Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County boasts some of the finest vineyards in the region, if not the entire state. Home to over 9,000 acres of planted vines, Dry Creek Valley is 16 miles long and 2 miles wide, with both valley floor and hillside locations. In this sub-appellation of Sonoma County, there have been grape vines planted going back over 140 years. Zinfandel is a varietal that has been grown in Dry Creek for more than a century, and more recently winemakers have been growing Bordeaux varietals and making classic Left Bank and Right Bank red blends.
Last week we had the opportunity to visit with one of Dry Creek’s great winemakers, Bill Williamson, founder of Williamson Wines. Over 200 years ago, Bill’s ancestors emigrated from Ireland to Australia; we assume they went not as part of any penal colony, but rather for the promise of a better life. After growing up in Australia and having a successful career there, Bill and his wife moved to Silicon Valley to take part in the technology revolution. After a stint there, the Williamson’s decided to buy a piece of land in Sonoma County and grow some grapes.
“Some grapes” has turned into a thriving winery operation, with 15,000 cases produced each year. Remarkably, none of this wine is distributed to retail locations or restaurants; 100% of Williamson wines are sold direct to consumer. Certainly, this is good for Williamson, as they do not give away their margin unnecessarily to brokers or retail stores. What is really impressive to us, though, is that Williamson Wines has been able to build up such a strong customer base that they are able to distribute 15,000 cases – 180,000 bottles of wine – one customer at a time.
Based on our tasting with Bill Williamson last week, we have a pretty good idea how he has been able to pull this off: a combination of great wines, a great tasting experience, and Bill’s personal story and engaging nature.
All of these were on display in our sit-down paired tasting in their Healdsburg tasting room. One of Williamson’s tenets is that wine should be enjoyed with food. Many wineries share this belief and paired tastings have become fairly commonplace in both Napa and Sonoma. However, Bill Williamson and his team actually explained each pairing and identified the predominant flavors in the foods. They had us take a bite of the food without wine first. Next, they had us take a bite of the food and then take a taste of the wine. If the paired item was salty, the wine brought out that flavor; if it was spicy, the wine reinforced that flavor.
Although we have been to many tastings, no one had actually taken us through the before-and-after this way. Now at home we are doing this whenever we open a bottle of wine for dinner.
There are many tastings to choose from at the Williamson tasting room; we chose the Noble and Bordeaux Style Wine Tasting at $75.00 per person. This price tag is certainly higher than the typical tasting, but then again this is no typical tasting. We enjoyed a number of the Williamson Bordeaux blends – a Meritage, a Cuvee, and something Bill calls, simply, Vin Rouge (Federal law requires the words “red wine” on the label). In addition, we tried a number of single Bordeaux-style varietals, including Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
After nearly an hour and a half of small bites, wine and conversation, we were captivated with the Williamson portfolio of wines. Beyond what was on the tasting menu, Bill also made us aware that he produces traditional Burgundy varietals (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – naturals for a Sonoma winemaker) as well as a number of Rhone wines: Roussane, Semillon, Grenache, and a true Chateauneuf de Pape-style blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. There are very few winemakers in this part of California making such a broad range of high quality French-style wines inspired by such distinct regions as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone.
As captivated as we were by the wine, the overall experience was enhanced by Bill Williamson himself. Like most Aussie’s, he has a gregarious and open personality and a curious balance of bombast and modesty. He came across as a genuinely nice person, which seems mandatory for a wine business built on 1:1 customer sales. We are rooting for his continued success and looking forward to our next visit to Williamson.
John & Irene Ingersoll
September 15, 2016