Inside the Brand: An In-Depth Look at Cakebread Cellars

Saturday, October 30, 2010

It’s a chilly October morning when I arrive at Cakebread Cellars in Rutherford, California.  Harvest has completed for the most part, and there’s a sweet smell in the air - the smell of grapes being crushed and fermented.  Napa Valley is as busy and alive as it will be any time of the year, and I’m looking forward to learning more about one of the most admired brands in Napa Valley.  Cakebread Cellars somehow manages to be ubiquitous yet elusive, old school yet modern, and above all exclusive yet down to earth.  Over the course of the next few hours, my goal would be to learn what it is that makes their wines special and how they’ve built and maintained their brand over the years.

I spot a pair of sleek black Lincoln Town Cars in the parking lot delivering small groups of enthusiastic, well-heeled visitors to their first tasting room of the day.  The main reception area is a bustling with activity as people confirm various 10:30 am appointments.  Today I’ll be meeting with Dennis Cakebread who, among other things, heads up sales and marketing for the winery.  I wander around looking for the business offices hoping to find him there.  I get a bit of a sick feeling in my stomach as the receptionist says she’s not sure whether Dennis is in today – do I have an appointment?

Moments later, he appears and mentions they’re having a beet crisis.  Beet crisis?  They’d committed to bring beets from their gardens to a wine dinner and they’re not sure they have enough of all the beet varieties.  I got to know Dennis by way of some things I’ve written about Cakebread here on this site so he reached out via E-mail and said he’d be happy to show me around next time I was in Napa.  As luck would have it, I was in Napa a few weeks later so I took him up on the offer.  He also sent out an informational packet including a DVD which I reviewed ahead of time.

Dennis is one of three children of Jack and Dolores Cakebread who started the winery back in 1973.  Robert Mondavi started the 32nd winery in Napa – Cakebread was number 38.  Today there are over 400 wineries in Napa.  When I first became familiar with Cakebread I wrongly assumed it was a newer winery, and suspected the name on the bottle was somehow contrived.  It’s not.  It’s just their family name (other wine brands are confusingly similar).

The family ran an auto repair shop in Oakland, and Jack also had a side interest in photography.  After visiting Napa Valley to do a photo shoot he casually mentioned to the previous owners of the ranch that if they were ever interested in selling to let him know.  The next day they called him up and said they actually were interested in selling, and Jack said yes.  But after talking it over with Dolores he realized he’d made a mistake.  He didn’t have that kind of money and the romantic notion of starting a winery got the best of him.  He went to tell the owner he’d gotten carried away.  The owners liked the Cakebreads and wanted to see the land taken care of, so they came to terms for the amount of the advance he’d received for photographing the book: $2,500.

From then until 1989, the Cakebreads would split time between Oakland and Napa.  Eventually they closed the garage and focused full-time on wine.  Today, the winery is situated on Highway 29 in Napa Valley with a subdued sign and a “Cakebread Cellars” mailbox out front.  The architecture of the winery itself is humble, with redwood siding that rises gently off the earth and surrounding rows of grape vines.

Our tour begins in the shipping area where pallets of Cakebread wines are waiting to be sent.  Dennis stops to chat with a colleague about some maintenance issues and while I’ve got the chance I’m gawking at the wines.  All-in Cakebread produces over 100,000 cases of wine a year.  They’re not small any more, but they’re still very much a family winery.  And they’re not expanding anymore which creates unique challenges in terms of running the winery profitably in light of ever-increasing production costs.

Next, Dennis tried to kill me.  Well, not really but he did play a pretty funny joke with the fermenting tanks.  We climbed up steep stairs to a walkway that rises high above the tanks.  He said, “There’s a right way, and wrong way to smell fermenting wine - do you know the difference?”  I say I don’t so he scouts around to find just the right tanks to show me.  The first tank is white wine that's largely completed fermentation.  I stick my head in the tank and smell some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever smelled.  There are aromas of lemon curd, pineapples, and honey.  “Now try smelling this one.” It’s got some red wine actively fermenting in it.  He draws some air out of the tank with his hand and it too smells wonderful.  Big ripe blackberries, earth, a little tar, and very much alive.  “That’s the right way to smell a fermenting grapes.  Now let me show you the wrong way – stick your nose in there right above the opening in the tank and take a whiff."  I do as he says and my vision immediately goes black.  Imagine taking a huge spoonful of horseradish and stuffing it in your mouth and swallowing it.  Imagine the sensation you’d get as your nose would momentarily suffocate and your eyes would open wide – that’s what it felt like times 100.  Thankfully the sensation lasted for only a fraction of a second so I could enjoy the rest of the visit.  But it was a memorable exercise to point out that Carbon Dioxide in the winery is serious business.  On with the tour!

Next stop was the cellar where oak barrels were being filled and stacked high for aging.  It's chilly - probably just over 40F - and smells of wood and wine.  Barrels are being filled, and some are being stirred - their Reserve Chardonnay, Dennis explains.

Adjacent to the cellar was a variety of rooms where private tastings are hosted.  We stop to check out a new video they’ve just produced for their Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet.  They call it Dancing Bear because they could imagine this bear dancing around their vineyards on Howell Mountain after skillfully climbing the barbed wire fence.  Check it out around the 4 minute mark in this video clip.

The property has been added to over the years, and what I liked about it was the scale and thoughtfully carved out niches.  The gardens, little tasting areas, tables.  It's a beautiful place.  Classic Napa Valley.

We stopped by the main tasting area and grabbed a couple glasses of Sauvignon Blanc ($24/btl) and found a table in a courtyard.  It was the same grape variety with the beautiful aromas in the fermenting tank that didn’t knock me out.  Tasting wines after walking through the vineyards and cellars is one of the great moves in all of marketing as the wines always seem to rise to higher levels at the winery.  Impeccable provenance to say the least, clean high quality stemware, and complete immersion in the winery.

