Shooting photographs for Nathan Chroman’s book The Treasury of American Wines proved to be serendipitous for Jack and Dolores Cakebread, who took the opportunity to casually offer to buy the Sturdivant Ranch in Rutherford, California.
The year was 1973, and the genesis of what would be one of the most successful and respected wineries in America had taken root.
With vineyard properties located throughout Napa Valley, as well as a location in the Anderson Valley, the winery today owns 13 sites totaling 1,100 acres, 560 of which are currently planted. This judicious acquisition and development of vineyard land has proven to be a recipe for success and one of the cornerstones of the Napa wine scene.
My recent trip to explore this slice of the winemaking world proved to be one that was not only extremely educational, but was highlighted by Cakebread’s rather impressive culinary program spearheaded by Culinary Director Brian Streeter. Fine food is interwoven throughout the Cakebread experience and seems to be closely tied to the development of their wines. Annually, the winery hosts an American Harvest Workshop — a four-day “boot camp” where chefs, sommeliers, press and consumers interact, and is designed to increase awareness and appreciation of American viticulture and artisanal food products.
After touring some of their exquisitely beautiful properties and being edified in local history by Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Dennis Cakebread, I had the distinct pleasure of joining him for a superb lunch at the winery. The inspiration of the surrounding environment, and the palpable passion of their team, sprang to life as an array of their fine wines was paired with expertly executed modern American cuisine. This masterful meal seamlessly articulated the premium quality of the wines bearing the Cakebread family name.
After an afternoon of exploring downtown Napa and its charming shops, and mingling with its affable residents, it was time to quickly refresh prior to heading to one of the highest and most spectacular peaks overlooking Napa Valley. It is here on Howell Mountain, behind multiple gates, amidst a breathtaking property, where they grow the extraordinary fruit that sports the moniker Dancing Bear Vineyard. This is another of Cakebread’s many properties and an homage to an interesting history of an epic, but kind, battle with local bears who seemed to have simply fallen in love with their berries. It was also here that I would share another wine-paired feast with President Bruce Cakebread. Yes, this really is a family affair, as well as a continually growing company that seems to embrace that culture at every turn.
Continuity and stability are bedrock values for Cakebread Cellars whose ethos is evident in the long-term tenures of winemaker Julianne Laks, who has been with Cakebread Cellars 26 years, and cellarmaster Brian Lee, a 25-year veteran of the winery. It is this type of dedication that has made the Cakebread brand respected globally and certainly a label optimally prepared to grace your table or your cellar. With 40 harvests in their rear-view mirror and the second generation of winemaking Cakebreads now running the winery, this is truly an American success story.
After a couple of days of exploring the Cakebread history, I decided to spend a night at Auberge du Soleil, considered by many to be Napa’s premier hotel destination and one that bears the Relais & Chateaux seal.
This entire property is reminiscent of a trip through Provence and not a single detail was overlooked — this is true five-star elegance and hospitality at its finest. The rooms boast a French elegance as the plush interiors highlight a bright, rich look reminiscent of a secluded Côte d’Azur retreat.
If it is relaxation and pampering that is needed, Auberge Spa, a haven modeled after a centuries-old monastery, continues to be one of the most acclaimed in the country and is well worth a walk down the meandering hillside.
After some world-class relaxation at Auberge Spa and La Plage, a sexy, laid-back outdoor pool and living room where hotel guests can lazily spend hours lounging poolside on oversized chaises or underneath gauze-draped canopies on day beds — the restaurant at Auberge du Soleil and its back-to-back Michelin stars were beckoning. Under the direction of Executive Chef Robert Curry, this famed Napa Valley restaurant is set amidst breathtaking valley views and, needless to say, the exquisite cuisine provided the perfect ending to a memorable day and an enlightening Napa experience.
Wanting to get a handle on how Napa Valley is shifting, along with what is now a storied history, I met with Scott Andersen, the Founder and President of Preferred Properties, a boutique luxury real estate brokerage specializing in estates, vineyards and wineries in the Napa Valley. Having grown up in the heart of wine country, Scott has been in the front row for many of the changes and has even had a hand in the transfer of ownership of some prized properties. Scott’s latest project is handling the sale of one of Napa’s historic vineyards — Pope Valley Winery. Built in 1897 and bonded in 1909, and now with over 100 years of history, the winery attracts wine enthusiasts from around the world who come to witness firsthand the roots of the California wine industry. In fact, during the 1930s, Pope Valley Winery had ties to Al Capone, as their wines graced the tables of his speakeasies and brothels.
Among the winery’s points of interest are their barrel storage and the bottling room which sit at ground level, housed in the original hand-dug cave that took nine years of manual labor to complete. Today, the more modern facilities of Pope Valley Winery specialize in producing handcrafted, award-winning, small-lot premium wines that are sold to domestic buyers as well as to international clientele as far away as Asia. Pope Valley has been the recipient of numerous awards and is truly a shining example of a winery that articulates a testament to tradition and a view toward the future.
One thing is for certain. The rich history of the Napa Valley embodies a story that continues to unfold. This is a community of farmers, artisans and visionaries whose shared dream is manifesting on a daily basis.