Williams Selyem director of winemaking Bob Cabral grew up around grapes, but not in the famed Russian River Valley. It was on his family’s ranch in Escalon, located in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where he learned about growing grapes—as well as riding bulls and roping calves. From Escalon, Cabral went on to study at California State University, Fresno, in the 1980s, receiving a bachelor’s degree in enology and a master’s degree in agricultural chemistry.
Escalon and Fresno aren’t exactly Pinot Noir country, but Cabral loved that variety nonetheless, and he bought Burgundy and California bottlings (including Williams Selyem) whenever he could afford them. He moved in 1987 to Sonoma County, where he worked at De Loach, Kunde Estate, Alderbrook and Hartford Court. In 1998, Burt Williams—who, along with Ed Selyem, sold the Williams Selyem winery to John Dyson that year—recommended that Cabral be hired to take over as winemaker. Since then, Cabral has overseen the development of two estate vineyards at Williams Selyem and the building of a new winery. He announced in February that the 2014 harvest will be his last with the winery.
Wines & Vines: How has your thinking about vine spacing evolved during your time at Williams Selyem?
Bob Cabral: When I started at Williams Selyem in 1998, I inherited quite a few grape contracts that had vineyard blocks with older spacing (8 feet by 12 feet, 8 by 10, 7 by 10, 7 by 12, etc.) Our contracts had a “not to exceed” clause of 3 tons per acre. This was on Burt Williams’ recommendation, to achieve the concentration that he felt was needed to make our style of wines. This was easily achieved, because most of the sites were older plantings that rarely set more than 1 to 2 tons per acre. The only real complaint I ever heard from a grower was that they were not making much money because of those yields.
We chose to plant our first estate vineyard out on Drake Road on a 5-foot by 7-foot spacing in hopes of getting around that 3 tons per acre. On that site, with deep loamy soils by the Russian River, it has worked out extremely well for us. So I started planting the Williams Selyem Estate on Westside Road at a similar density. While farming this site, I noticed that the vigor was much lower, primarily due to the higher clay content and much less topsoil, so for additional planting, I chose 4 feet by 7 feet to again attempt to achieve that minimum of 3 tons per acre. This seems to have worked out well, because we are seeing extremely high wine quality with economic farming yields. So, in general, I tend to plant closer spaced vines on marginal sites and look to control vigor on deeper, richer soiled sites.
W&V: Some vintners espouse the view that the smaller the crop, the better the quality. You don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Why?
Cabral: I have found over many vintages in Sonoma County that too small of a crop, especially on the Sonoma Coast, can create Pinot Noir wines that lack the finesse or prettiness that I like about this varietal. These wines tend to be extremely concentrated, tannic and unbalanced. The acids can be much more aggressive, and they can lack the floral or high-toned aromatics that I expect to see in Pinot Noir. I’ve made some of these types of wines, and they can resemble Syrah more than they do Pinot Noir. Obviously, these smaller crops also become uneconomical to farm after a while. If your farming costs approach $6,000 to $9,000 per acre, at less than a ton per acre you won’t be able to stay in business for long. Even if you own a winery and are able to sell those bottles for $100, after you add in land costs, cost of farming before you get a crop, depreciation, etc., this yield model just does not make financial sense. In my humble opinion, having a balanced vine usually provides you with the chance to craft a balanced wine and still pay the bills along the way.
W&V: How does canopy management figure into the cropping decisions?
Cabral: Canopy management plays a big part in determining how much crop we may attempt to mature. The first decision is what type of pruning system I am going to use. Bilateral cordon, cane or head training are probably the three most common here in the North Coast. If I choose to use a bilateral cordon, vertically shoot positioned system, I then need to determine how many spurs per vine will be needed and ultimately how many shoots per spur. Typically on my 5 by 7 spaced VSP systems, I try to space out nine to 10 spurs and leave two shoots per spur. The height of the cordon arms will also determine if you might need to hedge during the growing season. The goal is to not have to hedge during a typical growing season, but all of this depends greatly on the soil, vigor of the rootstock, irrigation habits and the weather during any particular growing season. The overall idea is to mature a crop with the least amount of canopy to ensure adequate phenolic and flavor ripeness without excess buildup of carbohydrates. I typically shoot-thin down to two shoots per spur, pull lateral shoots around the clusters on the morning sun side, and sometimes hedge to help slow down the buildup of carbohydrates or sugars. This usually requires that we make several passes throughout the growing season, as each vineyard, block and clone responds differently.
W&V: How do clone and rootstock affect your decisions about planting density and crop load?
