Wednesdays with Winemakers – Bob Cabral 6 min read

Bob Cabral is best known for his sixteen year stretch as Williams Selyem‘s winemaker. There, he was responsible for crafting some of California’s most sought after Pinot Noirs. The brand set a new benchmark for the variety, with a lot of credit due to Cabral. His visionary addition of many regional, stellar vineyards into their single vineyard portfolio created a powerful precedent and elevated the brand to cult status.


Bob is a fourth-generation grape grower from the San Joaquin Valley, who grew up tending to vines on his family ranch. He joined Williams Selyem in 1998 after previous winemaking stints at such prestigious brands as Alderbrook, DeLoach, Hartford Court and Kunde.


He is currently Director of Winemaking and partner at Three Sticks Winery, owned by Bill Price, of the Price Family Vineyards group whose holdings include the celebrated Durell and Gap’s Crown vineyards.


Why did you become a vintner/winemaker?

I grew up in the Central Valley of California in the town of Escalon. My Dad and Grandfather farmed red wine grapes (zinfandel, carignan, grenache, barbera, etc.) and prices weren’t all that great in the mid-70’s. In 1976, I was about 14 years old, I helped my Dad farm a ranch of old vine (35-40 years old, head trained) carignan near Manteca. It was a beautiful ranch that would constantly produce and ripen 12-14 tons per acre. I irrigated, disced, sprayed and cared for that vineyard all summer long and the crop was beautiful! I started high school and was busy playing freshman football, so I never saw the crop harvested. In November I rode out with my Dad to that ranch to move a tractor and I saw that the vine had lost all their leaves and the only thing left was the rotten, moldy bunches that never made it to a winery – the grapes were never harvested. I was heartbroken. My Dad, a quite thoughtful man, explained to me that the local wineries were just too full and the vintage was extraordinarily large and there simply was no room for the fruit from this ranch. For the first time in my life I had witnessed the pain in my dad’s face of those rotting bunches. He had poured his heart and soul into caring for a crop only to lose it because of no home. It was at that moment that I first thought to myself “I need to make sure my Dad always has a home for his grapes”. Looking back it was at that moment when I first took an interest in how wines were really made.


If you weren’t a vintner/winemaker what would you be and why?

That’s easy, I’d be a professional bull rider in the PBR or a sound engineer at a recording studio producing rock & roll records.  


What is your greatest strength as a vintner/winemaker?

My ability to farm wine grapes and be a true steward of the land. I can attribute most of my successes to the result of starting with extraordinary fruit and caring for exceptional vineyard sites.   


What is your biggest weakness as a vintner/winemaker?

My lack of patience and high expectations…reality check, please!


What’s the one professional mistake you made that would never repeat?  

I will never again put myself in a position where I let someone else ultimately decide whether I crush grapes or not. 


What is your proudest achievement?

Guiding and shepherding Williams Selyem for the last 17 years.


What was your scariest vintage to date?

To be honest none of them have ever really been scary. My first winemaker” job, where the buck stopped here, was in 1994 at Alderbrook Winery in Healdsburg. It was up to me to make all those key decisions from picking, fermentation vessels, barrel regimes, bottling dates, etc. It was as exhilarating as it was nerve racking! But it was one of the best years of my life! 


What is your favorite word or saying?

I posted a sign in the winery at Alderbrook and then again at Williams Selyem that read; “Good winemaking is doing the right things every time, all of the time. Great winemaking is doing the right things every time, all of the time when nobody is looking”. I truly believe this.


What is your most prized possession?

My wife Heather & my daughter Paige.


What’s the oddest thing about you?

I can listen to the blues and rock & roll music 24/7, 365! The louder, the better!


What song best sums you up?

“Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin


What is your favorite memory?  

In May of 2000 I took a three week trip to Burgundy, Champagne & Alsace with my Dad, Ludovic Dervin (now winemaker at Mumm Napa Valley) and Justin Ennis (now winemaker at Joseph Phelphs Freestone). We all had a great time with stories we all swore not to ever repeat! Later on that year my Dad suddenly passed, October 5th, during harvest. I now feel that I was really able to say goodbye earlier on that trip (I didn’t know it at the time) even though I wasn’t able to in October.


Which of the five senses is your strongest?

My palate.


What is your biggest motivation?

The fear of failure! It’s an incredible motivator for me.


Which bottle(s) of wine would choose to be stranded with on a deserted island?

Almost any German spatlese riesling, lots of pinots/Burgundies and old tawny ports…or just lots of vodka!


What is the difference between a good and great wine?

A good bottle of wine takes me about 30-45 minutes to drink and a great bottle of wine takes me more like 2-3 hours to enjoy.


Name three individuals you would like to have dinner with. 

I’m going to take the liberty of interpreting this question as the person could be living or deceased; Jonathan Winters, Jimmy Page and Luther Burbank. 


Who is your winemaking hero?

Andre Porcheret and Randy Ullom.


What does the concept of “balance” mean to you?

To me, it’s that perfect combination of aromas, textures, tannins (skin, seed, barrel & stem), acids, alcohols and flavors that requires me to keep adding more wine to my glass.


What is the one thing you want people to remember about your wine?

That they always had a smile on their face while enjoying it!


Best comment made about your wine? Was it by a consumer, trade or press?

This really wasn’t about a wine I made, but was humbling nonetheless. Several years ago I met consumers Chaney and Les Claypool of Claypool Cellars (and of course Les of the band Primus) at a winemaker dinner at the old Zazu on Williowside & Guerneville Roads in Santa Rosa. I had no idea who they were, so I just welcomed them to the dinner and introduced myself. Les said “I know who YOU are. You’re the Eddie Van Halen of Pinot Noir making!” I just laughed at that moment and handed them a glass of sparkling wine I had made. But as I thought about it later, I realized it was the ultimate compliment from a brilliant musician who is also an extraordinary bass & guitar player. Pretty cool! 

Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson is Editor-in-Chief at PalateXposure, a destination site for oenophiles, gourmands and luxury travelers. She also recently launched #Wine, a site dedicated to wines and spirits reviews, and #Photography, a site devoted to high-quality wine, food, and travel related photography.

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