Bordeaux Index Buyer, Giles Cooper meets Bob Cabral
1 September 2021
Bordeaux Index interviews Bob Cabral, creator of Bob Cabral wines, we discussed his career and the wonderful story behind his wine range.
At the beginning of lockdown there was an article released on the Wine Advocate (WA) about discoveries of 2020, featuring new wines which they were shining a spotlight on. One of these was Bob Cabral Wines. Given my obsession with Californian wines and the explosion of interest from our clients for Russian River and Sonoma Pinots and Chardonnays, I was immediately interested. I emailed our old friend Lisa Perotti-Brown at the WA who subsequently introduced me to Erin Brooks who had written the article for the WA and she kindly put me in touch with Bob. We had a good few hours on Zoom and then Bob very generously sent me some wines which we tasted together.
Giles Cooper: It was 5pm on a Friday evening for me and 9am on a Friday morning for Bob – perfect or not perfect, depending on which way you look at it.
Bob Cabral: Perfect for me. The next largest town was Stockton/Lodi, almost in Sacramento. They farmed with my grandparents; we had primarily red wine grapes - my grandparents were Portuguese immigrants - and we made a few barrels of wine in my grandparents’ garage each year. They lived on an old Grenache vineyard in Manteca in the Ripon area. I used to love going there, I would take my vineyard boots and my grandfather would help clean them up and then we would stomp the grapes in stainless steel tubs. We would then drain the juice and I would use my grandmother’s kitchen towels to get the juice out – she was rather annoyed with my grandfather for that part! I grew up surrounded by winemaking and fermentation, we lived on 70 acres planted to Zinfandel, Grenache and Carignan.
I was really into Chemistry at school and decided to look into winemaking. Back in the 70’s you could get a conditional license to haul agricultural products from the ranch to the processing plant. So, on the weekends whilst I was at high school, at the age of 16 I could drive grapes to Delicato Winery in Manteca and the likes of Franzia Winery in Ripon. You had to wait in long lines and I would wander around the winery while we moved the trucks to dump the grapes which inspired me to look in to winemaking in my senior year at my high school. I was accepted into Fresno state as well as California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and the University of California Davis, which is probably the most well-known winemaking school in the states. UC Davis in the early days, in the 30’s and 40’s was where a lot of research was carried out. They reignited the Californian wine industry, they were the only research facility around, especially on the West Coast. My Dad was a Fresno State graduate, and there was always a running joke if we attended Fresno State then they would pay the tuition. My dad was selling red wine grapes in the 70’s, which wasn’t that profitable back then but I ended up at Fresno state, I did my undergraduate in winemaking and worked at Bronco Winery as a field representative checking grapes. I would help them bring in 60-80k tons of grapes annually, which is a lot of grapes! To put things into perspective, last year Bob Cabral Wines crushed 13 tons.
I graduated from university and became assistant winemaker at a 13million gallon plant. After that, I went back to grad school and studied biochemistry, thinking if wine didn’t work out for me then I could get onto pharmaceuticals or something like that, but I continued to have the wine bug. I would visit old school mates in Napa and Sonoma at the weekends and after 3 years, by the mid 80’s I was tired of living down in the San Joaquin Valley. In late 1986 I packed my bags and moved to Sonoma and became assistant winemaker at DeLoach vineyards – this my first foray into small barrels. We made everything from Merlot to Cabernet, Zinfandel, Pinot, and Chardonnay was the big one that paid the bills. I did 6 harvests there under Randy Ullom who now runs Kendall Jackson, he is the winemaking master and blending master. He really taught me how to cross the T’s and dot the I’s.
I became more interested in Pinot and Chardonnay, especially towards the Sonoma Coast, the varying soil types and flavours you get closer to the ocean. I moved around a bit after that and I made wines for Paul Hobbs and Merry Edwards, learning their techniques and what was important to them. By the mid 90’s I became winemaker at Alderbrook, we made a lot of old vine Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, most of it Russian River Valley and Dry Creek.
