John and Kathe Dyson purchased Williams Selyem Winery in 1998 from its founders, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem. The Dysons were hand picked as the buyers because Burt and Ed wanted someone already in the wine business and someone who had been on their customer list. As customer number 2080, John and Kathe had been on the list for years and, with Millbrook Winery in New York, as well as vineyards in the Central Coast of California, the Dysons were well qualified to carry on the traditions painstakingly built by the founders.
John’s interest in wine goes way back to his days at Cornell’s College of Agriculture when, never keen on beer, he bought a jug of wine to impress a date at his fraternity’s party. This led to a lifelong interest in wines and his enrollment in a wine course at Cornell’s famed hotel school.
John met Kathe in Washington, DC while they were both working there. Their first investment in the wine world began in 1979 in John’s hometown of Millbrook, NY as they began to convert an old dairy farm into Millbrook Vineyards & Winery. From that one acre to over one thousand (mostly in California) John and Kathe, along with their partners, have built a successful business. They also own and operate a small winery in Tuscany, Villa Pillo, which has been restored to its glory with careful replanting of vineyards and restoration of the wine cellars.
Kathe is responsible for their initial interest in Williams Selyem. A Pinot Noir lover, then mostly drinking Burgundy wines, she and John attended a lunch at the Highlands Inn’s Masters of Food and Wine. Williams Selyem was the featured wine and Ed was at the podium describing how he and his partner, Burt, got into the business. Kathe took her first sip of Williams Selyem and exclaimed to the man next to her that it was absolutely fabulous (no holding back here). He calmly replied, “I made it.” At that moment Ed introduced his partner, the man sitting next to Kathe. Until then, Kathe had not tasted a California Pinot Noir that she liked. She had never heard of the list, but that was soon remedied. She persuaded Burt to put her on the list…not the waiting list, but the mailing list. From that day to now, she remains among the most passionate of Williams Selyem’s customers and a fan of Burt Williams.
John has been involved in every aspect of the winery. He was quoted as saying about Williams Selyem, “I have never worked so hard to change nothing in my life.” Along with the talented winemaking staff headed by Jeff Mangahas, he and Kathe have successfully maintained rewarding relationships with the very growers that helped to put Williams Selyem on the map originally: Allen, Rochioli, Precious Mountain, Ferrington and Coastlands among others.
In 1998, Williams Selyem developed its first estate vineyard, Drake Estate, near Guerneville, CA. It is located literally on the Russian River, with the same soil type as the other top vineyards in the Russian River Valley, Yolo silt loam. John applied his agricultural and viticultural knowledge in planting this site to selected clones and rootstocks with modern close spacing of plants. After three years of negotiations, John acquired for Williams Selyem another choice site in the Russian River not far from the Allen Vineyard on Westside Road. These two estate vineyards will allow Williams Selyem to control the wine from “our ground to your glass.”
John has also had a successful career in government and business beyond grapes and wine. He was a Deputy Mayor with Rudolph Giuliani and returned to work with him full time after the events of September 11, 2001. Before that, he was a cabinet officer in New York State, holding the positions of Commissioner of Agriculture, Commissioner of Commerce and Chairman of the New York Power Authority. He also developed the “I Love NY” advertising campaign for the state.
John has built several distribution and manufacturing companies over the years with his partners. They also manage an investment fund based in New York.
John received his BS in Agricultural Economics from Cornell and a Masters in Public Affairs from Princeton. Kathe, a Toledo, Ohio native, got her BA in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. John and Kathe are active in various charitable organizations.
The Dysons have two grown daughters, Leigh and Eliza, and four grandchildren. Leigh is the proud mother of Caroline, Henry, and Susanna, and Eliza is the mother of their newest addition, Charlie.