Famous Napa Valley Wine Brand Turns Out To Be Rooted In Family

Food & Drink

When a serious wine drinker hears the name Cakebread she immediately thinks that it is a successful brand, a brand that was made up in a marketing room that would be easy to remember and standout on a shelf or wine list. For the most part this has been a benefit as the power of a brand could convey consistency and quality as Cakebread has delivered over the years to its devoted followers, yet, as there has been a recent movement to more conscientiously support family wineries that are part of a community, this misconception could backfire for a winery like Cakebread Cellars.

The Story of Cakebread

As Bruce Cakebread stated, “Cakebread is our family name which is odd.” He continued with stories from his childhood that involved many of the other kids having fun with his name. Despite it seeming like a great name for a wine now, at the time, Bruce’s father and mother, Jack and Dolores Cakebread who founded the winery in 1973, did not see it as ideal, but at the time giving a winery one’s family name was what many of these Napa pioneers from humble beginnings did. Bruce noted that his family thought their last name was more of a disadvantage and it seems quite funny considering how their name has become one of the most well-known “brands” from the U.S.. Jack Cakebread’s father owned a car repair business in Oakland and it was natural for Jack to join his father’s business but he also pursued a passion in photography and he was able to publish a very successful coffee book in 1973. As Jack and Dolores struggled financially trying to support two sons in graduate school and one in high school, they decided to take an opportunity to buy 20 acres of vineyards from a family friend so they could bring in another income.

Bruce talked about how different Napa was in those times as in his words, “They were growing walnuts, raising cattle was a big deal in the hills, the neighbor where our Oakville winery is today was a chicken ranch. So Napa Valley back in the day was much more diverse than what you see today.” Bruce graduated from the Viticulture and Enology program at U.C. Davis and after a few years working in the winery he took over winemaking in 1979. At that time Cakebread was only making “around 20 barrels” and Bruce stayed winemaker until 2002 when his then assistant winemaker, Julianne Laks, took over so Bruce could handle the role as President as the company grew. Then once Julianne retired in 2017, Stephanie Jacobs, Julianne’s assistant winemaker for 15 years, became winemaker. “And so it has only been my father, myself, Julianne and Stephanie” Bruce said with pride.

Brand Name vs. Family Name

The word “brand” can provoke so many different emotions in a multitude of people. At first it started off with wine companies wanting to guarantee quality with a recognizable name that people could trust as information about wine producers was difficult to find prior to the internet. So unless someone was lucky enough to visit the winery, he had no idea if this investment in a bottle of wine would pay off. Cakebread, with their unconventional last name, was not only easy to remember but very early on they had locked in quality fruit so they could deliver consistency of a style with freshness and elegance; hence a brand was created by the simple fact that one could always depend on their wines.

But with the invention of the internet and social media taking over the sharing of content of wine producers, there has been a shift to become more adventurous and seek out family producers and those that share common values such as environmentally friendly practices and betterment of the community. To a certain degree there has been a backlash against corporate wine brands that were created in a board room that are completely removed from the vineyards and people who make the wines. Ironically, because Cakebread is an atypical last name, some assume that it is a faceless company and a wine buyer may make a hard pass if she is a wine consumer that prefers supporting people who are part of a place.

Climate Change, Environment and Community

Bruce expressed that climate change, environment and trying to keep the community of Napa Valley as biodiversity friendly as possible was at the top of his list. In regards to the concerns about climate change Bruce said, “We are looking at row directions, humidifying canopy and trying a lot of different things to keep that consistency and we are even looking at different varieties. But with Chardonnay in Napa today the Carneros region is where it works.” Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay has been a big hit for many years as it has a balance between good acidity, lean body and pristine fruit flavors that has a subtle influence of oak. Bruce and his family made sure to buy vineyards in the area that is at a slight elevation in Carneros that has lighter soils as opposed to the black soils on the edges and so it is a cooler site that controls the vigor of the vines. “That is part of the luck of being there for over 45 years as people will come and go but we will always be there” and so the Cakebread family was able to buy and contract that whole area with the Haire Loam soil that gives them their distinctive style. 

Bruce said that they joined the Napa Green certified program in 2007 with its third party inspection of the Cakebread vineyards to make sure that they had fish friendly farming practices that were unique to Napa; but in 2008 they started to add a certification for the winery side and Cakebread was the second one to get the Napa Green winery certification. Every three years Cakebread is audited and they have to show improvement and Bruce noted that when they first started, their recycling was around 48% and today they are between 93% to 94%. Also, Bruce bought two solar powered trash compactors to minimize garbage as well as getting their wastewater of 7 gallons per every gallon of wine significantly reduced by investing in worms.