Cabral: Rootstock and clonal decisions are a big part of determining how densely to plant a potential site and then balance a crop. On weaker soils, I tend to use less-vigorous rootstocks and plant more densely. I try to then choose scion wood or clones that work well in that climate as well as with that rootstock. Row spacing is usually determined by the slopes or our ability to farm it safely. I widen up the row spacing as the slopes become more difficult, so that we can still get tractors, sprayers and harvest bin trailers into the vineyard. Typical spacing for our equipment is 5 by 7 (feet), 4 by 7 or 4 by 8. With the typical hillside soils I tend to work with in Sonoma County, these p lanting densities give me vines that are producing a balanced crop and the quality I need for our style, while still being economical to farm.
On deeper river bottom- or valley floor-type soils, I tend to plant rootstocks that help moderate vigor, are more drought tolerant or require less irrigation and can resist or be more tolerant of soil pests such as nematodes or phylloxera. Vine spacing can be tricky on some of these more vigorous sites. Too dense can cause canopy-management problems, with shoots growing on top of each other, shading of fruit and difficulty with fungicide penetration, thus causing additional disease pressure. Not dense enough usually requires the vines to mature more fruit per vine (to make it economical) and doesn’t provide the concentration of flavor or site characteristics I am trying to capture while crafting those wines. So much of this is really trial and error, and I tend to talk to neighboring grapegrowers to find out what has worked and, more importantly, what hasn’t worked for them over the years. I am always happy to sit down with a neighbor and share my failures and successes on a particular site; that’s how we all make better wines for our consumers.
W&V: How do you arrive at your crop estimates?
Cabral: I arrive at a crop estimate primarily by counting the number of clusters on random vines throughout a block shortly after berry set and using a historical average cluster weight to make the initial tons per acre or pounds per vine. For example, in a 3-acre vineyard, I may count 25-30 individual vines to get an average cluster count per vine. I then look at historical cluster weights and try to compare them to what I am seeing in the vineyard now. This method is very non-scientific and relies on a personal judgment call, so this is just a ballpark estimate. But if historically I would harvest about 24-26 clusters per vine, and the average on this first count is 35 clusters per vine, I would go out and drop seven to eight clusters on this first pass and then recount. After the recount, I may wait for the clusters to size up a bit before I determine if another thinning is needed at this time. If I am close—say 26 or 27 clusters per vine on average—I would probably wait until 90% véraison to do a final green drop if the vines seem balanced and happy. This method is fairly time-consuming and can be quite inaccurate, especially when dealing with a new vineyard.
We have also begun testing the method of performing “lag weights” on a vineyard for crop load determination. This involves stripping the entire crop off of several vines at a point when you have determined the vine is 50% through the fruit maturation process, counting the clusters and weighing them. Then using a “factor,” or an estimate of where the grape is in the maturity process, you calculate an estimated crop load per vine and then for the entire block. This, again, is a bit of a judgment call, as you are trying to determine when the seeds just start to harden in the berries. There seems to be a bit of a natural buffer in this of about seven days. Again, this can be somewhat inaccurate for a novice estimator or an unfamiliar vineyard site.
W&V: Do you generally have to drop some fruit from your Pinot Noir vines?
Cabral: I usually have to do some sort of crop thinning every growing season. Sometimes it is just the removal of wings or a final green drop at 90% véraison (as in 2005, 2008 and 2011). Other times, it can be the removal of 50% of the clusters right after berry set (as in 1997, 2006, 2012 and 2013). But most of the time I would guess that we remove less than 25% of the clusters in a more typical growing season. It just depends on the site and the growing season.
I am a big believer in the importance of the timing of the operation as much as the performing of the operation. Over my tenure as a winemaker in Sonoma County (27 years), I have had much more success with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel when I time most viticultural operations. This usually results in several passes throughout the vineyard and has, at times, become rather costly.
I like to shoot-thin before flowering, which is a pretty big gamble if the weather doesn’t cooperate at bloom. I cluster-thin right after berry set and then follow that up with the removal of laterals around the clusters (morning side only). The next pass is usually a winging and possibly another cluster drop to target a more specific yield. If the shoots become unruly and need to be hedged, then that is usually the next operation.
An unseasonable rain may require an additional lateral removal pass, and then I usually do my final cluster thinning at 90% véraison, removing any cluster with more than 75% green berries. Methodical and calculated canopy and crop manageme nt is really the key to growing Williams Selyem-quality fruit.
W&V: You’re leaving Williams Selyem at the end of the 2014 harvest. What are your plans?
Cabral: I don’t have everything set in concrete, as there are still some details to iron out. The idea is to make a little bit of my own wine with my family as part of the plan. And explore some ideas that I’ve had for quite some time. I love everything about the wine business and look forward to the wonderful opportunities it can provide me and my family.
I just need a change. And I believe Williams Selyem will benefit from a change. It’s time to let go of a few things and allow my fellow employees to grow in their positions as Williams Selyem grows. Sometimes change is good. Seventeen years is a long time in one place, and I want to explore other opportunities. I still think my best vintages are to come, and I wish everyone at Williams Selyem the best.
A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.
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