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Pinot Noir’s New World

If the buds are pushing on the grapevines in the Edna Valley, then you know it’s time for the World of Pinot Noir, a Central Coast celebration of the “heartbreak grape” held each year in Shell Beach, Calif. WOPN gathers winemakers and consumers from all over the world to participate in seminars, tastings and plenty of revelry.

This week’s celebration was the event’s 10th anniversary, and in that decade the region and the variety have seen dramatic changes in fortune. Central Coast Pinot Noir, after all, is the uncredited star of the 2005 wine movie “Sideways,” which vaulted both the varietal and region into spotlight wattage normally reserved for starlets and Napa Valley Cabernets. (The region’s Merlot producers, on the other hand, didn’t fare nearly as well.)

WOPN remains a kind of pulse-taking venue for the variety, offering in-depth seminars on emerging regions, dramatic new food and wine pairings, iterations from a single vineyard, surveys of everything from the latest clones to the latest in barrel selection, closures and glassware. Each year, the seminars are anchored by a presentation of wines from a respected Burgundy producer, and this year the wines from the Premier Cru sites of Gevrey-Chambertin producer Domaine Fourrier were featured in a tasting moderated by Allen Meadows of Burghound, the influential newsletter about all things Burgundian.

Bob Cabral and Michael Jordan

Exploring Williams Selyem

This year, for the first time, a California producer was given star treatment: Williams Selyem of Sonoma County. The seminar, moderated by Master Sommelier Michael Jordan and Williams Selyem winemaker of 12 years, Bob Cabral, featured a much-deserved retrospective organized around 11 library wines going back to the 1991 vintage.

Founded in 1981 by Burt Williams and Ed Selyem, Williams Selyem is one of the most respected wineries in California, the first to raise a Pinot Noir house to high-demand, “cult” status, and among the first to elevate the Russian River Valley to one of the world’s most coveted sources for Pinot Noir. The winery has made stars of Westside Road growers such as Joe Rochioli, Howard Allen and Charles Bacigalupi, and has established the reputations of great Sonoma Coast growers such as David Hirsch, Andy and Nick Peay and Donnie Schatzberg of Precious Mountain.

One of the more interesting things about the Williams Selyem brand is its bifurcated history: The wines have been crafted by just two winemakers, founder Burt Williams, and Cabral, who was hired after the brand was sold to New York financier John Dyson in 1998.

When Williams and Selyem sold the brand, few believed that its extraordinary legacy could be sustained, and in the seminar Cabral acknowledged that those doubts extended to its newly hired winemaker. In Pinot circles, there wasn’t a bigger reputation to live up to. Cabral was reassured that Burt Williams had agreed to remain on as a consultant for five years, allowing Cabral to observe and absorb, but within the year, Williams asked to be released from his contract, and Cabral was left to fill his sleepless nights poring over Williams’ winemaking notebooks, into which he’d recorded his methods in meticulous detail for more than a decade.

Most agree that the transition between “The Burt Years” and “The Bob Years” has been remarkable for its seamlessness. “In my life I’ve never worked so hard at changing nothing at all,” Cabral has said on many occasions, and it rings true not only for the great vineyard designates that have been made nearly from the winery’s inception — wines such as Precious Mountain, Allen, and Rochioli Riverblock — but also the tradition that has been carried forward to new bottlings such as Westside Neighbors and Peay and Williams Selyem’s two Russian River estate vineyards, Litton and Drake.

Bottles of Williams Selyem Pinot Noir.A Pinot in a category by itself

Williams Selyem wines have always drawn from a fiercely minimalist dictum, Cabral explained in the seminar. “These were Old World techniques by default,” he said. “Burt and Ed were the original garagistes, and many of their decisions were dictated by cost.” But from thrift, an aesthetic was forged, one which minimized the winemaker’s hand. “For each wine they employed the exact same techniques,” explained Cabral, “so the true expression of each site would come out.”

Some of those techniques certainly contribute to a sense of uniqueness in the wines, including the use of a single barrel cooper, Francois Freres, a devotion to at least partial whole cluster fermentation, and the use of a special yeast strain to inoculate fermentation, which Burt Williams isolated from a bin of Zinfandel from Martinelli Winery’s Jackass Vineyard in 1984. These factors and others certainly help to explain the uncanny consistency in a Williams Selyem Pinot: In flavor and texture, from the gentle dried cherry spiciness of the 1997 Rochioli to the suave succulence of the 2005 Litton, there’s a throughline, at once mysterious and thrilling. Indeed, one is tempted to say that in all of the world’s Pinots, there nothing quite like a Williams Selyem wine. It’s in a category by itself.

And that is one of the great virtues of festivals like World of Pinot Noir — revelations like these are routine, as are the pleasures for any Pinot lover. The weekend concluded with a bacchanale-like Pinot Paulee at the winery shared by Au Bon Climat and Qupe in a remote corner of the Santa Maria Valley, where the big bottles got uncorked, tongues got loosed and the glasses seemed never to empty.

Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.

Photos, from top: Pinot noir in glasses at the World of Pinot Noir event. Credit: Kirk Irwin; Event moderator Michael Jordan and Williams Selyem winemaker Bob Cabral. Credit: Kirk Irwin; Bottles of Williams Selyem 2001 vintage Pinot Noir. Credit: Kirk Irwin.


Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.