Oh, the shoes he had to fill, and those he leaves behind.
Bob Cabral, who in 1998 became only the second winemaker in Williams Selyem’s 33 years as a commercial winery, will leave after the 2014 harvest. From all reports, his departure is amicable and gives Cabral the opportunity to produce wine with his family and seek new adventures. “It’s time for a change,” he said.
Williams Selyem, of course, is the seminal producer of Pinot Noir (and lesser amounts of Chardonnay and Zinfandel) in Russian River Valley. Ed Selyem and Burt Williams went from hobby winemakers in a garage to become a cult favorite with sommeliers and those fortunate enough to get on the mailing list.
They retired in 1998, selling the Westside Road winery and brand to John and Kathe Dyson. The Dysons also own Millbrook Vineyards & Winery in New York’s Hudson Valley and Villa Pillo in Tuscany; John, along with Australian Richard Smart, designed the widely used Smart-Dyson vineyard trellis system.
The Williams Selyem sale rattled some longtime fans, concerned that production would increase and quality would slip under new ownership. Brows further furrowed when Dyson hired Cabral to replace the legendary Williams as winemaker. Although Cabral was very familiar with Pinot Noir, having worked at Alderbrook, De Loach and Hartford Court wineries before joining Williams Selyem, his wasn’t a marquee name. Not a superstar.
He certainly is now, and has been throughout his Williams Selyem tenure, although the first couple years were challenging.
"Burt and Ed are great guys, the wines are spectacular, so when I started, I had tunnel vision and just wanted to get to work with killer fruit," Cabral once told me. “But I underestimated the sense of ownership that customers have toward the brand. It was a good learning experience to meet them and learn what the brand meant to them, and to follow through in the stewardship for Burt and Ed."
As Cabral prepares for his last harvest with Williams Selyem, it’s a good time to be reminded of his accomplishments:
+ Not only did wine quality not suffer under Cabral, it’s been elevated. While production did increase, it’s been done intelligently and carefully, by sourcing from a growing number of exceptional vineyards, rather than spreading the existing grape supply too thin. Cabral has a keen eye for expressive sites.
+ The Rochioli and Allen vineyards on Westside Road -- the backbones of Burt Williams’ wines (both are farmed by Joe Rochioli Jr.) -- continue to star at Williams Selyem, as Cabral and Dyson have not cracked the cement that initially bonded Burt and Joe.
+ Among the vineyards also providing Pinot Noir grapes: Bucher, Flax, Foss and Olivet Lane in Russian River Valley; Hirsch, Precious Mountain and Terra de Promissio in the Sonoma Coast AVA; Ferrington and Morning Dew (Burt Williams’ own vineyard) in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. Single-vineyard wines are produced from these estates and others.
+ Two Pinot Noir blends, Westside Road Neighbors and Eastside Road Neighbors, pay tribute to growers whose vines grow west or east of the Russian River.
+ Selyem and Williams owned no vineyards, and purchased all their grapes. Cabral and Dyson established two vineyards -- Drake Estate near the Russian River in Guerneville and the Williams Selyem Estate, located south of Rochioli on Westside Road. Vineyard-designated Pinots come from these plots, too.
+ Some two dozen Pinot Noirs are bottled in most years, each expressing the character of the site on which the grapes are grown. The myriad climate, soil, exposure, rootstock, clone and vine age variables justify vineyard-designation in Williams Selyem’s case; not all single-site wines in California show such delineation.
+ Williams Selyem wines are highly prized, hard to get and not inexpensive (some single-vineyard Pinots are $75-$85). To spread around more of the love, Cabral makes regional blends from such areas as the Central Coast ($39), Sonoma County ($39) and Sonoma Coast ($52).
+ Dyson and Cabral inherited a winery that could best be described as a big shed with some equipment inside. They remodeled the shed, outgrew its capacity, and built a new solar-powered winery in 2010 at the William Selyem Estate. The original site continues to be used for crushing and pressing, keeping the Ed-and-Burt tradition alive.
And then there are the wines themselves.
There is a distinctive Cabral style that prefers Pinot Noirs of great freshness and vibrancy. Lovers of soft, ripe, weighty wines should look elsewhere. He tends to harvest Pinot earlier than most, yet he captures plenty of fruit flavor at admirably low alcohol levels of 13.6%-14.2% in a “normal” vintage such as 2012. In cooler years like 2011, the wines are slightly more restrained, yet every bit as delicious.
Even Cabral’s Zinfandels, from Russian River Valley vineyards Bacigalupi and Papera, weigh in at less than 15% alcohol while retaining Zin’s brass, briar and spice.
The Pinot Noir fruit flavors vary by vineyard site -- for example, the Rochioli Vineyard typically produces juicy red-fruit notes of raspberry, cherry and strawberry, while the profile of the Allen Vineyard, right across the road, is dark plum and blackberry. Yet both wines have medium palate weight, silky texture and mouthwatering acidity. Different, yet with a Cabral signature.
Oak never gets in the way of vineyard and regional character, serving only as a texture builder, impacting how the wine feels in the mouth and not so much how it tastes.
In fall 2014, Cabral will pass the winemaking torch to Jeff Mangahas, also a Hartford Court alumnus who has worked with Cabral at Williams Selyem for three years. Just as Burt Williams mentored Cabral, Bob has done the same with Mangahas. Cabral’s shoes are big, but he wouldn’t leave them behind if he didn’t know they’d be worn in Williams Selyem style.