By Tim Tesconi
When Bob Cabral, winemaker extraordinaire at Healdsburg’s Williams-Selyem Winery, learned he was the winemaker of the year – for the world - he confesses near shock while experiencing emotions that ranged from exhilaration to regret.
The regret was that his father and mentor, the late Robert Cabral, a farmer and agricultural leader in the San Joaquin Valley, wasn’t alive to share the glory of the global honor bestowed by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Cabral was selected the winemaker of the year from a list of nominees that included winemakers from premier wine regions throughout the world. Not bad for a farm boy from Escalon who grew up watching his grandfather make jug wine in the barn.
Cabral said his father, the son of Portuguese immigrants and a man of the land dedicated to farm, family and community, would have been busting with pride that his son had reached the pinnacle of success in the world of wine. Cabral’s father preached the virtues of hard work and doing one’s best as the way to succeed. Cabral stridently followed his father’s advice as he worked his way up in the wine industry, using his education, natural gifts and passion to become a winemaking star.
“My one regret was that my dad wasn’t alive to see this because he is the one responsible for who I am today. Whatever success I’ve had is a reflection of him and our relationship. He and mom always supported me,” said Cabral, 49, who grew up on his family’s 70 acre ranch near Escalon. As a boy he pruned and harvested grapes and irrigated vineyards on the family vineyard and assisted his father who had a farm management business. He was a member of the 4-H and Future Farmers of America, raising livestock for the county fair. Cabral’s mother, Jean, continues to make her home in the San Joaquin Valley where she, like her late husband, is active in the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau.
When Cabral graduated from high school, he brushed off the dust from the family farm and headed to Fresno State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in winemaking with a minor in biochemistry. He admits he didn’t want to be a grape grower, moving to winemaking as a way to embrace his connection with the land, a knack for chemistry and his magnificent obsession with fine.
Cabral’s passion for great wine, particularly pinot noir, was evident early on as he would spend every spare dime – and a good chunk of his student loans while a student at Fresno State – on buying wine from all over the world, especially Burgundy and Russian River Valley pinot noir. One of the first Sonoma County wineries he became passionate about was Willliams-Selyem, never dreaming that he would day be the winemaker. He joined the winery’s consumer list during graduate school in 1985 as customer No. 576, soon after experiencing the Williams-Selyem 1983 vintage. He was hooked.
The Wine Enthusiast announced Cabral as the 2011 winemaker of the year last fall, part of the magazine’s annual awards to honor outstanding achievements in the international wine industry. In addition to Cabral as Winemaker of the Year, the magazine honors the Wine Person of the Year, Lifetime achievement Award, American, European and New World Winery of the Year and Wine Region of the Year.
Cabral and the other award winners were honored at a black tie gala on Jan. 30 in New York City.
Cabral was selected winemaker of the year from a list of stellar nominees that included Philipe Cambie of Southern France, Zelma Long of California/South Africa, Alvaro Espinoza of Chile, and Gerard Kracher of Weinlaubenhof Kracher in Austria.
Cabral said just to be nominated and in the company of winemaking greats like Zelma Long and Philippe Cambie of France was humbling enough. When he got word that he was the winner for 2011 it was emotional overload.
“I have to say I was overwhelmed - taken back and almost in shock,” said Cabral. The shock value was nearly equal to when his 2007 Wiliams-Selyem Litton Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir (now Williams-Selyem Estate Vineyard) earned 100 points, a perfect score, from a major wine publication. It was the first American Pinot Noir to win a 100 point score, gilding Cabral’s reputation as one of the world’s best winemakers.
Cabral said the announcement that he was Wine Enthusiast’s winemaker of the year came in October during harvest and the heated frenzy of crush, which meant he couldn’t be overwhelmed for too long. He took a deep breath and rolled up his sleeves, getting back to the work of winemaking at one of the premium wineries in America. Williams-Selyem, founded by regular guys Burt Williams and Ed Selyem, was acquired in 1998 by John and Kathe Dyson of New York. The Dysons have invested millions of dollars in a winery and hospitality center to give Williams-Selyem a permanent home at 7227Westside Road.
