When Ed Selyem and Burt Williams sold their award-winning winery to John and Kathe Dyson in 1998, a shudder and a sigh went through the California wine world. Here were two of the original California garagistes — their original vintages, starting in 1981, were literally made in a two-car garage — selling out…and to a New Yorker nonetheless! Napa may have eventually developed its Harlans and Screaming Eagles into cult wine status, but a decade before they became coveted, Williams Selyem’s single vineyard pinot noirs had every California collector begging to get on its mailing list. The fact that the winery was so modest, and output so small, only added to its prestige.
When the sale of the winery finalized (in effect, the Dyson’s only bought the brand name as Ed and Burt sourced all their grapes and the winery’s facilities were extremely modest), the new owners had the good sense to bring Bob Cabral on board to shepard their ambitions (and the brand) into the 21st Century. With a brand new winery and tasting facility, estate-grown grapes, and a range of single vineyard releases showing the best of the Russian River Valley’s pinot noir, Williams Selyem 2.0 has become a major player on the Sonoma scene. But it’s still tough to get these wines unless you’re on the mailing list, in a good restaurant, or happen to swing a reservation at one of the Bellagio’s famed Tuscany Kitchen wine dinners.
The recent dinner there had a twofold purpose: to sample select WS vintages going back to Cabral’s first in 1999, as well as introducing the public to the cuisine of Le Cirque’s new chef, Gregory Pugin. Cabral started the evening with one of his rare, library wines — a deep, toasty, intense, blanc de noir sparkling wine from 2005 — of which only a 125 cases were made. He told us it was, in essence, a “hobby wine,” brought out solely for special occasions, of which this surely was one.
As stunning as the sparkler was, Cabral’s ’05 Hawk Hill Chardonnay was a revelation. Medium-bodied, it possessed all the attributes of a creamy, citrus-y California chard, while retaining a mineral-rich, acidic backbone more reminiscent of a white Burgundy. At six years of age, it was approaching its peak, but no where near past it. Equally attention-grabbing was the pairing of this barrel-aged wine with Pugin’s citrus-marinated langoustines with osetra caviar, minced apple and tiny cubes of vodka gelée. All told, one of those jaw-dropping combinations where each flavor element of the wine and the dish danced together like they were made for each other.
Bellagio’s Master Sommelier Jason Smith (and Pugin) may have slipped a bit with the next pairing: The intense, layered fruitiness of the ’05 Westside Road Neighbors* overwhelmed the delicacy of Pugin’s potato-crusted halibut, but all was forgiven with the double-barreled pleasures wrought by two ’04 offerings (Hirsch Vineyard and Rochioli Riverblock Vineyard) playing off an elegantly simple espelette-crusted lamb chop — in this case the Colorado lamb’s gaminess (hallelujah, it actually tasted like lamb!) was just what the two wines needed to show their best.
Both wines came in at a solid 14%+ in alcohol, in keeping with the higher brix these grapes are picked at today. As dense and rich with these were — showing beautifully after seven years, and surely destined to get better — it was the 1999 Allen Vineyard that stole our heart. It may have been a touch past its prime, but the medium ruby color, combined with top notes of red fruit and a nice earthiness on the nose, put us in mind of a premier cru Chambolle-Musigny or Morey-Saint-Denis. It paired beautifully with the strong cheeses presented — L’Epoisse, Vieux Comté, and Saint Marcellin — and served as a reminder that elegant, lower alcohol pinot noirs can retain their charms long after the fruit bombs have faded.
Drinking these wines alongside the winemaker, while getting a cooking demonstration from one of the Bellagio’s chefs, has turned the Tuscany Kitchen into one tough ticket. Pugin’s food was as stunning as the wines, and served notice that this L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon New York and Veritas (also in NYC) alum is ready to take Le Cirque Las Vegas to the next level. Wherever he takes his cuisine, we’re sure Bob Cabral’s wines will be there to make a perfect match with them.
In the Bellagio Hotel and Casino
Call 888.987.8786 or 866.906.7171 for information or reservations on upcoming events.
* Described by one wine wag as: “A complex blend from the best growers on the Westside Road, including Allen, Bacigalupi, Bucher, Flax, Rochioli Riverblock and Litton Estate. Brooding aromas of dark stone fruits, spice and vanilla. Full bodied, magnificently-flavored core of cherries, cranberries and raspberries…” Ay chi–hua-hua! Is it a glass of wine or a birthday cake? And could someone please tell ELV when an aroma is “brooding” as opposed to “cheerful, happy and nice?”
Wine lovers who speak like that and the reviewers who pander to them are plainly offensive to those of us who just want to catch a pleasant buzz off of some well-made, fermented grape juice. But the world of wine is chock full of folks who revel in descriptors that distinguish(?) between aromas of cola, bright red fruit, sour cherries and spice, versus spicy baked red fruit aromas with undertones of minerality.
Like doctors. When you think about it, wine is the perfect indoor sport for doctors. They are men (and women) of science after all, used to looking for precision amidst the cacophony and messiness of nature. Wine provides them the perfect vehicle to engage the outside world, whilst contemplating whether “tasty fruit driven” is a better answer to the puzzle of what a wine is than “offers demure aromas of redder fruit.** Maybe that’s why so many oenophiles are men of medicine?
** Until Americans started treating wine tasting as a sensory examination/descriptor test, Europeans were perfectly content to use emotional and sensual terms to explain what was going on in the glass. A wine might be described as “immature” or “intense,” or its flavors described as “enticing” or “stand0ffish,” but back in the day, anyone saying a sip tasted of “crushed rocks, bing cherries, cola, cranberries and baking spice,” would be laughed out of the wine society.