Burt Williams passed the other day and a hole opened in the firmament of North Coast pinot noir. I first met him in the winter of 1995. His partner, Ed Selyem, had called to ask about buying fruit and invited me for a tour. Before stopping at Williams Selyem I toured a state-of-the-art facility also producing pinot and chardonnay. When I pulled into the yard at Williams Selyem two large fellows in bib overalls greeted me. One let out a bellow, “You’ve been to high tech. Welcome to no tech.” That was Burt.
And no tech it was, from the double-lined dairy tanks used for fermentation to the hands-on practices in all stages of production. Burt was bigger than life because he brought to all he did this incredible energy welled up from a deep spring of appreciation, gratitude and humble pleasure in life’s limitless bounty. And he had expert knowledge of all he engaged with, whether it be mushrooms, barbecuing, or, of course, winemaking.
As with most wise folks, his words tended to be brief and simple. I asked him how he set the day to bottle. He said, “When the sky is clear, because when it’s clear above it will be clear in the bottle.” No fining and filtration in his wines. Throughout the industry, fixing the time to harvest is usually guided by technical measurements. Williams Selyem took a no-tech approach. Ed came to the vineyard, gathered five-gallon pails of fruit from each block, crushed the berries and let it sit overnight. When the juice showed balance and full ripeness they picked. Yes, they had a refractometer and some lab equipment, but the bottom line was their palate and experience.
The summer of 1996 was very hot so the fruit was picked in August, extremely early for that time. Most pinot from the North Coast that year was average at best. The 1996 Williams Selyem wines had exceptional balance, resonance and are still showing very well. Burt always said the secret was to let time tell you what to do and when to do it.
I met him and Ed for dinner one night in town. On walking into the restaurant, a shout resounded from the rear, “Plant chardonnay and I will buy it!” He was referring to a hillside field I was thinking of budding over to nebbiolo, having fallen in love with Barolos. Well, I put in chardonnay and some world-class wines have come from it. In fact, some of us now think our corner of the true Sonoma Coast may become renowned more for its grand-cru chardonnay than its pinot.
One spring I dropped in to taste the wines from our fruit. Joseph, my six-year-old, was with me. The subject of children in the old days having wine at dinner cut with water came up. Sure enough, we drove off with Joe sucking down some Williams Selyem juice heavily diluted with H2O. It was the first fertilization of what slowly developed into a very fine palate and a deep appreciation of wine. And my daughter, Jasmine, now the GM of our winery, recalls coming along with me to taste when she was young and how warmly she was treated. I can’t recall Burt ever treating anyone without warmth, full attention and consideration. He was never presumptuous or full of himself.
To hang out with Burt, especially at one of his barbecues, was true entertainment. The guests usually were local folks from the food and wine world with a mix of family and friends. The food came from gardens, the forest or local pastures. All, of course, washed down with wonderful wines, many from his ample cellar, which he generously shared.
The legacy that Burt created was to bring to winemaking his commitment to technical mastery, traditional hands-on winemaking, and a realization that sites that were capable of growing superior pinot were the foundation of great wines. Starting in the Russian River, especially with Joe Rochiolli, then finding special terroirs on the true Sonoma Coast (west of Occidental and in the Cazadero/Ft. Ross area), and up in the Anderson Valley in Mendocino, he put together an outstanding group of sites from whose fruit flowed outstanding wines. He established close and amiable relations with the growers by his inclusive personality and sensitive business practices. As a grower, I felt that the successes were mutual, as were the problems. Growers wanted to be his partners, as did a small army of volunteers who participated in harvest and bottling. It’s hard now to imagine how feudal the Sonoma grape and wine business was in the 1970s and ’80s. Pinot noir wines from Sonoma had no cachet in the marketplace. All this was transformed by the creative brilliance, expertise and exacting work of Burt Williams.
He told me once an old French wine person visited him. When asked to describe the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy, the old fella drew a square in the air with his finger and said, “Bordeaux.” Then he made a circle. “Burgundy.” And Burt’s wines were all in that Burgundian circle, an honest expression of the sites, his vision and mastery. His best wines remind one of that mystical definition of God: a circle with no circumference and centers everywhere.
David Hirsch is the proprietor of Hirsch Vineyards, a 1,000-acre ranch on the far Sonoma Coast, on a ridge above Fort Ross, where he tends 73 acres of pinot noir and chardonnay.
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