Williams Selyem, king of Sonoma County pinot noir winemakers, sticks to its business roots

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The worries among those operating a winery in 2019 are plentiful. The ongoing industry consolidation and possible recession are top concerns.

The management team at Williams Selyem in Healdsburg — the winery that put Sonoma County pinot noir on the map by winning the top prize for red wine at the 1987 California State Fair and decades later still is known for making some of the best pinot in the country — operates as an anomaly. Management’s chief task remains similar to the old adage of don’t try to fix something that’s not broken.

Owner John Dyson’s mantra in his 20-year ownership of Williams Selyem still stands: “I have never worked so hard to change nothing in my life.”

To be sure, there are challenges. Since the winery buys half of its grapes from contract growers, continuing to maintain sources for top-quality fruit is critical.

To spend a day at the Selyem winery on Westside Road is like visiting an earlier era before the 2004 movie “Sideways” launched pinot noir into what has become huge popularity in the U.S. marketplace. Its pinot mission is largely unchanged and the winery privately owned, while much bigger wineries and private-equity groups have acquired highly rated local pinot producers in their quest for growth.

For example, Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa bought Siduri Wines and Copain Wines. Kosta Browne Winery of Sebastopol is run by its second private- equity owner. Merry Edwards sold her Sebastopol winery this year to French Champagne maker Louis Roederer Champagne House, and then she retired.

They do things differently at Williams Selyem, enjoying tremendous success over 40 years. The winery founded by Burt Williams and Ed Selyem out of a Forestville garage maintains a waiting list of nine months to a year to sign up for its wine club. And the less than 10% of 25,000 cases of wine produced each year sold to restaurants and wholesalers never gets discounted — a mostly unheard of practice today in the wine sector.

Owners Dyson and his wife, Kathe, bought the winery in 1998 from the namesake founders for $9.5 million. They’ve adhered to the original business philosophy of making the best wine possible, not as much money as possible.

“The one thing that has been consistent the whole time is whatever it takes to make the best wine, we will spend the money,” said Eric Grams, the chief financial officer who has worked at the Selyem winery for 18 years. “The winemaker is ahead of the CFO in this business.”

A New York Ivy League educated private-equity investor who also owns wineries in Tuscany and New York, John Dyson’s career includes stints in local and state politics. He was a deputy mayor of New York in 1994-1996 as a Democrat under Republican Rudolph Giuliani. During the 1970s, the graduate of Cornell University and Princeton University was state commerce commissioner when the “I Love New York” tourism campaign was launched.

After the New York Dysons bought the Selyem winery in Sonoma County, there were fears that its proud pinot tradition was in danger. In fact, legendary New York Times reporter R.W. Apple Jr. sounded an alarm in a 1999 article when he wrote: “Can a minuscule winery, started by a couple of ornery, rough-hewn rural Californians, find continuing happiness as part of an international combine owned by a big-time venture capitalist from Wall Street?”

Those fears never were realized as the old-world winemaking techniques pioneered by Williams and Selyem were carried on by successor Bob Cabral, and now are handled by vice president of winemaking, Jeff Mangahas, who has been in charge since 2015. Most notably, the grapes are fermented in repurposed open-top dairy tanks with foot treading on the fruit. Punch downs in the tank — to break up the solids that rise to the surface — are done every six hours. Mangahas has the assistance of 15 interns this harvest season for such intensive work.

“It’s the perfect ratio of skin to juice,” said Mangahas, who was a research biologist studying cancer before he went into a career of making wine. “You are getting the best out of the grapes in a relatively short period of time.”

The wine is still aged in barrels made by Francois Freres cooperage in France. The wood itself is aged for three years before use to ensure the wines will not have too much tannins or carry a toasty mouthfeel. “This is really respectful with the fruit, and I think that’s what Burt (Williams) was shooting for in the early days and its been a winning formula,” Mangahas said.

The barrels are pricey, he conceded. But Mangahas justifies the cost with the phrase “it makes better wine.”

The one area Dyson has moved aggressively has been in acquiring land along the Russian River basin. The land buys include the 1998 purchase of the Drake property in Guerneville — which in the past provided apples for Gerber baby foods — and the 2016 deal that resulted in the 33-acre Saitone Vineyard located on Olivet Road, with its 100-year-old zinfandel vines.

Dyson said it took about 2.5 years of negotiating with the Saitone Family to agree on a deal. The sticking point was not about the price, but more on the legacy by keeping the old zinfandel vines and putting the name Saitone on the wine label. “They wanted to be sure to carry on the family tradition,” he said.

Even though it is known as a “cult pinot,” Williams Selyem has worked to keep prices reasonable compared to its rivals. Its average bottle price is $65. It offers some at $39 on the low end, and up to $110 on the high end. The bottle prices increase less than 2% annually and those spikes are only on some of the selections, rather than the whole product line, said Mark Malpiede, vice president of sales and marketing.

“If you can sell a pinot noir for $250 — great. And there are people who do that. They are not at our quality. They just figure that someone is going to buy it. And that’s fine. But that’s not how we work,” Malpiede said.

In fact, Williams Selyem has taken the extraordinary step in this era of winery surcharges of not charging wine club members when they visit the winery located on a 30-acre estate, a modern structure of stone, redwood and glass that is shaped at the top to resemble a wine barrel.

“At a minimum, they’re spending hundreds of dollars with us. And we are going to nickel and dime them for a tasting?” Malpiede said. Visitors also can sample some of the more limited bottlings, which have ranged from sparkling wine to grüner veltliner. About 80% of its production is pinot noir.

The building, constructed in 2010, is a 33,000-square-foot winery that also serves as the hospitality center. In the years since, the structure has become one of the wine sector’s most distinctive buildings in the North Coast. “John (Dyson) calls this his temple of pinot,” Mangahas said.

But most people have not seen it. The building is not visible from Westside Road and Williams Selyem discourages visitors. There is no sign out front noting the winery along the road. Daring visitors have to rely on a street address to ensure they are at the right place.

After more than 20 years, Dyson said he is still bullish on Sonoma County pinot noir and he thinks that there is sufficient land for more planting of vineyards. In the past, Dyson has been outspoken against attempts to curb or limit agricultural opportunities in the county.

“That’s the main advantage Sonoma has. … There is still land to be had,” he said in a recent interview.

Some Sonoma County wine companies such as Jackson and Foley Family Wines have ventured to Oregon for pinot noir vineyards. They have been lured by less expensive land prices as well as looser regulations. But Dyson has refused. “The problem is the (Oregon) wine is not as good,” he said.

The 76-year-old Dyson acknowledged he soon will have to think about succession. He hopes to have at least another five years to operate Williams Selyem before making a decision. A handoff to his children is uncertain because his two daughters have chosen other careers, though his granddaughter could be a possibility since she is, as he put it, a “wiz in biology.”

“The future of Sonoma County is certainly pinot noir. We are going to be in 10 years an equal destination to Napa,” Dyson said. “Napa is focusing more on cab.”

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

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