Life Is Sweet: Spotlight on Cakebread Cellars

Drink Features

Thick fog blankets the Saint Helena highway. Giant eucalyptus trees rise out of the median, shag-barked, ghostly, exuding a lavish, slightly medicinal perfume. This is California Wine Country’s epicenter, the tourist Mecca strip where Thomas Keller’s vegetable gardens somehow thrive without interference from bunnies, rats, or any of the chompy varmints that won’t let a secondary leaf show itself in my own potager. This is the birthplace of Fancypants Cabernets and Chardonnays of Unusual Pricetag. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t often come here, so when I do, I find myself saucer-eyed at how absurdly beautiful it is. It’s also brimming with fabulous wineries growing and selling the wines that put this county on the map of the world. And sometimes…. Sometimes they are just a little too cool for school. And since we are blessed with extensive wine country real estate where the attitude is more barn than chateau, more picnic blanket than silver and china, I usually don’t feel the need to make the Hajj.

Imagine if I reverse-snobbed myself out of the experience I had this weekend at Cakebread.

You know these guys. They make the Sauvignon Blanc that gives oysters panic attacks. They collude in the decimation of sushi all over the world, because their crisp, fabulous whites make sake irrelevant. They are not obscure; they have an international (and still growing) sales presence, a not-kidding-around pricetag, and are found in very, very good restaurants.

What you might not know is that when you combine strong family ties, a passionate love of the land, a sense of wonder and some serious viticultural moxie, your Napa Valley Chardonnay will express more than oak, alluvial minerality, and green apples.

It’ll express happiness.

Jack Cakebread was a partner in his family’s auto mechanic shop in Oakland, but as a moonlighting shutterbug he had the good fortune to study photography with Photo-Deity Ansel Adams, and got sent to the property in the early ‘70s to shoot it for what became the gold-standard coffee table tome The Treasury of American Wines. He ended up falling in love with the property and buying it that very day, beginning a long experiment in viticulture and winemaking.

Today, Cakebread, though probably best-known for Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, makes nearly 20 different wines, including Cabernet Sauvignons, red blends, Zinfandel, Merlot and Syrah. And it’s still very much a family affair, with siblings Bruce and Dennis in the roles of COO and VP of Sales, respectively. Winemaker Julianne Laks, who succeeded Bruce in that role in 2002, is only the third winemaker the place has ever had and the only one whose last name isn’t Cakebread. However, having been at the winery since 1986, that’s basically a technicality—this is a tight-knit bunch.

The property is a beauty, with significant amounts of land devoted to fruit trees (Bruce Cakebread started out in pomology before he had a “How d’ya like them apples?” moment and accepted his destiny as a Grape Man). We got to see an in-progress waterway restoration project where bank-adjacent land is being reclaimed from agriculture and planted out with native trees and shrubs: if your idea of a perfect accompaniment to a glass of wine is birdwatching, you could hardly ask for a sweeter spot. Inside, the place is part rustic, part high-tech, and entirely wonderful. (The smell in the barrel room is a contact high all its own.)

Over an eight-bottle flight encompassing everything from their most recent release Sauv Blanc to some obscure library-lurkers, we talked about everything from marketing (Bruce described being pleasurably humbled on a jaunt to China where a buyer shyly asked him to describe which part of South America “Napa” was in—we all agreed it was nice to know the world was still big in some ways) to some of the terroir-oddities of various vineyards under their care (Pssst: if your Pinot Noir has a suspiciously minty character, suspect that someone grew their grapes too close to the oily behemoth rootball of a eucalyptus. Bonus points if you can guess how close is too close!).

We sampled their flagship Sauv Blanc—a stylish, classic exemplar of the grape, with grapefruit and lemongrass written all over it and just begging for a plate of Kumomotos on the half-shell. Avowed Chard-haters should reserve judgment on this grape if they’ve never had the Cakebread Reserve Chardonnay (Los Carneros fruit). Blindfolded, you’d never guess it wasn’t from Burgundy. Exquisitely balanced minerality, no tropical fruit, and a strong oak note that was woodsy without one iota of malolactic vanilla-buttercream. Cabernet and Pinot samplings were tremendous as well, but my favorite was a Sauv Blanc that was… well, let’s say it was still working full-time, though well past traditional retirement age for its varietal.

Tasting note: Damn. Followed by “why do people think this grape doesn’t age?” Deep, rich, golden—August in a glass. Even in January.

I love wines that defy type. And I love wineries that do it too. The hitch with being an older-guard Napa winery is, as it is with so many things, balance. In the case of a place like Cakebread Cellars, balancing the marketing demands of a well-established brand with a decades-long history and a strong signature style, and the need to push the boundaries, invent, experiment, and reimagine your vision. It’s a tightrope these people walk with grace, which is only one of the reasons they should be your best friend on sushi night, a serious draft pick for a club membership, and a necessary tasting stop if you’re in Napa. As Bruce Cakebread noted, the ability to adapt and a willingness to fall down are keys to standing tall and staying relevant. “I tell my people: I want to fail,” he said. “I just don’t want to fail the same way twice.”

For the record, there were no failures on that table.
Cakebread interior.jpg

Great wine is a given with these folks; they’re sure-footed and confident and at the top of their game. And they staked a claim to some acreage where less thoughtful and hardworking people than themselves could magic some amazing fruit out of those alluvial fans.

But there is an element of terroir that doesn’t get talked about as much, because wine writing doesn’t include nearly enough magical realism: along with those subtle molecules of volcanic pumice or river silt or marine layer influence or Brix degrees or slope gradient, the outcome of a grape’s transit from sunlight to sugar to this thing we call wine depends on things like a sense of vocation, a love of what you’re doing, an open mind, a generous spirit (if you will). The best wines are made by people who are a little bit monk, a little bit bon vivant, a little bit farmer, a little bit chemist, and a little bit magician. You can even taste whether a wine has a sense of humor or not, and the ones that don’t, a lot of us don’t buy twice. Cakebread wines all share a lingering finish full of youthful enthusiasm and a kind of contentedness you only get from being really clear on who you are. And you only get clear on who you are by continuous but lighthearted investigation.

Yes. I got all that from a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Go to Cakebread and you can get it too.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin