Lunch with Burt Williams

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Burt Williams and his penultimate bottle of 1988 Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir

This article originally appeared in Noble Rot (issue 11).

Few North American winemakers are more deservedly celebrated than Burt Williams. Widely regarded as one of Californian Pinot Noir’s most accomplished twentieth-century exponents, his wines expanded the parameters of the possible. Ripe but vibrant and never cloying, above all clearly differentiated by site, in Burt’s hands Pinot was pure pleasure. And although his early retirement in 1998, following the sale of the Williams Selyem winery, took an admiring public by surprise, many of his wines continue to drink magically to this day. While the Williams Selyem wines are not what they were when Burt was at the helm, his legacy, variously interpreted, continues to exercise a profound influence on Californian wine. As winemaker Thomas Brown remarks, ‘so many people today are trying to do what Burt was doing—or what they imagine he was doing’.

As we marvel at the kaleidoscopic complexity of the Williams Selyem 1988 Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir over lunch, I ask Burt how it was that a San Francisco typesetter came to become such a master of this capricious grape. ‘When we started making wine’, he explains, ‘we wanted to make the kind of wines we liked to drink but could no longer afford’. And since those wines tended to be red Burgundies, it was only natural that Burt gravitated towards Pinot Noir—though as a loyal son of Sonoma County he always retained an affection for Zinfandel.

In those days, however, Pinot Noir in California was considered an afterthought, if not an outright eccentricity. Pioneers like Martin Ray in Santa Cruz and Dick Graff of Chalone had produced undeniably superb wines, but they were the exceptions that proved the rule. As Burt recalls, ‘people were succeeding by mistake’, and few wineries ever attained any sort of consistency. What’s more, Pinot Noir fruit was comparatively scarce: in the Russian River Valley, the first Pinot vines were only planted in the early 1960s.

Burt had experimented with home winemaking since his mid-twenties, and a childhood spent in the Russian River Valley meant he knew where those early plantings were. His first step was to secure fruit of the highest quality: ‘I just wanted to get the best vineyards that we could’, he tells me, ‘and at that time you could get the best vineyards, because no one was doing it!’

It was Burt’s wines from the Russian River Valley that made his reputation, above all his flagship Rochioli and Allen Vineyard bottlings, laden with richly spiced red and black cherry fruit. But he also deserves recognition as one of the Sonoma Coast’s true pioneers. Since fruit out on the coast generally ripened a full month after sites further inland, the initial attraction was the prospect of being able to use all the winery’s equipment twice: ‘it was just perfect for us’, he recalls, reflecting on how underestimated logistics are in winemaking.

But Burt was soon captivated by the bright aromas of blood orange and exotic spice that characterise vineyards like Summa and Coastlands, situated in the southernmost sector of the Sonoma, not far from the ocean and subject to the cooling influence of maritime fog. In due course a more brooding, earthier bottling from the higher-altitude Hirsch Vineyard further to the north joined the Williams Selyem Pinot portfolio. Today, these are celebrated sites, but in those days they were newly-planted and unknown.

And if Burt was a pioneer on the Sonoma Coast, he and his business partner Ed Selyem were equally innovative in their business model. Renowned and sought-after, their wines fetched record prices. The 1991 Summa was the first Californian Pinot Noir to be priced at $100, and the 1995 vintage hit $125. The bulk of sales went direct to the winery’s customers, and by the time the Williams Selyem label sold in 1998 there were more than 35,000 names on the mailing list and waiting list. Today, mailing lists and waiting lists are the staple of California’s small wineries, but that all began with Burt and Ed.

Less unusually, Burt and Ed never owned any vineyards. So from the beginning, relationships with some of Sonoma County’s best grape-farmers like Joe Rochioli, Bob Pellegrini and Leno Martinelli were critical. Burt often insisted on paying over the odds for quality fruit, and in turn benefited from the experience and dedication of their suppliers. Rochioli in particular was a source of invaluable advice: ‘what I didn’t know about grapes, he did’. Rochioli and other growers were also willing to schedule a pick with only twenty-four hours notice.

That was important because Burt believed that picking at the right moment was of decisive importance. As the grapes began to reach optimal maturity, ‘we would go through the vineyard three or four times, sampling exhaustively, in a matter of two or three days’, he recalls. It was critical not to wait too long: ‘I don’t like overripe fruit’, Burt insists, ‘I like to have acidity’; so although taste was the final arbiter of ripeness, when he analysed grapes he considered pH as important a metric as sugar.

Burt is keen to emphasise that others have enjoyed success in a riper vein: Tom Dehlinger’s wines, he observes ‘were always a bit darker, more plum-like, and they age really well. That’s how he likes his wines. But I liked my wines to have a bit more of a cherry-strawberry character, to be a little more acidic. Luckily here in California you can get it the way you want it’.

As a winemaker, Burt was entirely self-taught, his wisdom gleaned from old winemaking texts in the library, complemented by advice from Sonoma’s veteran Italian winemakers. So his techniques in the winery and cellar were accordingly time-honoured: ‘we tried to make wine like they made wine fifty years before’, he told me, not only because it would be less expensive but also because he believed it would be better.

The purchase of new equipment was studiously avoided: the Williams Selyem destemmer, initially borrowed, was finally purchased only in 1984; and when Burt and Ed replaced their original second-hand press it was all of seventy-four years old. For fermentation, they employed adapted stainless steel dairy tanks. And new François Frères barrels only appeared in the cellar when a long-time client wrote the pair a cheque, having asked what would make the wines even better.

Frugality, of course, did not imply compromise. Top quality corks, for example, were paired with bottles imported from France. Williams Selyem’s elegant label was designed and printed by a friend of Burt’s, the esteemed Graham Macintosh of San Francisco’s White Rabbit Press. ‘That was just knowing my craft’, Burt demurs, but it reflects the degree of fastidiousness he brought to winemaking.

‘We tried to do everything right,’ he remembers, ‘every little thing. There are so many things—from tasting the fruit to sorting it; what you do when the wine’s in tank; then selecting at the press, and afterwards just topping off; there’s so much attention and selection throughout the process’.

That fastidiousness shows in Burt’s wines to this day. As we reflect on the vitality of his 1988 Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir, he adumbrates a simple philosophy: ‘If you make balanced wines they tend to age well. That was my whole thing, making balanced wines. A lot of people said that when they got the wine they would drink it right away; and they thought it wouldn’t age because you could drink it right away; but if the wine’s in balance you can’. A simple philosophy, but a sound one.

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