How do worms play a role? Well, the issue with wastewater is that it has solids that will disrupt the natural ecosystem of local bodies of water and can wreak havoc on life existing in lakes, ponds and rivers where much of the wastewater ends up. This has become a major issue with wineries and Bruce discovered a producer in Chile using worms to digest the solids. He explained that a pump sprays over a mound of sawdust with worms in it and the worms digest the solids and that way a winery can have good clean water that has “worm juice” in it. The worm juice becomes microbially active and so Cakebread recycles this water with good bacteria back into their vineyards; this not only saves the balance of life in local lakes and such but it also helps to save water which is a big issue for California.

Bruce has admitted that some of his ideas have been considered a little out there by some, such as helping the community with issues of trying to reduce traffic. At first he implemented a bus to drive his employees around but no one used it and so now he is supporting a car sharing app; and he has brought biodiversity to a large parking lot where he has placed permeable grass and gravel to allow rain water to go through a drain to help with their lack of ground water issue and he planted 60 oak trees giving birds and squirrels somewhere to live. Many years ago, when he first announced with his brother that they were “going green!” at a quarterly company meeting, he dressed up as the Jolly Green Giant.

So Much More Than a Name

Sometimes it is worth it to peak into a story behind a name as the size or success of a company does not tell a wine drinker if it came from hardworking people who are connected to the land, the ethics and character of those making decisions and the amount of lives it affects, whether in a positive or negative way, in its local community. As a small winery could be a complete marketing plan by a couple of business savvy people just starting out and in this case a large, famous one could have started out, and still be run, by a family that is deeply rooted in its community; one is not better than the other as each consumer has their own priorities but it is the idea that a person may not be supporting what she thinks she is supporting when making an assumption, that is sometimes encouraged by others, on a product that is found on the shelf. In a way, it is like the people who come and go from one’s life that initially either seem different or similar and only their actions through time truly let one know if they are cut from the same cloth.

2018 Cakebread Cellars, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, California: 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Bruce said that the Sauvignon Blanc is his mother’s favorite wine because she can drink it for breakfast, lunch or dinner and it goes great with an omelet. It has ripe peach flavors with zingy pink grapefruit and flinty minerality. $26.

2018 Cakebread Cellars, Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California: 100% Chardonnay. As mentioned above, the fruit comes from the southern area of Napa Valley, in Carneros. Pristine nectarine with citrus peel and a hint of spice that has a long finish with a hint of white stony minerality. $38.50.

2017 Cakebread Cellars, Two Creeks Vineyards Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, California: 100% Pinot Noir. The fruit comes from Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, which is Pinot Noir country. Bruce explained that Anderson Valley is directly open to the Pacific Ocean and so there are more extreme temperature swings than Carneros and hence this makes a finesse-driven Pinot Noir. This wine has an enticing nose that was aromatically charged with smoke and ripe black cherries that was linear on the palate yet expanded on the finish with floral and spicy notes. $43.

2016 Cakebread Cellars, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California: 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. The grapes come from a selection of the family-owned vineyards in Napa Valley. Bruce called 2016 a classic vintage and it certainly shows with a good backbone of acidity and structured tannins that gave life and shape to the wine with plenty of rich blackcurrant flavors to balance it out. A hint of espresso and earth gave it complexity with a surprising undertone of crumbly stone on the sustained length. $68.

2016 Cakebread Cellars, Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley, California: 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Cabernet Franc and 3% Merlot. A stunning nose with crushed violets, truffles and cocoa beans that had ravishingly rich blackberry and blueberry fruit with a brightness and purity that made the wine heavenly decadent yet delicately exquisite in its expression. The superb length of flavor had focused and precise execution. $147.

The Dancing Bear Ranch is on steep, rugged slopes of Howell Mountain in northeastern Napa Valley. The vineyard is planted in dry, rocky, volcanic soils that are as high as 1,800 feet with almost 360-degree exposure, offering a range of growing conditions. This is one of Cakebread’s flagship wines and is named for the bears that often visit their vineyards when the Merlot first ripens. Fences do not keep the bears out as they easily climb over them to get the much desired fruit so they blare music and flash lights to keep them out and from far away it looks like a party. In regards to securing the property, Bruce said that a real estate person called him up to tell him about this plot of land on December 23rd and he went up with his father on the 26th and they closed on the land during the first week of New Years. Many of the other top producers were out of town skiing and were shocked that it was gone before they knew about it but it was meant to be for the Cakebread family to make it an iconic vineyard. The first crop was in 2002 but they didn’t start releasing wine until 2006; during this holiday season they will be offering a vertical of 2006, 2012 and 2016 packaged together.

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