chenin blanc

Some of us at weirdcombos were lucky to have a glorious weekend in the Russian River Valley over Mother’s Day. We spent the night at the funky cabin-in-a-redwood-forest of our great friends, Jocelyn and Devin, and did some wine tasting; we followed the Russian River to its delta on the Pacific near the town of Jenner; and we even bought mood rings. Good to know that my dark blue color means that I tend to be “Very Happy:” full of “Love, Passion, Romance.” Though I didn’t need a ring to tell me that since I live it most days… ha, ha, ha 😉

springtime grapes on the vine at Williams Selyem

springtime grapes on the vine at Williams Selyem

some Williams Selyem estate vines

some Williams Selyem estate vines

The ostensible purpose of our Sonoma County weekend fun was the spring Williams Selyem wine pick-up and tasting event. I’ve written about Wms Selyem before. The spring event is the party surrounding the release of the blended pinot noirs, some whites and this year a single vineyard zinfandel. The wines on display were essentially the same as last year at this time.

Prince of Pinot devoted the latest PinoFile edition exclusively to Williams Selyem, original winemaker and co-founder, Burt Williams. It is an incredible read. Naturally the focus is pinot noir so don’t look here for much about the chardonnay, zindanfels or port. What an amazing story of a rise to fame and fortune. Really it is the “American Dream” come to life, if you can believe it.

What caught my attention and is the point of the story today, though, is the section of the article where the Prince discussed Williams attempts to locate single vineyard pinots. Those are the most famous and it sounds like Burt Williams put the idea of single vineyard designations on the California wine making map. But what does that mean about the blended wines? Here’s what the article says:

However, not every vineyard met Williams’ high standards and only the best were deemed able to stand on their own as a vineyard designate. Grapes from growers that did not fit into the Williams Selyem vineyard designate program were blended and bottled as Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley.

Well, that sure puts a fly in the ointment.

mountain view at Williams Selyem

mountain view at Williams Selyem

2009 Williams Selyem Sonoma County pinot noir

2009 Williams Selyem Sonoma County pinot noir

Sounds like the blends are “lesser,” no? But their cost: $37 for 2009 Sonoma County, $46 for 2009 Russian River Valley, and $69 for 2009 Westside Road Neighbors; and their availability—these are all sold out, suggest a different story altogether.

So I come away from this tasting weekend confused. Are these wines good? We thought so. I always adore the Westside Road Neighbors and we all thought that we could quaff the Russian River Valley in quantity. Or, are these inferior wines designed to prop up the winery and make money on what are essentially leftovers, similar to the secondary wines from famous Bordeaux châteaux?

2009 Sonoma County Pinot Noir: This is a translucent black cherry red with detectable oak and spices on a medium body with raspberry and some bitter earth notes.

2009 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: A rich translucent red, it smelled a bit like Twizzler candy or perhaps Robitussin cough syrup and cola. We all found it very drinkable. This is juicer and more fruit forward than the Sonoma County, or “Kind of what I want in a pinot.” This had a long finish that opened up spectacularly in the mouth to reveal lots of rich earth notes.

2009 Westside Road Neighbors: Chris thought this looked like a “murky translucent strawberry starburst” color. The nose was bursting with spice box, chocolate, cherry, and earth. Full of red fruit and metal notes which led to a powerful finish that was bold, mineral-rich and complex. This was my favorite.

2009 Williams Selyem unoaked chardonnay

2009 Williams Selyem unoaked chardonnay

2009 Bacigalupi zinfandel: This single vineyard zin looked like Knotts Berry Farm boysenberry syrup. On the nose we thought there was licorice and some forest floor. This thrilling wine has a lot going on. Among the many flavors on this full bodied crowd-pleaser, we detected sour cherry, raspberry, cola, earthy notes and more. Good stuff!

2009 Unoaked Chardonnay: This was an extremely pale translucent chard with floral mineral and fruity notes that tasted of Granny Smith apple with brisk acidity.

2009 Limestone Ridge at Vista Verde Chenin Blanc: This was so transparent and ultra pale that it almost appeared clear in the sunlight. It had good acid, minerality, some tingling pepper notes and a hint of crisp apple.

2010 Vin Gris of Pinot Noir: This was transparent pale pink, sort of cotton candy pink really. Full of hibiscus, raspberry and Red Zinger tea on a medium body with some fruit and mineral notes, it seemed a bit tight and less complex than we expected.

2010 Olivet Lane Pinot Noir from barrel: As I stood in the short line to sample this wine (going on Mother’s Day for the event really reduced the crowds!) I happened to overhear another customer talking with the man offering the samples. He said something like, “You guys haven’t produced an Olivet Lane pinot in a while. I think the last was in 1998.” The Wms Selyem staff member replied, “Good memory.” I’ve no idea whether or not this is true but it is wild! People are real devotees of this winery. Maybe that explains the sold out status of all the blended wines?

