Growing & Winemaking


A Home of Their Own

June 2011
by Jim Gordon
Williams Selyem winery
The new Williams Selyem Winery building uses architecture to achieve winemaking goals such as creating Pinot Noir without pumping.
Williams Selyem Winery in the Russian River Valley of California completed construction for a spectacular new winemaking and hospitality facility late last year. The 33,000-square-foot structure, half a mile down Westside Road from its leased crushing and fermenting location, now houses all barrel fermenting, aging, bottling and administrative functions in addition to welcoming wine club members for tastings, tours and special events.

The new home was a long time coming for the 30-year-old Pinot Noir specialist founded by Burt Williams and Ed Selyem (pronounced cell-yem) in a two-car garage, and owned since 1998 by John and Kathe Dyson. The winery occupies the same property where about half of Williams Selyem’s 64 acres of estate vines grow. Grape processing, fermenting, pressing of red wines and processing of grapes for white wines will continue at the old winemaking location on the Allen Ranch, where one of the many Williams Selyem vineyard-designated Pinots grows.

For director of winemaking Bob Cabral, the new facility does not so much change the well-established protocols for producing unfiltered, unfined, unpumped Pinot Noir and small quantities of Chardonnay and Zinfandel, rather it adds much more space to improve the workflow and up-to-the minute technology to baby the wine even more.


  • One Russian River Pinot Noir specialist near Healdsburg, Calif., has opened a new, environmentally sensitive winery.
  • For the first time in 30 years, the winery’s barrel cellars, bottling, administrative and hospitality functions are in one place.
  • The article describes the new winery construction—including equipment and supplies used—and the improved production flow.
In terms of architecture, the new winery has a tall, two-story front section made of structural steel, wood framing and glass, decorated with salvaged and remilled old-growth redwood from the old Almaden winery in Cienega Valley, Calif. Visitors enter here and walk into the open, high-ceilinged reception area with tasting bar. Administrative and marketing employees look down into the reception area from their mezzanine-level offices.

Important for wine club
The facility’s importance for entertaining wine list members is clear, especially since Williams Selyem is one of the rare wineries of its size (15,500 cases annually) that sells 95% of its wines direct to consumers.

The winery is open to members of the Williams Selyem list and individuals on the waiting list. (Getting on the waiting list is simply a matter of going to the website and signing up.) Visitors are taken by appointment only, and each visitor gets a private tour and tasting or may simply bring a picnic lunch and enjoy one of the four picnic areas. The wines are virtually impossible to buy elsewhere, but visitors have the opportunity to purchase up to three wine types at the winery.

“This is about giving our very loyal customers a place to picnic and hang out,” says Cabral, who took over winemaking from the founders in 1998, when the Dysons purchased the winery. Cabral had worked at nearby producers DeLoach, Alderbrook and Hartford Court, as well as at Kunde Estate in Sonoma Valley.

The D.arc Group of Pelham, N.Y., designed the winery to reflect Williams Selyem’s minimalist approach to winemaking, to make a striking visual statement and a less visible but extensive environmental statement. The front exterior of the building shows an arching barrel-shaped roof and large windows that display dramatically stacked, empty barrels. Inside, a large bottle-glass art installation in the atrium area was sourced from the Vetreria Etrusca in Italy and designed by Alessandro Belli, an Italian architect.

The portion of the building (really a separate structure) that houses the 15,000-square-foot production facility is in back, sunk in as deep as 23.5 feet underground. A “green” roof covers this section. It forms a terrace partly covered with pavers and planted to drought-resistant natural grasses to assist with energy efficiency and add to the visitor experience as a hospitality area. The living roof acts as a temporary water collector, soaking up the rain and then slowly releasing it into the storm drains.

Flow of production
At the new winery, Cabral and his team have customized the workflow to incorporate several old Williams Selyem techniques as well as new twists. Before the red wines come over from the Allen Ranch, the grape bunches are hand sorted, processed with an Amos destemmer while leaving a minority of whole clusters and fermented with a proprietary yeast (Williams Selyem) isolated by Marty Bannister at Vinquiry. Pinot Noir and Zinfandel are fermented in 40- to 60-year-old open-top dairy tanks with cooling jackets (these can also be used for heating). These fermentors have been adapted to winery use by American Winery Services. White wines are destemmed, pressed and settled at the Allen Ranch, then barrel-fermented at the new winery. Two Willmes and one Bucher press separate the juice from the skins and seeds.

Williams Selyem ferments a small amount of Chenin Blanc using concrete eggs from Nomblot. At 3,500 pounds each, the eggs are very heavy and awkward to move, so the winery hired Sierra Stainless to wrap custom-made racks around the eggs to enable a heavy-duty forklift to move them when necessary.

The winery is unusual in its use of pressurized dome-topped and dome-bottomed stainless steel “beer” tanks for assembling wine before and/or after barreling. The unusual construction makes the tanks strong enough to carry the extra pounds per square inch needed to transfer wine using inert gas for pressure rather than by pump. It’s a point of pride here. While most wine tanks can handle 3-5 psi, the 10 tanks that range from 1,500 gallons to 12,000 gallons operate with up to 15 psi, which easily pushes the wine through hoses to barrels or the bottling line.

