Healdsburg winemaker crafted HBO's official 'Game of Thrones' wines

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With all that wine consumed in the Seven Kingdoms the past eight seasons — whether sipped or sloppily guzzled — North Coast superfans of the HBO smash hit Game of Thrones might wonder what type of wine characters Tyrion Lannister or Lady Olenna might drink.

What wine appellations might be found in Westeros and Essos? How does the wine palate of a King’s Landing nobleman differ from that of Sansa Stark, the Lady of Winterfell?

Healdsburg winemaker Bob Cabral spent a lot of time pondering such questions, after HBO asked him to craft the official wines of the epic fantasy saga, a pop culture phenomenon that’s become the most watched series in the network’s history.

On the eve of the climactic finale Sunday night, Cabral recalled with a bit of giddiness — he is himself a big fan of the adaptation of the best-selling book series — how he overlaid California and Oregon grape-growing regions onto fictional growing territories that are home to flesh-eating wights, murderous clans and fire-breathing dragons. Cabral partnered with Vintage Wine Estates to produce four wines for HBO — a cabernet, chardonnay, red blend and most recently a pinot noir.

“The wines kind of represent the show — there are kingdoms represented in those wines,” Cabral said. “That’s what gives me the creative spark to be able to translate that to the show itself, those (real life) appellations to kingdoms in the show.”

Cabral said it was during the grape harvest of 2016 when he first met HBO marketing representatives at the Santa Rosa offices of Vintage Wine Estates. He said Vintage chief executive Pat Roney had been in talks with HBO, but the network still hadn’t picked a winemaker.

It was early evening and Cabral had just finished a day of pressing out some pinot he was making for his own Bob Cabral Wines label. Wearing jeans and an old concert T-shirt, Cabral cleaned up a little to meet the HBO representatives, but was still covered in grape skins and seeds from digging out tanks and dumping pomace power-washing equipment.

“I think some skins or a seed or something came off of my clothing and landed right on his sleeve. It kind of broke the ice,” Cabral said. “It was kind of like, ‘Well, this guy is a real winemaker. He’s got skins and seed all over him.’”

The first three wines, introduced in 2017, were the cabernet, red blend and chardonnay, the qualities of each matching Cabral’s perception of the climate, terrain and gourmet and not-so-gourmet offerings of George R.R. Martin’s fictional landscape.

Cabral started with The North, which he envisioned as a rough, cold land with not a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, a place where preserved food and hunted meats are the staple. With that in mind, Cabral began putting together a red blend from the Paso Robles area, using varieties like petite syrah, tempranillo, malbec and a little bit of nebbiolo.

“Then, to kind of bring out the fruit a little bit, we found some Lodi Zinfandel,” he said, adding that as you moved south in the story’s setting of Westeros, toward the middle of the kingdom, the weather gets nicer — offering more fresh fruits and vegetables and opportunities for lighter wines.

For King’s Landing, the site of the fabled Iron Throne, Cabral said he went for a noble wine.

“You want something worthy of the Iron Throne and that’s how we kinda came up with the Napa cabernet — Napa cab being king,” he said.

Cabral said Vintage Wine Estates gave him access to some lots from exceptional vineyards in the Napa Valley through the company’s portfolio. The Game of Throne Cabernet, which was made at the Clos Pegase winery, was priced at $50 a bottle “because of location and the cost of the fruit going into the bottle.”

From there, Cabral’s imaginary wine tour took him to the lands of Essos, to the Bay of Dragons — known as Slaver’s Bay before Daenerys Targaryen’s young dragons baked noble slave masters. The sea climate there called for a chardonnay.

“I thought about chardonnay mainly from the Central Coast — the Monterey, Santa Barbara area, something with some vibrancy, verve, a nice fruit, clean finishes, and that’s pretty much what we got from the fruit down there,” he said.

Cabral, who was named winemaker of the year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine in 2011, said he was worried some might view the Game of Thrones wine offerings as gimmicky, a merchandise scheme aimed at making a quick profit. He was happy to learn HBO had the same worry and all were in agreement that he produce the best product for the prices they had established.

The Napa cabernet received a rating of 91 from Wine Spectator, and he said his other Game of Thrones wines also have been well received by fans.

How well are the wines selling? Vintage Winery Estates, which would not disclose sales, production or shipping numbers, says only that some of the wines have been selling out leading up to the show’s final season.

“Our limited production Game of Thrones wines have seen strong interest since they were introduced in 2017,” said Roney, the wine company’s CEO. “With the release of new vintages, we were able to get most of the wines back in stock, but demand remains very high.”

The newest addition to the Game of Thrones lineup is a pinot noir, conceived by Cabral about a year ago and which uses grapes from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The wine is made at the Vintage Winery Estates winery in Oregon but bottled at the company’s winery in Hopland.

“We had some really nice fruit from the Firesteed vineyard — again, I kind of envisioned more toward where the Iron Throne is down to the south — a less tannic wine, easier to drink, something that’s going to go well with a myriad of food, nice cherry fruits, good acidity, nice clean finish, what a pinot should have,” he said.

Vintage Winery Estates said it will continue to make the Game of Thrones wines after Sunday’s epic finale, since it doesn’t expect interest in the show to end anytime soon.

For those looking for a bottle, there are still a couple of cases each of pinot noir and chardonnay at Vintage’s The Flight Deck tasting room in Healdsburg.

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