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Owner of Williams Selyem winery in Healdsburg sells minority stake to French wine family

The couple who owns the venerable Williams Selyem winery in Healdsburg Wednesday announced they have sold a minority stake in their business to a French winemaking family, in a deal that puts the investors on a path to eventually take over the nationally acclaimed producer of pinot noir wines.

John and Kathe Dyson said the Faiveley family, who have been making wine from the Burgundy region of France since 1825, were the proper stewards to potentially take over Williams Selyem.

Neither the purchase price nor the percentage stake included in the transaction finalized on Dec. 31, 2020, was revealed by the Dysons. But John Dyson called it “big enough” to get his attention and give the investors the “courtesy and attention that they deserve.”

The two sides will reevaluate after three years to determine if the Faiveley family will acquire a larger stake, potentially the remainder of the company, Dyson said.

Over the decades, the Westside Road winery has become regarded as one of the best pinot noir producers in the country, after its founders Burt Williams and Ed Selyem got started in a Forestville garage in 1979.

“Above all, I wanted people who had their hands in the soil — farmers,” John Dyson said in an interview of his five-year quest to find a successor.

Dyson bought the Healdsburg winery in 1998 for $9.5 million and helped transform it into one of Sonoma County’s most celebrated wine brands by acquiring 135 vineyard acres over the years and upgrading operations. These actions allowed his staff to control every step along the winemaking process. Due to its national popularity, the wait to join the Selyem wine club can be as long as a year.

Erwan Faiveley, the seventh-generation owner of his family’s wine empire that includes a sizable collection of Burgundy's grand cru and premier cru vineyards, said his family had been looking for over a decade to obtain a stake in the U.S. wine industry.

“As Burgundians, we were looking to grow the best pinot noir and chardonnay in the United States,” Faiveley said in a statement. “Sonoma County and especially Russian River was obvious for us, and Williams Selyem has always been one of our favorite wineries.”

There will be no change in daily operations Williams Selyem. Jeff Mangahas, director of winemaking, and other key employees are being asked to stay long term at the winery that bottles and sells more than 20,000 wine cases annually — a size that allows it to remain a boutique winery and one selling less than 10% of its coveted wines to restaurants and wholesalers.

Since his children are not interested in taking over the Healdsburg winery, Dyson held discussions with many suitors. He was determined not to sell a stake to a private equity investor group or large wine company, moves in which Williams Selyem likely would lose its uniqueness in a push for higher production volume.

“I want somebody who has a history of loving the lands,” he said, of forging a business partnership with a French family that’s been making wine for almost 200 years.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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