Some legends begin with a grand gesture that, like a wave, washes the subject into history; others begin with a slow trickle that gradually gathers strength. Such has been the case with Williams Selyem, one of American wine’s most coveted labels, whose modest origins belie its rank as one of the industry’s true aristocrats.
The enterprise started in 1979 as a weekend hobby for two wine enthusiasts and neighbors, Burt Williams, a pressman for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Ed Selyem, a wine buyer in Forestville, Calif. The pair was among the first of California’s garagistes—a term that connotes status today, thanks to the attention bestowed by critic Robert M. Parker on start-ups such as Brewer-Clifton in Santa Barbara County, but one that at the time meant, literally, that the wines were fermented in a two-car garage. While the first vintage produced was a Zinfandel, Williams Selyem won its reputation (and, incidentally, helped to create that of the Sonoma Coast region) with Pinot Noir sourced from the Allen vineyard, which became the site of the winery in 1989. The subtle and unique character of these wines drove the winery’s growth, and today their sought-after releases are available only to those select few who manage to secure a place on the exclusive mailing list.
Despite its renown for producing Pinot, the Allen vineyard also bears fruit for Williams Selyem’s Chardonnays. Here, the commitment of excellence that current winemaker Bob Cabral applies to his reds transfers beautifully to the whites. While many California Chardonnays gravitate either to the overly buttery, oak-laden style that comes with a second (or malolactic) fermentation or to the crisp, clean Chablis style one associates with France, the Williams Selyem Chardonnays strike a beautiful balance of texture and flavor that is neither thin nor overly cloying. The only disadvantage is their relative scarcity: The winery seldom releases a white in quantities that exceed 200 cases.
This year’s choice for best North American white wine release is the firm’s 1999 Chardonnay Russian River Valley Allen Vineyard, which carries on a venerable tradition, even though the winery was sold in 1998 to Kathe and John Dyson (Burt Williams remains as a consultant). The vintage is a true celebration of the Chardonnay grape, weaving complex threads of flavor into a vibrant tapestry of fruit, wood, flowers, and spice. The nose, from the first, gives off a sweet, subtle smoke that prepares the palate for the green apple, creamy pear, and cantaloupe that engulf the senses from the first sip. The flavors are full and round, accented by jasmine essences and citrus blossom, leading to a smoke-traced finish that reprises the wine’s bouquet. The term mouthwatering is frequently and emptily invoked in reference to wines; this is one of the rare instances in which the cliché obtains. If Williams’ and Selyem’s oenological adventure began with a mere trickle of wine, it achieves a gushing crescendo with this jubilant Chardonnay.
Williams Selyem Vineyards, 707.433.6425, www.williamsselyem.com, $46