In 1996 I was given the job of winemaker at Hartford Court. Jeff Stewart is the winemaker there today and the funny thing is, he was my assistant winemaker at DeLoach. I had made a couple of vintages there when I then got a call from Burt Williams and he asked me to his winery, we tasted through some barrels and he said he was selling the winery to an investor named John Dyson. I said no because I was very happy at Hartford Court (Kendall Jackson), it was going really well. It took Burt 3 weeks to talk me into meeting withJohn Dyson. I met him in New York and within about 3-4 weeks he offered me the position of winemaker at Williams Selyem in 1998. They were the gold standard in California wine world at the time, making around 5000 cases and selling it all direct to consumer and they had about 7000 people on a waiting list to get the wines.
Were they big shoes to fill, taking on something that large and well regarded?
Well, it wasn’t necessarily my goal to fill the shoes of Burt Williams. Each winemaker has a unique palate and makes wine in their own way. My goal was to hit the quality standard and if possible try to elevate it. I was there for 17 vintages and a lot of my decisions were based on a fear, a fear of failure. Everything was done extremely thoughtfully; my teams were incredible and everyone had the same goal as me. To make extraordinary wines, it is not an island, you need highly skilled & passionate people around you that want to hit and exceed the standard too. When I hired people I wanted them to have the ambition to have my job in 5 years, I wanted them to push me and make me better and in turn make the wines better.
After a while I needed a break and wanted to move on to something different, and I think they needed me to leave to evolve into what they wanted to as well. I left at the end of 2014 and I took on a project down in Sonoma with a man called Bill Price who had been in the wine business for quite a few years (note this is an understatement: Bill Price owns Kistler amongst others). 3 Sticks is his namesake wine and I was brought in with a team of winemakers to do some intensive farming in Durell Vineyard down in Sonoma and Gaps Crown nearer the coast to help them establish a style. We hired Ryan Pritchard as assistant winemaker who had worked for me in 2008, he then took over as winemaker and I am now consulting for that brand and have a couple of other projects I consult for. At this point I also wasn’t restricted by a ‘non-compete’ and my wife sat down with me and said ‘you know that you could now make your own wines?’. And at 53 years old I thought did I really want to build a brand, and did I have the money, time and energy to do this? By about May/June 2015 Bill Price had made space at Three Sticks for me to make my own wine. I originally wanted to call it Cabral but there is a Portuguese brand who had been importing Port into the US since 2001 and they had a trademark on Cabral. So, we had to call it Bob Cabral Wines. I mean, I made the first 100 point Pinot at William Selyem so my name carried some weight. I had something like 150 wines that were 95-100 points – I didn’t realise that until someone in marketing told me when I left! I have to say I don’t think about the scores too much, my idea with winemaking is to bring people together and to put a smile on their face.
When I started Bob Cabral Wines, we had a lot of people offer investments but I didn’t want to be that big or report to anyone. I told my wife there would be a few stipulations when we started Bob Cabral Wines. The first was not to take any investment, the second was that we would not to take any salaries, I wanted all profits to go back into the winery and any extra to go out to the community for children in crisis. Number 3, was that my wife couldn’t question me on any part of the process and the amount I spent on the production... from where I bought the grapes to how much I spent on barrels, be it buying or making them! I now go over to France to make the barrels and we toast them down south.
There is something special that creates Chardonnay and Pinot wines in Sonoma. What is it in your eyes that makes it such a great place for these varietals?
I have been making wines from the Russian River Valley for 37-38 years now. You tend to be able to identify the areas and soil types that complete the vision from your mind into the glass. So, for Bob Cabral Wines I went to the cooler areas of Russian River. I wanted more acidity and tautness to the wines. I wanted the tannins when young to be more angular. I sought out vineyards that had soils of the Goldridge series and you tend to find that in South West Sonoma county. The question is how do we get Burgundian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay characteristics out here in California; a lot of it has to do with soils and climate. If you are closer to the coast, you have the fog and cooling down effect, you have soils uplifted on to the ridge and it is amazing; you are 1500 feet up above sea level but you are looking down at the Pacific Ocean and you can see the fog come into the vineyards. You can be over 1200 feet above sea level but with old seabed at your feet. When my daughter was young, I would take her to the vineyards with me and she would come and find sea shells in the soil in the Sonoma Coast vineyards.
