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Burt Williams, founding pinot noir winemaker of Williams Selyem Winery, dies at 79

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Burt Williams, the founding winemaker of Williams Selyem Winery in Healdsburg who with his old-world techniques helped turn pinot noir into Sonoma County’s most coveted wine varietal, died Wednesday from complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 79.

Williams was considered a pioneer in developing the balanced style of pinot noir from the Russian River Valley — not too jammy and not too lean in flavor — long before it became incredibly popular in the aftermath of the 2004 movie “Sideways.”

Along with partner Ed Selyem, Williams limited wine production to premier quality over profit. That business strategy helped spawn the creation of the winery’s coveted club waiting list, which now stands at nine months for new customers.

“He’s a real icon,” said Michael Haney, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners, the trade group that represents local wineries. “He raised the awareness of wine from Sonoma County. He also raised the bar to show what we make is world class.”

A self-taught winemaker and wine grape connoisseur, Williams started making wine in his early 20s. He worked out of his Forestville home, known then as “Hacienda Del Rio,” the label on his first wines. Relying on winemaking books, he learned old-world procedures from Europe that he implemented when he started making homemade wine with Selyem in 1979. For example, Williams used stainless-steel dairy tanks for fermenting, a tradition the “cult” winery still bearing the founders names continues.

“I had no big plan. I wanted to buy grapes and turn them into good wine. We weren’t trying to conquer the world or make millions of dollars,” he once said in an interview with The Prince of Pinot newsletter.

Williams had a full-time job at the time as a typesetter at the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, publisher of both the Examiner and Chronicle. He later worked as a proofreader, said Ben Papapietro, who worked with him at the newspaper and was inspired by him to get into the wine business as owner/winemaker at Papapietro Perry Winery in Healdsburg.

“He had one the best palettes in the business,” Papapietro said Friday. “He had a great memory. He drank terrific wines.”

Williams Selyem Winery first gained fame by winning the top prize for red wine at the 1987 California State Fair. That honor is considered what put Sonoma County on the map as a region producing some of the best pinot noir in the world. It was aided by its marine layer in the morning that later gave way to more sun exposure in the afternoon.

The winning red wine that year — a 1985 vintage pinot noir — was notable since the winery placed a vineyard designate on its label. That stellar pinot was made with grapes from the Rochioli Vineyard along Westside Road. Besides celebrating the winemaking, the label drew attention to the excellent terroir — the French term for climate, soil and terrain — for growing pinot noir grapes in a county that had been primarily known for chardonnay and zinfandel grapes, vintners said.

“People started paying attention to the Russian River Valley and the quality that was coming out of here,” said Tom Rochioli, a grape grower whose father, Joe, worked with Williams since the 1970s. The winery today still sources fruit from the Rochiolis.

“He knew a good vineyard,” Rochioli said of Williams, who continually searched for vibrant fruit. “He knew how to translate that into wine.”

In 1992, Williams quit his day job to focus on the winery. Six years later, he and Selyem sold the business to New York businessman John Dyson and his wife, Kathe, for $9.5 million. The couple built a modern winery hidden off a 30-acre estate along Westside Road. Bob Cabral took over from Williams when he retired.

Jeff Mangahas was named winemaker at Williams Selyem in 2013, one of the many younger winemakers through the decades influenced by Williams.

“Burt had a profound impact on my way of thinking of winemaking and it was some of his early wines that fueled my interest in the Russian River Valley,” Mangahas said in a statement.

In his final venture, Williams bought a vineyard in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, named the Morning Dew Ranch, where he grew pinot noir grapes. Williams Selyem made a vineyard designate from his grapes, called Burt Williams’ Morning Dew Ranch, until he sold the vineyard in 2015.

Williams is survived by his wife Rebecca; two daughters; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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

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