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A 20 year vertical of Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir


The vineyard is situated on the western, i.e. sloped, non-flatlands side of Westside Road, in the so-called Middle Reach, and is immediately adjacent to the winery’s famous old barn. This is a warmer part of the Russian River Valley, not far from the Dry Creek line; cooler years make for better vintages. In warm years, the Allen can be a little heavy. The wines should be aged a minimum of eight years before drinking. (All wines were tasted openly and in conversation with winemaker Bob Cabral at the winery’s new estate complex, less than a mile south of the vineyard.)

1989: Despite the vintage’s poor reputation, a lovely wine, dry and crisp, with pretty cherry and rosehip tea flavors and secondary bottle notes of mushrooms. Alcohol: 12.5%, 93 points.

1990: From a warmer vintage. The wine is full-bodied and rich in fruit, but lacks some elegance. Turns a bit stewed in the finish. 13.2%, 87 points.

1991: Another cool year. Lovely perfume. Floral, raspberry, clean and inviting. Stunning in the mouth. So dry and crisp and complex. Sweet. Quintessence of Westside Road. 13.1%, 98 points.

1992: Coming after the magnificent ‘91, tastes coarser, heavier, brooding. A warm year; hence the heaviness. Doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. 13%, 88 points.

1993: Lots of the uplifted aromatics of the ‘91, without perhaps the elegance. Could easily develop for another 5-6 years. 13.2%, 92 points.

1994: A heralded year. Acidity (no doubt acidified) is obvious. But the wine is pretty and polished, with good, sweet fruit and oak tannins. A clean wine that should develop for another 5-6 years. 12.9%, 91 points.

1995: Very good wine. Very dry, balanced. Good acidity; a cool vintage. Lovely cherry, cola, mushroom complexities, with a smooth, lush mouthfeel. Fresh, lively, with a great future. 13.7%, 97 points.

1996: Beautiful. Light- to medium-bodied, dry, pure, elegant and luminous. Like drinking sunshine, air, soil in liquid form, a wine of superb terroir. Long life ahead. A joy. 13.7%, 98 points.

1997: Another celebrated harvest. A first bottle was marred by ethyl acetate/nail polish remover smells that did not blow off. A second bottle was much better, with clean, tart red cherry candy flavors. The wines were not equalized during this period, resulting in bottle variation. 13.8%, 93 points [second bottle].

1998: A poor vintage. Not in the league of the previous bottles. Some pretty cola and persimmon notes, but off-flavors; Cabral says botrytis heavily infested the bunches. 13.7%, 86 points.

1999: Another famous cool vintage. So young, vibrant, pure Allen red fruit: raspberries, cherries, pie spice. Very refined. Elegant, pretty, tantalizing nuances that are hard to put into words. Lots of life ahead. 13.5%, 95 points.

2000: First 14-plus alcohol from Allen. The canopy had switched to a form of vertical shoot positioning. Darker in color than its predecessors. Smells bigger, jammier, a rich, flamboyant wine nowhere near its peak. Finishes jammy sweet. Lots of instant gratification, but at the price of some nuanced elegance. Challenging. Hold for another 5-6 years.  14.2%, 89 points.

2001: Another cool year. A return to classic Allen after the 2000. Purity of fruit, great acidity, focused, silky. Huge depth and complexity. Just getting started. Recalls the 1991, even though the alcohol is more than a point higher. Very great exhibition of Allen terroir, a masterpiece. 14.2%, 98 points.

2002: A warm vintage. Aromatically, the fruit is there, but without a certain uplift and vibrancy. Very delicious, like a fruit pastry, but ponderous. 14%, 88 points.

2003:Heat waves during harvest dehydrated the grapes. The wine is sweet and heavy and overripe. Not a great Allen vintage. 14.1%, 87 points.

2004: A lovely wine, despite the vintage’s reputation for excessive heat. Certainly bigger and more flamboyant than the wines of the 1990s, with lots of jammy fruit. But balanced, lively, complex. Needs time. 2014 and beyond. 14.1%, 91 points.

2005: A great success. Shows pure Allen fruit, intense and spicy. Has great size and volume, yet feels weightless, like a cloud: an Allen specialty? Very young but very fine, complex. Hold at least until 2013. 14.2%, 96+ points.

2006: A bit heavier than the wonderful ‘05. Quite ripe and pure. Too young to properly evaluated; could be going through a dumb phase. Cabral likes it more than I do. 14.1%, 92 points (on potential; not now).

2007: Very young, immature. Lots of brilliant red primary fruit. Dry, zesty with acidity, clean, pure, spicy. Well-grown and made. From a great vintage, so balanced and refined and opulent. Hold until at least 2015. Will age for two decades. 13.8%, 97 points.

2008: Very young. All primary cherry-raspberry fruit and unintegrated oak. Good acidity, balanced, dry, elegant. Will be a great Allen but needs 7-8 years to begin to come around. 14.1%, 95 points.

  1. Interesting tasting, nice succinct notes. Do they trace the shift in alcohol mainly to the trellising changes, and are they rethinking their trellising?

    I’ve had a few sensational Russian River Pinots from the 1994 vintage. When you call that a “heralded year”, do you mean for RR PN specifically or Sonoma or California PN generically?

  2. Christian, the trellising was one reason, but when Bob Cabral came, in 1998, he consciously decided to pick at higher brix, which consequently raised alcohol levels.

  3. I am finding the 04 Pinot vintage to be very different through the Sonoma County Area. Even dramatically different through the high end producers depending on the vineyard location.

  4. Do you think your tasting experience would have been different if tasted blind? Of course colour would have given the vintage away, but only for some.

  5. Vinogirl, yes I think the experience would have been different blind, especially if the wines were all mixed up in order and the flight included a bunch of other, non Williams Selyem stuff. I think the best way to write about tasting wine is simply to let readers know the circumstances of tasting, and then they can make up their minds as to the reviewer’s credibility.

  6. My wife and I were introduced to W/S late. Our friends from Napa first let us sample their 2001 and we loved it. We immediately joined the club and have enjoyed each bottle just as much ever since. There is no other to compare and we try different brands in hopes of a rival. No Luck!. We are on the 2007/2008 years now and they are just as intriguing as when we first tried it way back. Thanks to W/S for the continuing excellent experiences with never a disappointment. There may be slight differences between years and vineyards but all are magnificent and from the least to most expensive it is always a treat to enjoy.

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