End of an Era: Williams Selyem Sells to a Discounter

There it was. The Williams Selyem 2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir; three bottles for $150. I’m not saying this was the same as walking up to a Vegas casino and having Willie Mays or Joe Louis greet you. But…not far from it either. More like walking over to the jewelry counter at Target and wondering how the Tiffany earrings ended up there at half off. In case you did not get the significance of having Williams Selyem wine offered on the cheap there was a TIP: “California’s first cult Pinot Noir producer, WS is one of the most awarded PN producer in CA history.” The offer was only available to the first 150 “members” of Lot 18; an invitation only discount wine website. The development of discount wine websites is a topic in itself. Consider the fine differences between WinesTilSoldOut and Lot 18.

WTSO offers great pricing – 50% off or more – on wines from distinctive areas, in particular Old World, which are not exactly familiar. The offers are good for 24 hours, one wine at a time. Pricing ranges from $20 to $100 depending on the cult-factor which is generally low. A big ticket Aussie would command the high end. An unknown Chianti the low. What about Lot 18? More glossy in presentation with multiple wines on offer at the same time. Pricing ranges widely but the names are more familiar and there are plenty of New World as well as Old World glossy wines. Recent offerings included a $45 “cult” Petite Syrah [ed. isn’t Petite Syrah cult by default?] purchase in pair, and a $30 cult French Chenin Blanc…both knocked back 50%. No time limit. And now they have the biggest cult wine of all time.

Here is a recent offer sheet from Jim Ruxin’s Village Wine of Brentwood. The selections and prices are typical of the Chinese market. In the meantime the current offering from Woodland Hills Wine Company has a liter of Harlan Estate 2001 for $2,000.00, a 750 ml of Dalle Valle Maya 2002 for $450.00, and a 2006 Harlan Estate The Maiden Napa Valley for $200.00. These are all premium Napa Cabernets. Even though they represent considerable savings compared to the Ruxin list (which by demand only includes a few First Growth Bordeaux and a couple Burgundy producers) and WHWCo’s list includes Napa trophy wines, they are not of interest to the last of the great trophy buyers in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing.

trophy wine nostalgia

tBoW’s favorite discount wine site for now is Garagiste which offers totally obscure wines from all over the place at very attractive prices. Two things hook me: the obscurity of the wines and the pricing. Oh yes. I am also fascinated with the soft-tone pugnacious-ness of the site; that even though I have purchased wines from these guys for the past four months I have yet to receive any! Now that is exclusivity. Even though I bought it I can’t have it.

from Opus to Who-us?

Back to Williams Selyem. They are the original New World cult wine. Robert Mondavi tried to create the first American cult wine with his Mondavi/Mouton partnership named Opus One. Instead he created the original overblown Napa trophy wine. The first vintage of the wine – a blend of Mouton and Mondavi juice – was not even from a Mondavi vineyard – and it was o-r-d-i-n-a-r-y. But it was the first Napa label to make it clear $100 was very much in reach.

Williams Selyem, on the other hand, hit all the right cult notes like Bud Powell or T Monk plying their trade. A couple of amateurs making Sonoma Pinot Noir in their Oakland garage produced the first decent Pinot Noir in the USA [ed. we say USA but California was really the only candidate for producing quality Pinot. Not any more…hello Anderson and Willamette Valleys.] And it was really good. And it was low in alcohol. And it tasted like Pinot Noir, a notoriously fickle grape outside Burgundy that is widely recognized as the Supreme Expression of vinifera’s finest juice. Jumping ahead, Burt Williams (winemaker, suspenders) and Ed Selyem (biz dude, stubby legs) grew their case volume to ~8500 identifying unknown quality sources in the region. They finally sold it all in 1998 to a cash rich wine group from New York for $10 million. At the time wine folks marveled that anyone would pay so much for a label and a cinder block facility with a corrugated steel roof and no vineyards. The last vintage made by the now legendary Burt Williams was 1997.

San Benito 2010 crop report

Many long time subscribers such as tBoW gave up their WS subscription thinking the sale signaled the end of the little-guys-make-good dream. Fortunately, for the new owners, there were plenty of folks waiting a decade or longer who jumped at the chance to fill spots left by the cynical snobs. The subsequent vintages did not suffer from quality or demand. It was like a pent up thirst fell in a wine lake. However, the new WS did fall victim to the Parker effect of the 90s through the mid 200s: more trophy wines with big Bobby scores at higher prices. The new owners needed more product to fill a subscription list that had doubled in size. They started sourcing juice from less glamorous regions such as San Benito County; farming communities better known for producing outstanding lettuce, celery and broccoli. No kidding. Case production today is ~15,000. And the subscription list has a 6 month waiting period instead of six years.

Obviously, the subscription list did not empty the warehouse. At 450 bottles (so far) this Lot 18 is a small offer. But is it the last? The price sheet below is from a Napa vendor who also offers older WS wines along with new releases. The small numbers available tell us these are bottles sold off by subscribers. Look at the new releases. The pricing is 20% higher than Lot 18. The winery released the 2009 and 2008 WS RRV at $46. Officially, all wines “are sold by subscription”. Those folks who looked at WS wines as quick flips every vintage are probably reconsidering their strategy.