This was bright magenta with root beer, cured smoked meat and dried herbs on the nose. Very round, we detected cherry, raspberry with an interesting complexity. We’re excited!

reflecting on the blended pinots noir at Williams Selyem

cooly reflecting on the blended pinots noir at Williams Selyem

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Hegui and I decided to go to Chouinard as part of our recent Livermore Valley wine tasting meet-up. They got an excellent review on ChowHound and they produce Rhône varieties, which we adore.

charming Chouinard Vineyards

charming Chouinard Vineyards


welcome to Chouinard Vineyards

welcome to Chouinard Vineyards

Even though we’ve been, I still don’t quite know how to situate them on the map. Many of their grapes are grown in other locations, like Paso Robles, Lodi or Monterey. Is Chouinard part of Livermore Valley, the San Francisco Bay or what?

Well, whatever it is, they’re worth a look.

Compared to Concannon, the place we visited after this, Chouinard is tiny and sort of mom-and-pop style. Only about five or six miles off Interstate 580 in Castro Valley, nevertheless, it seems like light-years from the Bay Area. They’re nestled in a charming little valley between several mountains. There’s even a little creek running through the property. The drive itself from the freeway to the winery is full of stunning mountain views, corkscrew turns and adventure. That may be a liability after the tasting on your drive out, so use caution.

We tried the sparkling, the whites, the apple wine, and reds but couldn’t drink more when it came to the sweet wines and their versions of port. The tasting room was small, informal and friendly. The wines are all quite affordable and many were very good.

tiny creek running through Chouinard Vineyards

tiny creek running through Chouinard Vineyards

Unfortunately, the Chouinard wine price list didn’t always indicate the vintage, if any, or the region from which the grapes were harvested. I asked but my notes are inconsistent.

California Champagne: This is from chardonnay grown on the estate. It was pale yellow with the aroma of green apple. It tasted apple-y and refreshing.

2009 Chardonnay, Livermore: Pale yellow with mineral on the nose, not that much fruit. Not too oaky, it was more creamy than buttery with mineral notes and tropical fruit.

Viognier (is this 2009?), from Lodi: This was quite pale with lovely floral and pear on the nose. It had a subtle flavor with some mineral hints and an earthy finish. We both liked. It would be especially welcome on a hot day.

2009 Chenin Blanc, Monterey: Very pale yellow with hints of rose, papaya, butterscotch, and apricot with some sour cherry. It seemed mildly sweet. Pleasant.

NV Granny Smith Apple wine, from Hog Canyon Orchard: This is a novelty! It was a transparent pale yellow that smelled of apple pie and rust. It tasted very apple-y but didn’t shock like cider might. It had 10% alcohol.

Chouinard red: This is a blend of petite sirah, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and malbec. Translucent pale purple with hints of tar, cedar, hot embers and clay. We detected red fruit with tar and mineral. It had crisp acidity and a long finish.

2006 Alicante Bouchet, Lodi: This was an inky dark red with a nose of wood chips, freshly cut trees, garrigue, cedar, vanilla and V-8 juice. It opened slowly but became exuberant with lots of earthy flavors, black coffee, bitter notes, nail polish and fresh blood.

2009 Old Vine Zinfandel, Lodi: This was brownish red with a nose of cigarettes and tobacco, red fruit and honey. Surprisingly it tasted of plum. Medium body.

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, San Francisco Bay, Palomares Canyon Vineyard: This was a dark purple red with a nose of freshly turned dirt, forest floor and wet moss. A medium body supported by supple tannins revealed mineral and some fruit.

2005 Petite Sirah, Livermore: This was an opaque black with scents reminiscent of stewed tomatoes and metal. It had noticeable chewy tannins that made it thick. This one needs a bit more time. We felt it was the most French in style.

2007 Malbec, Paso Robles: Purple to black in color, we detected spice box, Mexican cinnamon, green pepper. It started out powerfully then tapered off to a smooth vanilla and oaky finish. This was less forceful than an Argentine malbec. Good.

Chouinard Vineyards has won lots of medals and ribbons for their wines

Chouinard Vineyards has won lots of medals and ribbons for their wines

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We just returned from the Williams Selyem Fall Release Pick-up Weekend event in Healdsburg. It was overcast and drizzly at times but instead of bringing us down, it created a wonderful mood for this Halloween Weekend wine tasting event. Plus, everyone knows that red wine tastes better when it is a bit cool outside.

wonderful new Williams Selyem visitors center on a brooding afternoon in Healdsburg

wonderful new Williams Selyem visitors center on a brooding afternoon in Healdsburg

This time it was particularly thrilling because WS unveiled their new visitors center. The building turned out beautifully! Not only is the architecture very pleasing, the site they chose offers spectacular views of the Russian River Valley all the way to the mountains. Though true to their roots, the actual wine tasting happened in the traditional, for this place, white canvas tents out in the dreary weather. Plus they didn’t let any of the visitors see much of the building’s interior beyond the first, grandest room. And I didn’t see any signs for tours, either. Strange. I guess that some things never change.