On Goldridge, the wines have a textural component due to the more sandy/loam soils, they have a natural mouth feel. I wanted the Pinot vineyards in the cold Goldridge soils and the Chardonnay a bit further out towards the Sonoma Coast, within 5-7 miles of the Pacific Ocean, so very cold. The Pinot is a Russian River Valley wine and the Cuvée Anne Rose Chardonnay is a Sonoma Coast wine. Although the vineyards are close to each other, the Troubadour (Pinot Noir) are at the Western edge of the Russian River Valley and I think the aromas, tannins and edge have a Russian River Valley feel. The Pinot vineyards are very cool, they have amazing natural acidities. I don’t really adjust the wines at all, if you do your job in the vineyard you don’t have to worry in the cellar. I don’t actually add yeast, it is all natural.
Commercial yeast is expensive and that is one of the main reasons I don't use it. It does bring out the amazing flavours in Pinot grapes but as I was funding this project and not taking a salary, I stuck to doing native ferments. I really like what the native ferments do, it gives the individual lots a little more personality. Then I can blend the clones and sites to make the Troubadour. It is my vision of Russian River Valley, my hope is that when a consumer picks up a bottle of Russian River Valley wine they would see some of those similar characteristics.
The first couple of vintages were 8-12 barrels of Troubadour. In 2018 we had 16 barrels, in 2020 we had a little bit less and we had fires at that time so I only made 11 barrels. I have 2 core vineyards that use specific clones I like, Swan selection and Dijon selection 777, and I have a couple of other sites I have been rotating which use Calera, 667 and a little bit of 115. I am trying to make a similar wine each year but expressing the vintage. One of my best friends in Burgundy, François Millet says you need to open the doors of the cellar at the beginning of the vintage and let it in. You need to welcome whatever mother nature is going to give you. You have to care for them but don’t discount what mother nature is giving you; I feel like an artist that gets to paint a new picture once a year.
I only make about 2-4 barrels of Chardonnay a year and I was telling my daughter and wife last night, I think 2020 is one of the best Chardonnays I have made for a while. My wife laughed and said “you say that every year, you are always so excited when you come back from tasting your barrels.” She is right, I love it. I was down in Sonoma yesterday and I racked 5 of the Troubadour from newer oak to the older barrels because I was starting to taste more oak in the wine which I didn’t want. They don’t need a lot more oak, they just need slow barrel aging in a cool cellar to let them do their thing. I was very lucky in 2020 with no smoke taint in my lots.
The thing I noticed most when we tasted your wines (you sent me ‘15, ‘16 and ‘17), they were three very distinctive vintages, it was so evident that you let the vintage shine. The wines were so different but so dense, it reassured me that these wines have fantastic aging potential and they take time to come around. When I had the ‘15 the other night, it was a 6-year old wine and it took 24 hours open to start singing.
The wine I am growing in the vineyard, I want the expression to come out slowly, I don’t want you to be ready to drink it today. I use about 35% whole cluster, so you have the stem tannin which is the expression of the vineyard that layers in with seed tannin, skin tannin and barrel tannin and hopefully that all comes together in 5 years. That is why my release dates are later, I am hesitant to release the 2017 even though I could use the cash flow but I want the experience for the consumer to be the best it can be.
Moving on to Riesling, I know it is a passion of yours – but due to its location there is complexity to the story, please tell us about that.
I have been fascinated by Riesling for 35-40 years, I have been trading with Ernie Loosen in Germany. Ernie has turned me on to so many different sites and whilst I do think Chardonnay shows its site, I think Riesling better shows the site, it is extremely site specific, the soil, how it's canopied, how it’s managed, how the fermentation takes place.
