Wine News Burgundy Comes Calling for Sonoma Pinot

Burgundy Comes Calling for Sonoma Pinot

The winery's Russian River Valley PInot Noir was what caught Faiveley's eye.
© Williams Selyem | The winery's Russian River Valley PInot Noir was what caught Faiveley's eye.
One of Burgundy's biggest names has established a foothold in Sonoma, drawn by the quality of the Pinot Noir.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Sunday, 17-Jan-2021

For decades, Burgundy vignerons have had cultural exchanges with Oregon.

Plenty of French wineries have invested in California, but not for Pinot Noir. Burgundians sometimes spoke of California Pinot Noir with open disdain.

Related stories:
California with Just a Hint of Burgundy
Jean-Nicolas Méo: Bringing Burgundy to Oregon
An American Winemaker in Burgundy

That all changed last week when Domaine Faiveley bought a minority interest in Williams Selyem, with an expectation that Faiveley will take over in three years if the partnership goes well. Williams Selyem is a hallowed name in US Pinot Noir, but what's most significant about the deal is that Williams Selyem is in California, not Oregon.

"I very much weighted the two options," Erwan Faiveley told Wine-Searcher. "I think there are very good wines in Oregon. I have a really sweet spot for the wines from California. Not only Sonoma. If you go down to Santa Barbara, I think there are some very interesting Pinots. Quite different, to be honest. There is room for every taste."

Williams Selyem owns five vineyards, and four are in the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. (The fifth is in San Benito County.) The winery buys fruit from a number of other vineyards; the great majority are in Sonoma County.

Asked what he likes about Sonoma County Pinot Noir, Faiveley said: "The style. I like full-bodied wine. I think the profile flavors also are quite different to Oregon, with more dark fruit, more plum. Very different from Burgundy, of course. But still, I very much like the style. That's about Pinot but Chardonnay, also. For me, Chardonnay is much more interesting in California than in other states. They are of course richer than the ones we have in Burgundy. But they are still fresh. They can be mistaken for a serious hot vintage from Burgundy. They can be quite similar in terms of profile."

Faiveley, the seventh generation proprietor of the Burgundy winery, knows the US well; he has an MBA from Columbia Business School.

"I first encountered [Williams Selyem's] wines in 2000 or 2001," Faiveley said by phone from France. "I spent two months in California. I went to visit many wineries, but I didn't get to visit Williams Selyem back then. But I was fortunate to taste some of their wines. I remember really liking those wines. They are extremely hard to find. They are hard to find in the US and they are impossible to find in France."

Faiveley said the negotiations with Williams Selyem owners John and Kathe Dyson took 18 months. The Dysons told the San Francisco Chronicle that they were looking for a family, not a corporation or private equity group, to take over the winery. The Dysons bought Williams Selyem from its founders for $9.5 million in 1998; terms of the Faiveley deal have not been disclosed.

"For years, we have turned aside many offers from various entities that did not share our long-term vision," John Dyson wrote in an email to his mailing list. "With the Faiveley family, in particular Erwan Faiveley, the current family head of the Domaine, we believe we have found the right partner with a long-term commitment to the wine business, who shares our vision of making the absolutely best quality wines and knows how to do it."

Hard to find

Faiveley said that he had been looking for a winery in the US for more than 10 years.

"The property was not for sale. I was introduced," Faiveley said. "When I learned that, maybe, there could be a way that the Dyson family could be interested, I was very interested. They were not looking to sell their winery. They had many offers. They refused all of them. He loves the winery. He loves his people, loves his wine. I managed to convince him that maybe in the mid and long term, we would be the right stewards to take over his winery. He realized that it would be a great option."

Funny story: as Faiveley's discussions became serious with the Dysons, he wanted to bring home some wine for his team in Burgundy to taste. That proved to be difficult but possible, thanks to Wine-Searcher.

"We eventually found a few in a shop in New York," Faiveley said. "If you really want to get one, you can find one. Except if you are on their [mailing] list, they are very hard to find."

Williams Selyem was founded in the 1970s by Burt Williams, who worked as a printer at the San Francisco Chronicle, and Ed Selyem. They began by making wine in their garage and they sold it to a mailing list. It's rather amazing that its reputation spread in the days before social media, given its inaccessibility and the fact that – though they started with Zinfandel – they quickly specialized in Pinot Noir, which was a fairly minor varietal in the US in the 20th Century. But scarcity helped.

The winery grew beyond what the founders wanted to deal with so they sold it to the Dysons, who already owned a vineyard and had founded Millbrook Winery. The Chronicle's Esther Mobley reported that Williams and Selyem chose the Dysons to buy their winery over San Francisco sports legend Joe Montana, quarterback for several 49ers championship teams; apparently Montana thought Williams Selyem's business records were insufficiently detailed.

The Dysons invested a lot into the business, buying vineyards and building facilities, but they kept the winemaking basic. Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs are still fermented in open-top dairy tanks, which the founders began using in the 1970s because they couldn't afford anything better. Director of winemaking Jeff Mangahas is expected to stay in his position.

Faiveley said that, for the next three years, "we will give them our advice and our feedback. The strategy is still very much in the hand of John Dyson and the team. Williams Selyem is such a brilliantly organized place. I don't want to impose or change anything. I want to spend three years knowing and learning what they do well. If there are things that can be improved, fine."

But he does not plan to move to California as he still has his family's business in Burgundy, with nearly 100 acres of grand cru and premier cru vineyards, to oversee. Williams Selyem currently makes 20,000 cases of wine per year.

"If you look at Domaine Drouhin in Oregon, Veronique Drouhin spends maybe one month and a half every year in Oregon," Faiveley said. "Maybe I will spend a month."

It doesn't sound like he's going to need to bring a huge suitcase full of wines with him. California wine will be just fine.

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