Dennis is a likable guy:  Smart without being a pretentious, friendly but not gregarious, affable but not goofy.  He’s got a quiet confidence about him.  He seemed grateful for the position he’s in and he clearly loves the wines of Napa Valley.  I asked him whether he considers Cakebread a Chardonnay winery or a Cabernet winery – he asked me what I thought they were.  It’s probably just because I drink way more red wine than white (by a 6:1 ratio this year) but I’ve always thought of them as a Cabernet Sauvignon winery.

But I think more people would think of them first as a Chardonnay winery.  According to Wine & Spirits Magazine's 2009 survey of restaurants, Cakebread was the best selling wine brand overall and their Chardonnay was the 2nd most popular (behind Sonoma-Cutrer in the Chardonnay category).

The 2008 Reserve Chardonnay ($55) shows  why.  It is utterly delicious.  Rich with ripe pear aromas and ample creaminess.  A streak of flinty bluestone flavors keeps things serious and brings balance to the wine.  Absolutely stunning.  Textbook Napa Chardonnay.  Highly recommended.

Next up were the Napa Valley Merlot ($54) and then the Cabernet Sauvignon ($61).  The Merlot was showing generous aromas and incredibly enjoyable mouth feel. Their Cabernet did for me what it always does – deliver an elegant distinctive flavor that I have a hard time finding in any other wine (believe me I’ve tried).  On immediate release, for immediate consumption, I think I prefer the Merlot.  The Cabernet would benefit from a little more bottle age to open up.

Their 2007 Syrah ($51) is an inky, purple, opaque wine.  At 15.1% alcohol - it's heart warming.  I had this wine previously and picked it as my favorite out of a line-up of 8 other Syrahs blind.  I think it plays well as a cocktail wine.  Dennis said he sometimes has it after dinner and said he was considering lightening its color up a bit in future vintages.

The last wine we tasted was the 2006 Dancing Bear Ranch ($106).  It’s not necessarily a bigger bolder wine, but it does deliver even more excitement than the Napa Valley bottling.  I would have enjoyed getting to know that wine better by way of a couple glasses over dinner with friends.  Note the different label style which is screened on rather than paper.  Interesting.  Cakebread's regular label is a classic and one of my favorites.  But I like the Dancing Bear Ranch label too.

The tasting itself was a delightfully casual affair with Dennis rifling through a nearby cooler grabbing a little of this and a little of that.  I thought all the wines were great.  The common thread of their line-up, for me, is the focus on enjoyable mouth feel and delicious flavor profiles along with elegant balance.  Most all were food friendly (the possible exception being the Syrah) because they’re slightly higher in acid than normal, but rich and round at the same time.  Like a stereo turned up to “7” playing your favorite song.  Nothing is distorting or out of control and you’re just focused on enjoying the experience.

Since Cakebread is such a popular restaurant brand, and I’ve heard restaurant wine sales are down the past few years, I asked how they were weathering this.  Dennis said they’ve changed their restaurant/retail allocation mix from 70/30 to 60/40 which might explain why we’ve been seeing Cakebread more available in Massachusetts wine shops recently.  If you’ve been interested in buying their wines now might be the best opportunity in a while.  Check for availability in your area or buy online directly from Cakebread if they can ship to your state.

Speaking of shipping laws, I particularly appreciated Dennis’s awareness of the situation in Massachusetts. He serves on the board of the Coalition for Free Trade -and- Free the Grapes.  Let’s hope our legislature can seal the deal in next year’s session and finally enable winery-direct shipment to Massachusetts.  More info on that issue here in this brief history of wine shipping laws in Massachusetts.

Side note: Kudos to Cakebread for having the clearest and most useful wine shipping info page I've ever seen.  I don't need to waste a lot of time to see that they can't ship to Massachusetts and if they could ship to my state I could see exactly what the terms and conditions were.  Well done.

We even had a chance to talk about wine aerators.  Dennis showed me a simple "back and forth" trick where you pour a wine back and forth between two glasses a few times and it opens up the wine pretty nicely too.  I'll have to add an 8th option to my next wine aerator blind tasting.

After my visit I was hoping to connect with a friend for lunch but couldn’t quite manage to work it out.  So I stopped off at the nearby Oakville Grocery to grab a sandwich.  I forgot a napkin so I went back in and there was Dennis grabbing lunch himself.  Just a regular guy getting a sandwich in his truck.  That’s one of the cool things about Napa.  You never know when you might be standing next to someone responsible for making one of your favorite wines.

If you have a chance visit to Cakebread Cellars I'd recommend one of their more involved programs rather than just a quick hit and run.  I’ve tried a quick taste and/or short tour a couple of times previously and they really didn’t provide enough time to get to know the winery.

So what is it that makes Cakebread special?  It's everything really.  Having the courage to buy the land when they did.  Slowly building up the winery with sweat equity, family and friends.  Great viticulture and vinification.  The UC Davis son (Bruce) and the Berkeley CPA (Dennis).  Carefully managing the brand over the years.  But above all, I think it's balance and moderation in everything they do.

Getting to know my favorite brands better has been one of the best things about writing this blog.  If you enjoyed this post you might also like this review I did of The Capital Grille.

Looking for other wineries to visit in Napa?  I've also enjoyed Buehler and Lewelling.

Check 'em out:
Cakebread Cellars
8300 St. Helena Hwy
Rutherford, CA 94573
Facebook: CakebreadCellars
Twitter: @CakebreadWines 

Are you a fan of Cakebread Cellars?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on their wines, and any other recommendations you might have for similar wines or wineries to visit.


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