Williams Selyem estate vineyard

Williams Selyem estate vineyard


one of the many stunning views from the new visitors center

one of the many stunning views from the new visitors center

grand room of the new Williams Selyem visitors center

grand room of the new Williams Selyem visitors center


I was excited and a bit apprehensive on our arrival: would we be disappointed, feel underdressed or get snubbed with the updated look? We heard Vampire Weekend’s Oxford Comma playing over the loud speakers and instantly felt right at home with the new “corporate” WS image.

As at previous pick-up events, the winery offered tastes of some of their wines and had some local boutique food producers on hand to offer samples of their cheeses, olive oils, chocolates, etc.

The fall weekend event is all about the single vineyard pinot noirs. Overall, we really enjoyed what we tried. Sadly, they sold out of the 2008 Block 10 Estate Vineyard Mass Selection Pinot Noir, which was a bit of a tease as some of the tasting notes suggested that it was available for purchase right there—in limited quantities, naturally.

I don't think that I could ever tire of this view

I don't think that I could ever tire of this view


I love this place

I love this place


Williams Selyem in Fall

Williams Selyem in Fall


Hegui was especially taken with the many moss covered rocks on the property

Hegui was especially taken with the many moss covered rocks on the property

I am so excited to finally see this place!

I am so excited to finally see this place!

They’ve a huge following and virtually sell out of all their wines through their subscriber list in a few weeks. It’s a maddening situation! You cannot easily buy these delightful pinots most places and once you’ve become a subscriber, there’re so many restrictions! Now, whether or not I have the money, I snap up all the reds that they offer me immediately and pray that they’ll sell me a few measly bottles more from my wish list. I get that desperate. What do psychologists say? Intermittent rewards are the best way to shape behavior. Well, Williams Selyem, you guys are diabolical geniuses!

2008 Limestone Ridge at Vista Verde Chenin Blanc: The wine was a transparent very pale yellow. Hegui thought it had a nose of green grapes and green apple. It was completely dry with medium to full body. Oddly, it reminded us a little of a chardonnay without all of the butter. Hegui says, “It’s good for white.”

2008 Bucher Vineyard Pinot Noir: This was a brownish red color. We noted cherry, mocha, raisin, red berries and a bit of barnyard on the nose. It had medium to full body with a metallic mineral-y taste with lots of sour cherry. This was the only one that we weren’t sure about. Hegui said, “It’s not horrible, but…”

2008 Weir Vineyard Pinot Noir: This was a purple-ish red color with hints of garrigue on the nose. It had a rounder mouthfeel compared to Bucher with a creamy long ending. That’s more like it!

so much wine, so little time!

so much wine, so little time!

the tasting happened in two big tents despite the fabulous new building

the tasting happened in two big tents despite the fabulous new building

2008 Rochioli Riverblock Vineyard Pinot Noir: This was a brownish, purplish red. We noted a lot of earth and barn in the nose. The structure was unbelievable, coming on strong in the attack and peaking in the middle. Then it slightly drops off before a second, slightly less pronounced flavor peak leading to a very long finish. It simply floods your whole mouth. It had lots of bright red fruit. Amazing!

2008 Coastlands Vineyard Pinot Noir: This was purplish red with a lot of tobacco and tar on the nose. It had lots of ripe cherries and raspberry as well as cola notes. The finish was long. We thought it would be even better with a few years of age.

2008 Block 10 Estate Vineyard Mass Selection Pinot Noir: I’d like to know more about this particular wine, as it was incredible and incredibly impossible to buy! It was a brownish red color with a distinct nose of hard Christmas candy, cherry, hints of licorice and moss. It had a lot of mineral notes, supple tannins, with an exciting bite on the long finish.

2008 Papera Vineyard Zinfandel: This was a dark purplish red with an amazing nose of caramel, chocolate, toffee, and dulce de leche. This is a very bold, powerful wine that takes no prisoners. It is so chewy that you feel like you’re almost eating it, rather than sipping. We loved the black pepper on the finish.

So that’s it. We hope to return in Spring 2011 for the next WS Pick-up Weekend. Maybe we’ll see you there!!!!

cheers, Williams Selyem, for a job well done

cheers, Williams Selyem, for a job well done

welcome back to Williams Selyem

welcome back to Williams Selyem

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Celebrate South Africa 2010

I heard about this super fun South African wine tasting event from a very popular wine blog and just had to go. It is World Cup season next month and South Africa is the host nation. (Go Brazil!!!) What a delightful excuse to drink South African wines, as if one ever really needed one.