Do not misunderstand. tBoW is hardly glad to see WS facing the same tough times the rest of the industry is facing. Having purchased and quaffed plenty of WS throughout the 80s and early 90s we are sated.

trickle down theory in wine retail

WS never did cross the taboo $100 threshold. Using the old trophy wine math, WS was downright reasonable for a Pinot Noir widely regarded as best in the New World.

However foolish we may be, we know this…$50 for a 2008 WS Russian River Vineyard Pinot Noir is still too much $$. You are paying for the label. When we can buy 2005 or 2006 red Burgundy in the same price range or multiple 2009 Beaujolais this is not even a choice that gives pause.

When we see Williams Selyem on a discounted wine site we know the very good deals we see today on lesser and less known labels are going to keep on coming for another year and longer. Of course, we knew that anyway. This is really a marker for the end of an era.

Let’s drink some wines that are not now nor ever will be trophies. They just taste good and don’t cost a bundle. New World and Old World. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Here is today’s mother lode.

2009 Jordan Russian River Chardonnay $30: Where are the oaky buttery California Chardonnays? Not in Sonoma. This is crisp and fruity with zero oak. Sharp, almost tart. Think of this Jordan wine as Christina Hendricks…full bodied yet lean and lush. OK. You can stop thinking about Christina Hendricks now. 13.1%

2008 Summerland Bien Nacido Solomon Hills Santa Maria Valley Exclusive Blend for LUXE Pinot Noir $30: More good news from the middle of the pack. Delicious pure New World Pinot Noir. Price is downright from the Santa Rita Hills region even though it is not from the SRH. Easy to drink and a very nice wine. Tasted this at a fundraiser held at the Brentwood hotel off the 405. Smart idea on the part of LUXE management. Summerland is a value producer making very nice wines from a premium region. 14.1%

2009 Domaine Perraud Macon Villages Vielle Vignes $18: Offered by Timeless Wines on email. Crisp French Chardonnay from the Macon that stands apart as an Old World wine. Cannot have any oak. At this price it is a U20 bargain. 13%

2008 C Perchaud Vielle Vignes Chablis $15: Offered by Timeless Wines on email. Crisp French Chardonnay from Chablis that stands apart as an Old World wine. Cannot have any oak. At this price it is a U20 bargain. Oh wait. I just wrote that. This is more crisp. In fact, these two Chardonnay wines provide the perfect contrast with California wine. You could buy a $30 middle of the road Chardonnay that is nice enough but cannot compete in terms of lively flavors and terroir – or price – with these Old World products. 13%

2009 Louis Jadot Chateau des Jacques Moulin-a-Vent $17: Speaking of Beaujolais wines from the 2009 vintage, here is a terrific Beaujolais that stands tall with some of Buford Pusser’s bocephus impact. Outstanding. We need more of this wine. As exceptional as the 2009 vintage is and as many outstanding Beaujolais wines there are available this is exceptional. The fruit is vibrant. It downright vibrates like a high voltage tower somewhere in the Anza-Borrega desert. 13.5%

4 Comments

  1. Wavatar
    doctore says:

    tBoW enters the world of investigative journalism, energized and armed with facts. I’m pumped!

    • Wavatar
      bacchus says:

      The subject of how the new breed of wine discounters are impacting the business and esp top shelf labels is hot as a Charlie Sheen tweet…last month. Here is a link to a related article which was also sent to me in response the piece. Hopefully, more will be coming.

      http://insidescoopsf.sfgate.com/blog/2011/05/20/is-russian-river-really-in-trouble/

      • Wavatar
        mouse says:

        Lot18 is glossy, offering big to semi-big name Cal wines for about 25 percent off – despite their claims. WTSO is the most compelling service around. It has its critics, btw. BUT, and this is crucial, they stand by their wines 100 percent. If one buys four bottles, which is typically the min if one wants to get free shipping, they guarantee each one. Once I had three good bottles and then one clunker. I reported this, and urged them only to credit me for one bottle. They credited all four. I have asked them 3x in four years to credit me,and they so unconditionally without hesitation.
        WTSO obtains wine that sit on distributors shelves or is overpurchased. Or sometimes straight thru a winery, such as the current offering of Mueller RR chardonnay for about 30% off. They seem to do especially well with Spanish reds. I would recommend this service without reservation, but there must be someone 21 around the house to sign for the wine (I miss the drop off, anonymously packaged box days). Zachys, a high end store in Scarsdale NY, often has blowout shipping deals, such as a $1 case. The best ever? The now defunct Carolina Wine Co. Weave the web!!!

        • Wavatar
          bacchus says:

          Nice info. I am stuck on Garagiste right now. I keep buying twosies and threesies. Still waiting for my first delivery. Very interesting offers on truly unusual wines. Checkumout and report back!

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