March 20, 2013

Celebrating 40 Years: A Family Tradition of Premium Napa Valley Wines

The Cakebread family, owners of Cakebread Cellars in Rutherford, is one of the most highly esteemed and successful wineries in California’s famed Napa Valley. Since its founding in 1973, the winery has earned a reputation for exceptional wines and gracious hospitality. Cakebread’s success has been built on quality, consistency and continuity – characteristics the family believes apply equally to the grapes, the wines and the people who create Cakebread’s world-class wines. Each of the Cakebreads has contributed his or her individual talents to produce a harmonious, synergistic blend – Jack and Dolores as founders, and sons Bruce and Dennis now at the helm. With Bruce as president and COO, and Dennis as vice-chairman and senior vice president of sales and marketing, the family traditions and passionate commitment are ensured for the next generation.

The Cakebread Story

The Cakebread story began as a sideline for Jack Cakebread, who first worked on his family’s orchard in Contra Costa County, and later, became his father’s partner at Cakebread’s Garage in Oakland. Jack had developed an interest in photography, and while taking pictures of the Napa Valley for The Treasury of American Wines, fortuitously struck a deal to purchase the Cakebread ranch from family friends. Jack and Dolores split their time between the garage and establishing the winery on the weekends. The original property of 22 acres was primarily pasture, so needless to say, the undertaking required years of painstaking work. Sons Bruce and Dennis helped out on weekends, before joining full-time. As Dennis notes, “Ours is really an amazing American story . . . with my dad establishing a Napa Valley vineyard on the weekends with his family and turning it into one of the best-known wineries in America.” Over the years, the family continued to acquire prime vineyards – all but one in Napa Valley. The original 22 acres has grown to 1,100 acres (560 acres under vine), in some of the most desirable locations in the Napa Valley, Carneros, Howell Mountain and Anderson Valley. The winery purchases additional grapes from growers with whom it has been doing business for years, many of whom are recognized producers of top-quality Napa Valley grapes. While much has changed over four decades, the basic Cakebread philosophy of continuing to improve every year, has not. “We plow our profits back into the winery, and plan for slow, steady growth,” according to Bruce. “Dennis and I remain hands-on and, after 40 years, our passion for wine and the wine business is unabated.”

The early success of Cakebread wines – Chardonnay, Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc – built a loyal following and enabled the family to continue acquiring top vineyards. The story behind their acclaimed single-vineyard Cabernet, Dancing Bear Ranch, is certainly a testament to the family’s dedication to quality, despite the long road required to reach that goal. In 1998 the Cakebreads purchased a dramatic 28-acre site on Howell Mountain in northern Napa, with elevations reaching 1600 ft. The team then spent the next 11 years of planting, planning and trial winemaking before releasing the 2006 vintage nationally. Ever looking ahead, Bruce and Dennis set their sights further north to Anderson Valley, and have been diligently developing the Pinot Noir “project” – now nearly 20 years in the making. Dennis is particularly optimistic about the recently purchased Annahala Vineyard, noted for producing elegant Pinots.Cakebread plans to release a new Pinot Noir called “Two Creeks” with fruit from Annahala complementing the current Apple Barn vineyard fruit.

The Cakebread Team: Vineyard and Winery

The quest for improvement is a philosophy shared by the entire team at Cakebread. On the vineyard side, Toby Halkovich, director of vineyard operations, joined Cakebread in 2004 (a relative newcomer), and manages the winery’s estate vineyards and contract growers. Toby points to technology as being the driving force of change. “Technology allows us to be more nimble,” he says, “and to fully express each vineyard’s character in our wines from year to year.” Following the Cakebread culture of encouraging innovation, Toby has been working with UC Davis on cutting-edge research on how to positively impact flavor and varietal expressiveness in the field. New devices that can now wirelessly track data, which will be correlated with grape and wine characteristics, are just one example of the many technological developments that will positively affect viticultural practices. Winemaker Julianne Laks is celebrating her 27th year at Cakebread – and 11 years as winemaker. Julianne also points to technological advances and improved winemaking practices as key factors in qualitative improvements in the wines. Techniques such as whole-cluster pressing of white grapes, harvesting at night and barrel-aging a portion of Cakebread’s Chardonnay (leading to the winery’s Reserve Chardonnay program) are a few of the significant developments achieved under Julianne’s direction. However, both Julianne and Toby acknowledge that the human palate is still the overriding faculty in assessing grape and wine character.

Working closely with cellar master Brian Lee (who is marking his 26th year with Cakebread), Julianne has seen considerable expansion. In 2000, Cakebread opened a red wine facility across the road from the original winery (now dedicated to white wines), which allows for better fermentation management. Over the years Julianne and Brian have fine-tuned the barrel-aging program – from working with different coopers to analyzing the effects of oak from different forests – so that they can now “spend a lot more time matching barrels with our wines [to] achieve a seamless blend of oak and fruit character.” Over the years Julianne and Brian have researched and experimented with many winemaking techniques; and, in fact, many technologies have been discarded. For Julianne, and indeed the entire team at Cakebread, “our ultimate goal is to improve quality, vintage by vintage.”

The Pleasures of Wine and Food / The American Harvest Workshop

Ever since the early days of Cakebread Cellars, the winery has been recognized for its outstanding hospitality, provided by Dolores Cakebread, an accomplished cook and gardener. Long before “organic farming” or “farm-to-table” dining came into fashion, Dolores was creating fresh, healthy recipes for guests to enjoy with Cakebread wines. She and Jack, along with hotelier Bill Shoaf, also established the winery’s annual American Harvest Workshop, a four-day “boot camp” with master chefs and local purveyors, whose concept has remained basically unchanged since the first Workshop in 1987. Today, Cakebread is one of the few wineries with a full-time, in-house culinary department, dedicated solely to developing and executing educational programs, from wine-and-food pairing seminars and blending sessions, to the ever-popular, hands-on cooking classes. Culinary Director Brian Streeter, who joined Cakebread in 1989, has been drawing inspiration from a stunning array of Cakebread vintages, along with the finest ingredients Northern California has to offer. Brian manages the American Harvest Workshop (AHW), going strong in its 27th year, and heads up a culinary team that maintains a busy events schedule year-round.

Looking Back . . . and Forward

While a 40-year milestone is reason to celebrate, it is also a time to reflect. At Cakebread, many hallmarks have characterized the winery’s success, particularly striving for quality and innovative solutions – along with lots of hard work. Certainly, the family has always had a clear vision of success, which they’ve imparted to the dedicated Cakebread team. Indeed, the long tenure of the winemaking team has provided consistency in the wines, as well as a supportive environment that rewards achievement. Of course, Bruce and Dennis are well aware that good luck has also played its role, for which they are grateful. Each feels he has the best job in the world and looks forward to many decades ahead of memorable wines and cellar-worthy vintages!

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