Burt Williams: 1940-2019Columns | Thu Mar 05, 2020 | 7:27am
Ever since I could remember anything in life, Burt Williams was there. He was essentially my second father, especially after my dad, Chris Whitcraft, passed away in 2014. A giant of a man in every way, Burt made wines for Williams Selyem Winery, which he founded in 1979, that set a bar far above anything that’s been achieved since. His fingers were thick as sausages and his shoulders were wide as a truck, but the biggest part about him was his generous heart.
A father to many and a friend to even more, Burt, who died at age 79 from complications related to Parkinson’s disease on December 11, 2019, was the direct but often unknowing mentor to an entire generation of winemakers. Born in San Francisco on October 1, 1940, Burt was raised in that city and attended Sacred Heart Catholic School. He met his first wife, Jan, at just 15 years old; they married at 18 and remained that way for 56 years, until Jan died in 2011.
Before making wine, Burt was a printer for a few small papers and then eventually for the San Francisco Chronicle. Burt and Jim bought a house in Forestville in 1962 but lived in San Francisco until 1968. Their three children, Katie, Margie, and Fred, were all the spitting image of either Burt or Jan. Fred was on his way to becoming a legendary winemaker himself but passed away after a tragic accident in 2003, just 38 years old. So, while Burt did live a charmed life, he also suffered the gut-wrenching losses of his son and wife far too soon. I’m thankful that Katie and Margie, also a winemaker, are great women who will carry on his spirit in their laughter and stories.
My father, who started Whitcraft Winery in Santa Barbara in 1985, owed a lot to Burt, as do I. Burt owned a house on the Riviera and frequently spent time here, especially toward the end of his life. He shaped our winery with his knowledge and also arranged my dad’s first harvest of pinot noir in 1991. When Burt sold Williams Selyem in 1997, we bought his old equipment, and I still use some of it today. He was my dad’s best friend and a cohort in all kinds of ridiculousness.
After I took over the winery and my dad died, I leaned on Burt for support as I rehabilitated our business from bankruptcy to where it is now. He was a quiet strength for me in those times.
I would always bring him my new wines to try, comfortable in trusting his honesty and opinion. “Drake,” he told me once, “you get great grapes, you treat them gently, and you put the wine in a barrel and don’t f#$% with it. Why put a year on the label if you’re going to hide its flaws?” He is why I am so steadfast in not manipulating my wines, and he is a big reason why my wines continued to improve with every vintage.
Early on in my life, I learned through Burt that friends were essential to happiness and that there isn’t too much to worry about in life so long as you treat people with respect and compassion, regardless of their lot in life. He had a lot of friends who’d scare the shit out of people at first glance. Pig Dog comes to mind — to a kid, he seemed to be nine feet tall and weigh 500 pounds, and he often forgot to put his teeth in. But he’s one of the gentlest, kindest people, a tremendous artist, and a gem of a human being, especially compared to who’s idolized these days. Burt saw the good in everyone.
Burt was a self-described “wine redneck,” a lifelong Deadhead who felt most at home in the woods. He enjoyed being outdoors much more than in, and he could often be found hunting for mushrooms and fishing. The lore that lingers from the winery’s early days cannot be retold in clear detail, but let’s just say that Burt was very much in touch with the energy around him.
That love of nature and skill in winemaking made it so hard to watch him struggle with Parkinson’s, to see a man who loved the outdoors be confined to the prison of his body and the cage of his bed. It’s a terrible curse for a man so vibrant.
But I’ll always remember Burt as a winemaker, mushroom hunter, diligent gardener, steelhead fisherman, abalone diver, and consummate host of countless lunches overlooking Santa Barbara from his modest home. And most of all, as I enjoy my first year of marriage and celebrate my own child to come, I will remember Burt as a loving husband and father who set a tremendous example of how to live a fulfilling and humble life.