Bob Cabral's Plans for Three Sticks Winery

Former William Selyem winemaker changes gears to make smaller quantities of wine

by Andrew Adams
Bob Cabral

Sonoma, Calif.—Earlier this week, veteran winemaker Bob Cabral was in the cellar at Three Sticks winery racking barrels, and he loved it.

Cabral is one of the most well-respected Pinot Noir winemakers in California, and he’s spent the past 16 years overseeing winemaking at Williams Selyem Winery in Sonoma County. In his new role as partner and director of winemaking at Three Sticks Winery however, Cabral has more opportunities to do hands-on work. “I wanted to spend more time in the cellar and the vineyard, and it’s awesome,” he told Wines & Vines.

About a year ago, Cabral and Williams Selyem announced he would be leaving the winery—not in retirement, but “looking for new adventures.”

As he waited out a one-year, non-compete contract, Cabral said he mulled starting his own label and took various meetings to discuss projects like working with a negociant group. “I could probably make a lot of money doing that,” he said. “But in my 35-year career in the wine industry, I just haven’t been money motivated.”

Instead, Cabral, 53, was looking to reconnect with the art of winemaking while also having the free time to hang out with his teenage daughter before she goes off to college.

This winter, Cabral received a call from Bill Price, owner of Price Family Vineyards, which includes the Durell Vineyard in the Carneros AVA and several other prized vineyards. Cabral initially hoped he’d be able to buy some grapes from Price, but after a series of conversations the two determined there was an opportunity for Cabral at Three Sticks. “It’s been a re-invigoration for me, and I’ll always be grateful to Bill for providing that opportunity at this time in my life.”

Don Van Staaveren, who has been the winemaker at Three Sticks since 2004, now holds the title “winemaker emeritus” as he transitions into retirement. Cabral said he’s known Van Staaveren for 25 years, and he plans to maintain Van Staaveren’s style. Joining Cabral at Three Sticks is Ryan Pritchard who worked at Williams Selyem as in intern in 2008 and most recently was the associate winemaker at Medlock Ames Winery in Healdsburg, Calif.

Cabral said the decision to leave Williams Selyem was not one he arrived at suddenly. In the past several years he had begun to question whether he wanted to continue overseeing the production of wine at Williams Selyem’s volume (15,500 cases in 2011). His decision to leave the winery was less about Williams Selyem and more about his personal desire to return to making wine at a smaller level. “One of the reasons I was leaving was the volume of wine we were making was not the volume of wine I wanted to make at this stage of my career,” he said. “I didn’t want to go through that process on an annual basis.”

Three Sticks’ current production is around 2,500 cases, and Cabral said he doesn’t expect it to increase dramatically anytime soon. The wines are made at a winery located with a cluster of others in a commercial and industrial area on Eighth Street East near the city of Sonoma. The winery also recently opened a tasting room in a renovated, historic adobe building off Sonoma Plaza. Cabral said Price, who recently sold his company’s investment in Kosta Browne Wines, is committed to the Three Sticks brand. “This is one he has no intention of selling at least even in the mid-term future,” he said. “It’s a long committed project for Bill and a very personal one for him as well.”

He doesn’t think the winery has expanded too far—and in fact could do so quite successfully if they chose to do so. “They still have some incredible vineyard sites and development sites, and I have the utmost confidence they could continue to grow,” he said and reiterated his decision to leave was based on his own goals. “This was a very personal thing and sometimes you just have to do something different.”

The decision also came in part because Cabral felt he needed to regain a sense of balance between his professional and personal lives. The same concept of balance is also deeply rooted in how Cabral views managing a vineyard and making wine.  While the current connotation associated with the word “balance” is often about alcohol levels, Cabral said he feels it’s much more complicated and nuanced than that and takes into account the myriad decisions related to managing a vineyard from pulling leaves, when and when not to irrigate, picking decisions and many other factors. (See the Wines & Vines interview with Cabral from March 2014).

Regarding Three Sticks, Cabral said the goal has always been—and will remain—to “make Burgundian varietals in a California cool-climate way.” That means something that’s near the middle point of a particularly austere wine and something that’s gone too far to the side of over-extraction and ripeness. It’s a middle point that Cabral said Van Staaveren has always hit and will be his goal as well.

Cabral is still thinking about producing wines under his own label and said Price has already offered him the time and resources to make that happen. In the meantime though, he said he’s focusing on working with the director of vineyard operations Rob Harris to better understand the current vineyards as well as map out how to replant and redevelop existing ones to maintain quality. “We need to have that dialed in so the next generation of winemakers want to buy from Durell and Gap’s Crown.”

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