Williams Selyem uses 75% new Francois Freres barrels with medium toast and toasted heads for its Pinot Noir, and Cabral credits the barrels for some of the winery’s spicy house aroma. This character easily stood out during a recent tasting of Pinots from a dozen Russian River wineries. The Chardonnay ferments and ages in Marcel Cadet barrels from Dargaud et Jaegle.

The five barrel rooms are independently heated, cooled and humidified. Each room has CO2 monitoring and alarms, Kreyer fan coils and Smart Fog humidifiers. The winery has developed its own barrel identification codes to better track the myriad lots of 11 vineyard designated Pinots and the other various wines stacked up to five high on double-barrel racks by Western Square.

Cabral and his winemaking team—Jeff Mangahas, winemaker; Phil McGahan, associate winemaker; Trevor Chlanda, assistant winemaker, and Patrick Bernard, enologist—use AMS winery management software.

Floor and wall coatings
The floors and walls in the new winery got special attention. ABT trench drains 4 inches and 12 inches wide have removable grates to allow for easy cleaning as well as providing hose chases across heavy traffic areas. Cabral was interested in using non-skid floors, having seen them at the newish Ferrari Carano mountain winery in nearby Alexander Valley. Cabral and his team wanted something similar for Williams Selyem’s bottling area, knowing the non-skid polyurethane is acid resistant and high temperature resistant, allowing workers to clean it with 190ºF water, which would break down regular concrete.

The coating is ideal for safety and long-term wear, but it was relatively expensive at $12 or more per square foot. Safety and low-maintenance won out, and the coating was specified for nearly the entire winemaking and bottling area. Phoenix Coating installed it on the floors and also applied a two-part polyurea wall coating containing mildewcide and bactericide. Cabral reflected on how the maintenance of the new facility was high on his priority list while planning. “A lot of my thinking on supplies was not about price,” he said.

Considerable planning, effort and expense went into the bottling line. Williams Selyem used to keep a monobloc bottling line in storage and had to move it into place at the old winery by crane during bottling season. Wines were hand-labeled and foiled by a crew of four women who worked seven months on labeling and two months on grape-sorting during crush. The new winery houses a complete bottling line operating under one roof and automates everything. The cost of bottling has gone down from approximately $2.88 per case to 91 cents per case, Cabral says, while shrinking the bottling crew as a whole from 12 people to six.

The new bottling line includes the existing GAI monobloc from AWS Prospero. The wines go straight from a pressurized assembly tank to the automatic filler corker. “In my 13 years here we’ve never had to filter a Pinot Noir,” says Cabral.

The capsuler is by Robino & Calandrino. The labeler by Cavagnino & Gatti applies pressure-sensitive labels printed by Accent that can be switched over to glued labels if needed. Collopak supplied the capsuler and labeler plus the collection table and Cames cork feeder. Williams Selyem chooses corks from Rich Xiberta, Scott Labs, Ganau and MA Silva, and it selects glass containers from Verallia (formerly St. Gobain).

The winery stores case goods that won’t be shipped immediately in a temperature-controlled room with fast-moving, remote-controlled vinyl roll-up doors. Long-term storage of library wines makes efficient use of a small space by using high-density vertical storage racks originally designed for book and document storage that slide on tracks and can be packed together tightly then moved on the tracks for access.

Hydronic heating and cooling
The winery’s most innovative technology may be its intricate and interconnected hydronic heating and cooling system. Estate manager Chuck Gangnath explained that the hydronic network’s heating capability starts with 14 solar hot water panels by Sun Water Solar that preheat water for a boiler. The boiler then transfers heat to piped glycol. The system can also chill glycol when cooling is needed. The cooling and heating then serve the bottling and production area and are also used for other areas of the new facility. Indoor Environmental Services supplied the production refrigeration and heating system.

Fifty kilowatts of electricity come from solar panel installations by One Sun. Panels rest on top of a carport behind the winery to protect the staff and their vehicles from sun and rain.

Another energy concern was insulating the facility from the elements. The perimeter concrete walls were made in three layers totaling 13 inches thick, poured on the site and tilted up into position.

Other outdoor environmental features included preserving a number of 200-year-old valley oaks and also building around dramatic rock outcroppings. The winery hired local arborist Lexi Tucker to provide extra care for the trees through the entire construction process and continuing today. The area’s 45 inches of annual rainfall called for a covered loading dock that was built around one of the heritage trees.

Biagi Trucking rigs regularly pull up to the dock. The Wine Tasting Network handles direct-to-consumer shipments, and the winery uses Advanced Management Systems and Cultivate Systems for marketing software.

Keeping Williams Selyem wine club members loyal has long been a high priority for the winery, and outstanding wine quality is the primary key to that loyalty. The new winery promises to make it simpler and more cost efficient to maintain and even improve the high winemaking standards. In addition, wine club members now have a sophisticated place to gather among the vines. It appears that the building project will be a win-win for Williams Selyem and its customers.

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