So, I started to research where I could purchase some Riesling. I grafted 2 sites in cold Sonoma Coast in 2016, meaning I wasn’t going to see grapes until 2017/2018 and I had bought a concrete amphora which held about 300-320 gallons and looks like an upside down egg. I went to a Riesling conference in Seattle at Chateau Ste. Michelle and Bob Bertheau, the Director of Winemaking introduced me to several growers. I found a grower that had a ranch called Zallah Ranch, and it is on eastern side of Mt. Rainier in Washington. People that know Washington, know that it is high elevation desert, once you get to the east of Seattle. They grow a lot of Cabernet, Syrah, Rhone varietal and you have spectacular red wine growers. I wanted something with a lot of acid, texture and personality and this site is much higher off of a mountain, so while it gets warm there, it gets a lot of rain and cools off at night, it doesn’t stay hot. I was able to get 2 tons down in 2016. When I went to label it, I wanted to single vineyard it – the Zallah Ranch, but the US government label approval rejected Yakima Valley, Walamama and Washington. So I had to use the most broad appellation, I had to just say it is American, it is like saying it is European but it is a single vineyard! That is the only approval they would give me. The wine is super dry, it only has about 6 grams of residual sugar, it has a very low pH, it is very minerally and floral. It is a 2016 but for me it is only just now tasting really well. My wife has got it in restaurants in Healdsburg and people are going nuts for it, they can’t believe the freshness and vibrancy and it is a 5-year old white wine!
I took it to a high end Chinese place a couple of weeks ago and it is spectacular. The thing I love most about it, is the textural element to it, it has a velveteen richness to it and aligned with the brightness of the acidity, it gives it a real drive and presence. It is sensational.
I think it is a great food wine, we have a restaurant in Healdsburg called Willi’s Seafood and Wine Bar. The wine buyer is ordering about 3 cases a week right now. They serve a lot of ceviche and fresh tuna and people are loving it. I just bottled the 2020 last Monday and again it won’t be released for 4-5 years. The acidity is so tart, you need time to leave it to calm down to where the fullness comes through and the acidity cuts through the oiliness of raw fish and sushi. A lot of restaurants in Sonoma County have asked to put it on their wine list.
One last thing I want to touch on which is a really important aspect of this and is the last piece of the puzzle about Bob Cabral Wines is that you decided that this was an opportunity to put something back into the community.
This was the key element in the end, to start a brand and to build from it. I live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, I get to travel, taste amazing wines, meet wonderful generous people. I have been able to explore the world because of my occupation. One thing I have learned in life is that we need to give back to our community, so after my wife and I decided not to take salaries, we made the decision that after we have covered our operating costs we wanted to give any extra back to the community. We would give any extra profits to children in need, schools and anyone in the community that needed help. We have had devastating fires over the last few years, friends' homes, wineries and vineyards have burned down. To be able to help people with simple things like buying hotel rooms is so important and to support schools and give them instruments and art supplies to encourage children into the arts is hugely rewarding. For me, I love Maths and Science but more important to me is music and the arts, it broadens the mind and opens the heart. I wanted to build a wine brand to give me a sustainable way to give back perpetually in the future.
We are getting some rockstar scores now on the wines, we have had 95+ from Robert Parker on the 2016 Chardonnay and Pinot, for some reason Rieslings don’t get the massive scores but we have had some pretty impressive scores on ours of 94. Over the next 5-7 years I want to try and grow a little in size to build capital and help more charities not just in Sonoma but in wider California. It makes this project that much more personal to me and I hope the consumers realise the price has a lot of factors in it. I want to leave the earth in a better place to when I began life here. We are trying to be more sustainable, we are looking at electric tractors, we pay producers not to use herbicides, we want to do everything we can to make the world a better place. When buying our wine, you are buying in to giving back.
One last thing I wanted to ask you about is the music matches for your wines, I know music is a big thing for you so tell us more about that.
The one thing about wine, is you can only hit 4 of the 5 of the senses – taste, smell, touch, and see. But you can’t hear it, so the music completes the 5 senses. Music is something that has definitely touched my soul, so if we can put the 5 senses together when you drink our wine, then that is quite something and that is what I really enjoy. I sell a lot of wine to musicians; they buy my wines, and they enjoy them. I think it is great that they see my craft as a craft, they see me as a little bit of a rockstar in the wine world and we are able to share moments when we have wine together and listen to their music. When you are having a bad day sometimes putting on a certain song can bring you out of that funk. It can motivate you to the next level, especially when your grapes haven’t turned up on time or the press is broken, something has happened at the winery which is out of your control, you have to sit back, take a deep breath and just enjoy the music. I have a Spotify playlist for each wine and each vintage and there is a backward lyric on each of the wine labels. The songs are something that meant something for me during the harvest, so the playlists can be vastly different genres of songs. Hopefully consumers will check out the playlist and it will hit that final sense to fully enjoy the wine!