rosé and chenin blanc to try. They had some cheese, olive oil, bread and sausage tastings presented by some local artisanal producers. All of these products were for sale.
The mood in the place was different. Unlike regular tasting rooms, there was no sense of pressure to buy anything (as we’d already done so). Instead it was sort of laid back and mellow. People were friendly. It was fun to overhear other folks’ conversations about their Williams Selyem experiences. I couldn’t help but notice how much wine people had bought. Some had several cases of the stuff and others just a few bottles. I had ordered a case and we purchased two bottles of the vin gris of pinot noir right there. That part seemed weirdly competitive. Did I buy enough? Or too much? I was shocked when I heard one guy tell his friends on the shuttle back to the parking lot that he didn’t order any zinfandel this time. I love Williams Selyem zinfandel! Couldn’t you have ordered it for me, instead?
Because I’d already purchased the wines that we tasted, my perspective on the wine tasting experience was different. It’s true that the chenin blanc and vin gris were tastings in the more conventional sense. But overall, the question wasn’t, “Do we like the wine, and, if so, should we buy some?” Rather, it was more, “Should we drink this wine soon or let it age for a while?” Different.
2008 Sonoma County Pinot Noir: This was pale red and to us looked slightly cloudy. It smelled of berry and Hegui thought “cow poo.” We tasted cranberry and candied fruit. It had medium body that peaked then had a shorter finish than others there.
2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: This was a transparent brownish red. Hegui, whose nose is the only one that really works between us, smelled moss and woodsy aromas. It had medium body that didn’t vary throughout the taste. Unlike the Sonoma County that peaked and fell off, this one lasted for quite a while. We noted plum, some cherry and earthy flavors. We agreed with the description in the Williams Selyem notes. This wine was creamy and silky.
2008 Westside Road Neighbors Pinot Noir: This was a transparent red with caramel on the nose. We tasted more berry, especially raspberry, rather than plum. Hegui thought it had a pleasing “bloody” taste.
2008 Bacigalupi Vineyard Zinfandel: This is the wine that I wanted but wasn’t allowed to have!!! This dark red wonder smelled a bit of clay. It looked slightly cloudy but that didn’t distract from its fruit and earthy flavors. It was smooth with a super long finish. We both loved this wine.
2008 Limestone Ridge at Vista Verde Chenin Blanc: This was an ultra pale yellow color that smelled of unripe green apple. We thought it seemed slightly sweet. It had good mouthfeel and tasted of green apple and peach to us.
2009 Vin Gris of Pinot Noir: This was a transparent pale pink color. Hegui smelled fig. It was very dry. I thought it tasted of strawberry. We both liked it a lot. I bought two bottles to take home and enjoy when the Indian Summer arrives in San Francisco.
Williams Selyem was a lot of fun and different from most wine tasting experiences that I’ve had so far. We’ll be back. If you’re interested, you should get on the list!