I’m not the only one with this idea in wine writing. Just recently Wine Spectator had an extensive and very flattering story featuring South African wines. They particularly praised chenin blanc and syrah. Of course, there’s the home grown pinotage, a hybrid of pinot noir and cinsault. That’s a grape varietal that we never had much success with in “home tastings” until K and L turned us onto the Diemersfontein pinotage. Instead of banana and sawdust, this one tastes like root beer, coffee, chocolate and earth. Really good. Apparently pinotage is planted elsewhere in the world but I only think of it as being South African myself.

The tasting event happened in a beautiful space in the South of Market neighborhood last Thursday evening. There were nine South African wine distribution companies in attendance, each sampling (and selling) wines from several producers. One of the company reps was thrilled to tell us that she thought that South African wines would take off after the World Cup starts next month, as after natives, Americans were the largest number of ticket holders for the games. Surely we’ll taste the wines there and fall in love! At least that was her idea.

Prof. T and I enjoying ourselves at Celebrate South Africa 2010

Diemersfontein was our favorite producer of the entire event

We met up with Prof. T and some other friends after work at the wine tasting venue. The space was a large divided room with a kind of elegant warehouse look with lots of exposed wood, decorated with a variety of interesting antiques and posters of famous early 20th Century French ads. When we arrived it was already a little crowded but not too bad. Aside from wine, the event offered free food and heavenly chocolate kahlua flavored mini cupcakes! I don’t normally go for sweets but these things were good!

Since there was such a large selection of wines, we had to focus our tastings to prevent getting overwhelmed. Mostly we tried reds. I generally stuck to shiraz, syrah and syrah blends and pinotage. Surprisingly, we enjoyed or at least liked most of the wines. Only a rare few seemed dreadful.

we liked the Pepper Pot Rhone style blend a lot

Here’s some that we highly recommend:

2009 Iona Sauvignon Blanc
2006 La Petite Ferme Cabernet Sauvignon
2005 Diemersfontein Reserve Malbec
2006 Diemersfontein Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
2006 Diemersfontein Reserve Shiraz
2006 Diemersfontein Reserve Pinotage
2008 Diemersfontein Pinotage
2007 Slanghoek Private Selection Pinotage
2007 Major’s Hill Pinotage
2008 Edgebaston The Pepper Pot, a Rhone style blend
2007 Black Pearl Oro Red Blend, a shiraz cabernet sauvignon blend
2005 Eventide Shiraz
2004 Niels Verburg Shiraz
2008 Lynx Cabernet Sauvignon
2009 Six Hats Pinotage
2008 Spice Route Chakalaka
2008 Boekenhoutskloof The Chocolate Block

the real reason French women don't get fat?

We liked these and would try them again, just to be sure:

2008 Painted Wolf Pinotage
2006 Lynx Xanache
2009 Fairvalley Chenin Blanc
NV De Krans Ruby Port
2008 Doolhof Dark Lady
2003 Morgenster Estate Lourens River Valley, Bordeaux blend
2006 De Trafford Cabernet Sauvignon
2005 Ridgeback His Master’s Choice Rhone Blend
2008 Graham Beck Gamekeeper’s Chenin Blanc

We didn’t care for these:

2005 Villiera Estate Pinotage
2006 Delheim Pinotage
2008 Graham Beck Shiraz Cabernet
2006 Groenland Antoinette Marie Red Blend
2006 Groenland Premium Antoinette Marie Red Blend

We ended up tasting a few more but got a bit mixed up at that point about what we liked and what we didn’t. Most of the reds we enjoyed were complex with earthy, fruity and cola, coffee or chocolate and caramel notes. The ones that we were less fond of tasted tart and unbalanced, or just flat and dull. This is not the best way to really decide if you should purchase these wines in quantity. Perhaps if we actually spit it would have been o.k.? Celebrate South Africa 2010 was like the Paso Robles wine tasting festival that way: it gives you an idea of which wines to look for and try in a more serious way in the future, either in South Africa, if you’re so lucky, or at a home tasting.

And about home tastings: I really think that these are the way to go. It’s fun to tour wineries and god knows I love to do that! But most of the stuff you’ll end up drinking at your own crib. In your own particular environment, you’ll best be able to determine whether or not you’re a fan of the wine in question. Fortunately, most of these South African bottles weren’t that expensive. So if you haven’t already, drink some South Africa and cheers to the World Cup! Go Brazil!!!

a partisan subliminal message

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Williams Selyem, Sonoma County

by Stevie on April 22, 2010

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.

holding my case of 2008 William Selyem wines at their Litton Estate Vineyard come temporary parking lot

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.

Litton Estate Vineyard

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!

we liked to casual atmosphere at the Williams Selyem customer only tasting event

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.

Williams Selyem 2009 Vin Gris

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 2009 Eastside Road Neighbors pinot noir barrel tasting

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!

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