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California Pinot pioneer Burt Williams dies

Tributes have been paid to winemaker Burt Williams, who helped to put Pinot Noir on the map in California after cofounding celebrated producer Williams Selyem in a garage in the 1980s, and who has died aged 79.

There is a fairy-tale-like quality about the way Burt Williams and Ed Selyem turned their winemaking hobby into one of California’s most sought-after wine labels, and helped to kick-start a love affair with Pinot Noir in Sonoma County, especially in Russian River Valley.

Many tributes have been paid to Williams in recent days, following news of his death from Parkinson’s disease late last week. He was 79.

‘Burt Williams influenced not only a generation of winemakers, but also how the world viewed Sonoma County as a world class Pinot Noir producer,’ said Bob Cabral, who worked with Williams and was the winemaker at Williams Selyem for around 16 years following its change of ownership in 1998.

‘[He was] extremely knowledgeable and disciplined at coaxing the best attributes from each vineyard site,’ said Cabral, who is now director of winemaking at Three Sticks Wines, as well as owning his eponymous wine firm, among other projects.

The early years

Williams, a newspaper typesetter and proofreader born in San Francisco in 1940 and who attended Sebastopol High School in Sonoma County, taught himself to make wine by reading books and was particularly interested in so-called ‘old world’ techniques from areas such as Burgundy, said Williams Selyem winery in a statement on his life.

He initially started producing wines for fun with Selyem, his friend and a professional wine buyer, near to Forestville.

They got more serious in 1981 when they started making commercial Pinot Noir wines, but still spent several years working out of a garage and used stainless steel dairy tanks to ferment grapes.

Williams kept his ‘day’ jobs until 1992, long after the project that became known as Williams Selyem had achieved notoriety.

Wine Legend

While Russian River Valley vineyards were a strong focus, Williams Selyem’s Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir 1988, from Sonoma Coast, was recently inducted into Decanter’s hall of fame as a ‘wine legend’.

Expert Stephen Brook said in the accompanying article, ‘Williams Selyem was not the first serious producer of Californian Pinot Noir, but by the late 1980s it was probably the most highly acclaimed.

‘The debut Summa bottling from Williams Selyem was 1988 and before long it became both the most expensive Pinot Noir from California and one of the most scarce. By the 1991 vintage, the release price was $100; nonetheless it sold out within three days.’

Williams Selyem sold

Williams Selyem was sold in 1998 to John and Kathe Dyson, following a specification that the buyer must be on the winery’s mailing list and involved in wine.

‘Kathe and I were really very lucky to be chosen by Burt and Ed,’ said Dyson, who still owns the business today. ‘Kathe had joined the mailing list in the early 1990s and I already owned a winery in New York and a vineyard in California.’

After selling up, Williams subsequently bought Morning Dew Ranch in Anderson Valley further north; another area of California that has garnered a strong reputation for Pinot Noir since the 1980s.

Williams planted around five hectares of Pinot Noir at the estate, to the north of Philo, although he still visited his old winery, according to the new owners.

Napa Valley’s Castello di Amorosa bought the Morning Dew Ranch Vineyard in 2015.

‘A profound impact’

Jeff Mangahas, Williams Selyem’s current vice-president of winemaking, said, ‘Burt had a profound impact on my way of thinking of winemaking and it was some of his early wines that fuelled my interest in the Russian River Valley. It is truly an honour to be the steward for Williams Selyem wines today and continue to make wines in the spirit of Burt.’

Bob Cabral added, ‘Burt personally influenced my thoughts on how Pinot Noir can inspire a winemaker to be patient, thoughtful and most importantly humble. I was very fortunate to work closely with Burt while I was at Williams Selyem and will always cherish that time. He will be dearly missed, but never forgotten.’

Williams is survived by his wife, Rebecca, two daughters, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Read more: Why Williams Selyem Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir 1988 is a wine legend 


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