A Piece of Napa History
Before Napa Valley was a hotbed of so-called “cult” wines, before its visitor numbers rivaled Disneyland’s and hotel rooms topped $1,000 a night, Jack and Dolores Cakebread saw the potential of this now-legendary place for making extraordinary Cabernets, Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, and more. Fifty years ago, in 1973, they launched the family winery that would become a Napa icon and arbiter of classic, balanced wine style. Next-gen Bruce and Dennis Cakebread share their parents’ vision, and have extended it to a growing vineyard portfolio along the way.
To the original Sturdivant Ranch Jack and Dolores purchased in 1972 (and planted to Sauvignon Blanc), the Cakebreads have steadily added vineyard properties throughout Napa Valley, from Carneros to Oakville to Howell Mountain, from cool, bay-adjacent sites to valley floor parcels to steep mountainside acreage — 18 unique vineyards in all, covering 1,873 acres with 635 under vine — giving them building blocks for blending wines with depth and complexity supplied by the whole range of Napa’s terroir.
And although the winery has added bottles and tiers — especially a reserve tier as home-turf Oakville and Rutherford became official sub-AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) in the valley — the winemaking team has stayed the course where style is concerned. Elegance trumps alcohol, and freshness reigns over excessive ripeness. As Bruce Cakebread puts it, “Our wines are well- balanced, letting the fruit shine through, with the oak in the background. We like fresh acidity, wines that are going to go well with food.”
It Really is About the Food
That, above all, is the point. Jack Cakebread was known to say, “Some of the best times happen around the table. The shared experience of good wine and food has helped us forge long- lasting relationships.” To that end, while investing in cutting-edge (and beautiful) winemaking facilities through the decades, Dolores also planted an estate produce garden. She and Jack remade the property’s century-old farmhouse, installing a state-of-the-art kitchen and gracious hospitality center. And in 1988 they began inviting the country’s best chefs and food and wine writers to come each year for an American Harvest Workshop, to explore local products — and ultimately serve up innovative dinners to lucky local guests. The menus (and recipes) created by Harvest Workshop chefs through the decades both influenced and reflected the vibrant farm-to-table food movement across the country.
“Wine should make the food taste better, and food should make the wine taste better.”
Longtime executive chef Brian Streeter (mantra: “Wine should make the food taste better, and food should make the wine taste better”) and winemaker Niki Williams (named to the post this year, only the fifth in the winery’s history to oversee operations) are in lock step. The wines remain balanced and age-worthy, great partners for food and friends through time.
Looking North: Mendocino's Anderson Valley
While Cakebread Cellars might be best known for its Napa Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, the family’s expanding portfolio — now 18 wines strong — delivers exciting wine diversity outside their storied home base. Anderson Valley now stars in the mix. Situated in the cool, western reaches of Mendocino County — the coolest winegrowing region in California, actually — the valley flanks Highway 128 as it dives into the redwoods and emerges on the Pacific Ocean south of the town of Mendocino proper. Coastal fog and breezes make the reverse trip down through the valley, keeping temperatures through the growing season cool, ensuring slow, complex flavor development and bright, vibrant acidity levels — pure-fruited, elegant Pinot Noir, in other words.
Looking Farther North: Family Vision In Washington
About a decade ago, Dennis Cakebread expanded the plan. With boots on the ground in the far northwest corner of the Lower 48, he found wines and winemaking that fit his family’s vision. Vibrant, balanced, and pure Bordeaux varieties caught his attention, especially in the northern Columbia Valley in what is now the Royal Slope AVA. And the winemaking community of Walla Walla, Washington, matched his idea of winemaking camaraderie. He split the difference, sourcing fruit from the Royal Slope and making the wine — Mullan Road Cellars, named after the historic road leading in from Fort Benton, Montana — in downtown Walla Walla, where you can taste surrounded by the wine itself, in the winery’s warehouse barrel room.
This year the winery will open a tasting room on Wine Walk Row in Woodinville, Washington, within the brand-new Schoolhouse District. The new location will be the first tasting room for Mullan Road Cellars. Guests will have the chance to taste Mullan Road Cellars wines, such as their acclaimed Royal Slope Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as a selection of wines from the family’s Cakebread Cellars winery. A focused selection of food pairings will also be available and will showcase some of the talented purveyors from around Washington state.
