Bruce Cakebread on his wineries’ quiet beginnings in the Napa Valley and how it now draws tourists and exports wines across the world
We’re thoughtfully sipping Pinot Noir, between bites of unctuous foie gras. An admittedly Marie Antoinette dinner. Except we’re more about Cakebread than cake tonight. All courtesy Bruce Cakebread himself, seated beside me at The Park Hyatt’s first formal wine dinner.
In what’s becoming typical Park Hyatt-style, the evening’s elegant, but hip. Cue synchronised waiters, reams of gleaming cutlery and the thud of Maroon 5’s ‘Moves Like Jagger’ in the background. Bruce doesn’t quite move like Jagger — he’s too much of an old school wine man, suited-booted and swirling his glass with studious concentration. However, he talks about wine with the refreshing candour of a man who’s worked his way up, struggling through muddy vineyards and slippery cellar floors. “Winemaking is not just about geography, weather and soil,” he says, describing how he battled a broken fork lift when he first started working on the vineyard. “There will always be unexpected surprises. Things out of your control. Things that humble you.”
His name, for starters. “Yes. They made fun of me in school,” he says, wryly. “Though my grandmother said ‘Cakebread’ is a very common name in England. It’s dense bread they give sailors to take to sea. Nothing you would want to eat though — it tastes like rocks!” It ended up being a great name for a winery, though. Easy to pronounce, easy to remember. Typical Napa Valley style: Sensible, straightforward, unpretentious.
We’re brought up to speed on Cakebread wineries over the first course, Chef Stig Drageide’s juicy scallops laced with a rich avocado cream and drizzle of chilli oil, paired to resonate with Cakebread Cellars aromatic Sauvignon Blanc 2011, with its sharp notes of citrus and some spice. “My parents started making wine in 1972. My father (Jack Cakebread) was working in an auto repair shop in downtown Oakland,” says Bruce. Interested in photography, Jack also studied under legendary Ansel Adams. In 1972, on a photography trip he visited family friends who owned a ranch in Rutherford, and was so fascinated by the property, he casually expressed an interest in buying land. Unexpectedly, they said they were willing to sell. So, at the age of 43, Jack found himself the owner of a vineyard, starting out on a career he knew nothing about.
“It was about 20 acres. They had old varieties of grape that could go into either white or red wine,” says Bruce. “So my parents began re-planting, and learning along the way. My father was a voracious reader. And in Napa, everyone helps each other. There are about 450 wineries there today.” Their first wine was a chardonnay in 1973. “We were very lucky. Our wine was good, right from the start.” First housed in a tractor shed, then a barn, the winery is now a prominent part of Napa Valley, both drawing tourists and exporting wines across the world.
We move on to their signature chardonnay, fresh and flinty with green apple components that are balanced by buttery coral salmon, with spears of asparagus. The seared foie gras comes next, its lusciousness outlined by tangy, deep red cherries, soaked in red wine. It’s served with Pinot Noir, (Anderson valley, Mendocino County 2010), declared to be ‘dusty’, till it’s allowed to ‘bloom’ in the glass. The final course is lamb in a red wine sauce, teamed with a heady cabernet sauvignon 2009. “Taste it now,” says Bruce, swirling his glass and taking a deep appreciative sniff. “Then watch it evolve.” He clearly enjoys his own wine. “We make wine we like to drink,” he laughs. “Because we realise that you can’t sell it you had better be able to drink it!”