Cabral said the award not only recognizes his accomplishments, it’s tribute to the land and all the people who are part of the combined effort in each bottle of Williams-Selyem wine. It also recognizes the world-class wine coming from this corner of the world.
“The award is good for the Williams-Selyem brand and good for the Russian River Valley and Sonoma County,” said Cabral. He looks forward to the day when the Russian River Valley will be named Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s Wine Region of the Year for the incredible pinot noir and chardonnays being produced.
Cabral’s rise in the world of wine was through his own determination, passion and the meticulous and patient approach he takes to crafting the ultimate expression of the grape in a glass of wine. Cabral isn’t from an aristocratic wine family, like the Mondavis, or blessed with wealth and family connections. He made it on his own the old fashioned way by hard work and earning the respect of vintners, like Jess Jackson, who employed him during his enological journey to become the celebrated winemaker he is today.
Cabral started his career fresh out of college at a large winery south of Fresno working in the Central Valley for several years, eventually landing in Sonoma County where he knew he could hone his skills and learn to make wines that could rival the best made anywhere in the world. In Sonoma he worked at various wineries before becoming winemaker at Williams-Selyem in July of 1998. Previously, he was the associate winemaker at De Loach Vineyards, Custom Crush winemaker at Kunde Family Estate Winery, winemaker at Alderbrook Vineyards and winemaker at Jess Jackson’s at Hartford Court Winery in Forestville.
Cabral said he had profound respect and admiration for Jess Jackson. He said one of the hardest things he has ever done was submitting his resignation to Jackson when he was hired at Williams-Selyem.
Having just finished his 14th vintage at Williams Selyem and his 32nd vintage at a commercial winery, Cabral said his winemaking philosophy has not changed over the decades. If anything, he said, his philosophy for producing fine wines is even more focused on the value of the grapes and the folks who grow them –nature and nurture.
“The key is to respect the vineyard and value the fruit,” said Cabral. “Working with some of the best growers and vineyards in the world allows us to farm to the highest possible standards and provides the finest fruit available.”
Cabral said grape quality is particularly true with pinot noir, a finicky grape that can only achieve perfection in cool-climate areas, like the Russian River Valley, where the weather and soil combine to allow the grape to attain its ultimate flavors.
“That’s more than half the battle with pinot noir. Once the fruit is taken care of, we intervene as little as possible,” said Cabral. “While there is no shortage of hard work in the cellar, you must still pay careful attention to detail as great wines are really made in the vineyard.”
Cabral said his job is to guide the wines along and allow the flavors of each individual vineyard to be fully expressed.
It’s clear that Cabral loves his work and Sonoma County.
“Sonoma County is still the most beautiful place in the world,” said Cabral. “What I like is that there is still a lot of agriculture going on here, with a range of specialty and artisan farm products to match the county’s incredible wines.”
Cabral’s agriculture roots run deep and he is both vocal and passionate about the important role of the American farmer. He believes agriculture is a noble profession but often gets a bum rap from misinformed people who don’t understand the value of locally grown food. He said education is key, which means farmers and ranchers must speak out about what it takes to farm while working with bureaucrats and elected officials to ease burdensome and costly regulations.
“The more information people have about agriculture the better. Unfortunately environmental groups that seriously influence legislators and government agencies act on emotion, not facts and science,” said Cabral. He rates over-regulation as the biggest challenge to agriculture, even more costly and damaging to farmers than pests and diseases.
Cabral makes his home in Healdsburg with his wife Heather and daughter, Paige, who is 10. He and his family travel the world for wine, living a lifestyle he never dreamed possible growing up on the farm in Escalon. He didn’t set out to seek fame and fortune, but it has come his way.
“It’s surreal to think what my life has become,” said Cabral. “ I just wanted to make great wine but, again, I can hear my father saying that if you do it right the money will come.”