Age is Just a Number
Wines unfold beautifully over time. Two older vintages in this box speak for themselves: the 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and — quite purposely even one year older — the 2012 Reserve Chardonnay. The former, going on 10 years in bottle now, shows the beauty of fruit aromas evolving into a complex compote character, florals into hints of sachet. Intriguing layers of graphite and mineral emerge from the background, and firm structure melts into smooth integration. The Chardonnay challenges common wisdom that white wines can’t age well. In fact, this 11-year-old Chard is in a remarkable moment in its evolution, retaining primary freshness while shedding the plump baby fat of round fruit flavors in favor of savory minerality, the taste of the place called terroir.
It’s no accident that both of these wines are in magnum, the equivalent of two regular bottles. With the same amount of head space in the bottle, micro-oxygenating twice as much wine, time slows down. The evolution of bright primary flavors into mature secondary ones (those dried florals, flint, and earth) proceeds at a snail’s pace. And in mid- life — in wines designed to age, as these are — an extraordinary balance is struck between freshness and mature complexity.
2012 Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay Reserve Carneros Napa Valley
Blended from estate vineyards in Napa’s Carneros region — where chilly winds and fog from San Pablo Bay make for a long, slow growing season while preserving acidity levels — this Reserve Chardonnay reveals all the complexity and brightness that result. Even creamier now, after a decade in magnum, the wine is mouth-filling and deeply textured from aging on its lees in French oak (and stirred weekly). Fresh ocean-breeze aromas lead into citrus that has evolved into preserved lemon; apple and white peach melded into warm-spiced compote; and dried florals weaving through all. The beautiful tension of vibrant acidity and texture still anchors the palate, while juicy fruit is moving aside to reveal more savory qualities. The wine is long and complex, lingering in minerality and distinct salinity (that’s a good thing).
2013 Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
Time has rewarded the Cakebread winemaking style in this handsome magnum: Impeccable balance, supple structure, and vibrant acidity 10 years ago have allowed aromas, flavors, and textures to evolve seamlessly. Lush blackberry and black currant aromas are giving ground to fig, dark chocolate, and a touch of licorice on the nose. The palate is vibrant still, juicy with boysenberry and cherry, while fresh oak spice notes have become alluring undertones as plush, rounded tannins linger on a mineral-tinged finish.
2020 Cakebread Cellars Two Creek Vineyards Pinot Noir Anderson Valley
Blended from the family’s Annahala and Apple Barn estate vineyards, which sit on the banks of Anderson Creek (thus the name), this Pinot owes its balance to a marriage between a cooler site (Annahala) and a warmer one (Apple Barn). Spiced cherry and crushed strawberry open, with intriguing notes of forest botanicals, mushroom, and loam peeking out from under delicate florals. Juicy fruit carries the palate — raspberry joining cherry and strawberry — edged with clove and coriander. Fine-grained tannins turn this wine’s textures into silk, and a vein of minerality brings up a savory finish.
2018 Mullan Road Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley
This elegant Cabernet-based blend (there’s a little Cabernet Franc and Merlot splashed in) offers the appealing ripeness of a warm growing season in Washington (where long days punch up the intensity of the fruit) balanced with cooler pre-harvest days in the fall, which serve to retain critical acidity levels. Dark, slightly brooding berry aromas open, underlying raspberry and strawberry swirled with toasted spices, cocoa powder, and hints of dried violet and crushed rock. On the palate, lush black cherry and juicy plum are edged with brambleberries, and cassis, dark chocolate, and vanilla unfold with layers of spice and exotic black tea. This one is lush, long, and complex.
Cakebread Cellars - Farming for the Furture
From the first vintage, in 1973, Jack and Dolores Cakebread farmed with an eye to the future. That is, the future of the land. In their organic, sustainable approach, they were very much ahead of their day in California — influencers before that was even a thing. In 2008, Cakebread was only the second winery to be awarded Napa Green certification, a program that encourages sustainable practices both in the vineyard and in the cellar, practices that, for Cakebread, include fish- and bee- friendly farming. They are enthusiastic participants in Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing, a broad, practical program that encompasses rigorous water and energy conservation and extensive recycling (heck, even the innovative parking lot, with its permeable pavement and bio-swales, captures, filters, and recharges groundwater). The Cakebread family, too, have joined a global cohort of wineries — International Wineries for Climate Action — working towards a zero-carbon future. It’s a simple proposition for Bruce Cakebread: “We’re a family winery, and we want to protect the land for future generations.”