We all know what happens when guys hit middle age: We buy a Porsche, invest heavily in Rogaine and rupture a disk doing something that was foolish when we did it the first time 25 years earlier. But what happens to a winery at middle age?
If you’re Cakebread Cellars, which celebrates its 40th birthday next year, you dive into new projects with the gusto of a wide-eyed, newbie winemaker (only this time you have firm financial backing, a well-regarded brand and decades of experience to avoid the winemaking equivalent of a ruptured disk).
“Bruce and I said we didn’t want to stick to just these three wines for the rest of our lives,” said Dennis Cakebread, son of winery founders Jack and Delores Cakebread, during a recent visit to Atlanta. Cakebread was recalling a discussion he and his brother had back in 1990s on the direction the winery should take as they assumed more control. Dennis is the head of sales and marketing; Bruce, the younger son, is president and chief operating officer.
As Dennis tells it, everyone had their own ideas. Dad thought they should stick to the chardonnay/cabernet sauvignon/sauvignon blanc formula that brought them so much success. Both Dennis and Bruce wanted to venture into other varieties, but couldn’t agree on which ones.
“We sat down for lunch with the wines we wanted to produce, but we still couldn’t agree on one. The only thing we could agree on was it had to be of quality,” recalls Dennis.
They agreed they would stick their toes in the water and try merlot, zinfandel, syrah and pinot noir. “We would make small batches and in a couple years we come back and do a tasting of these wines and decide. It was survival of the fittest.”
Dennis was the champion for pinot noir. The family purchased and cultivated vineyards in the cool Carneros region south of Napa Valley for the pinot noir project. Successes were punctuated with inconsistent vintages. The wines were deemed a success, but the Cakebreads were shooting for a higher mark.
“There are a number of nice pinots coming out of Carneros, but we couldn’t match them.” (Incidentally, all the varieties that the sons were trying to see if they were a good fit are now staples of Cakebread Cellars.)
They decided they needed to start from scratch, but where? After extensive research into weather patterns, soils and sun exposure, they decided on a defunct apple orchard in Anderson Valley, about 100 miles north of Napa Valley in Mendocino County.
Forty-six acres, mostly of pinot noir with a few chardonnay vines sprinkled in, were planted in the early 2000s (Earlier this year, the Cakebreads added 64 more acres nearby and will combine the two vineyards under the Two Creeks label for the 2012 vintage due out in the fall of 2013.)
The first vintage in 2007 was promising, said Dennis, who reports that it has developed nicely over the past five years. The 2008 vintage was a washout due to wildfires, but the 2009 and the current release of the 2010 suggest the winery is headed in the right direction.
The Cakebreads are not alone in their trek to Anderson Valley in search of prime pinot noir grapes. Other established Napa Valley wineries have found “discovered” Anderson Valley, including Kendall-Jackson, Silver Oak and Duckhorn. (Ted Bennett of Navarro Vineyards probably never knew he was lost. The Bennetts, among others, have been making wines in Anderson Valley since the 1970s. Navarro has just released its first Anderson Valley-designated pinot noir this year.)
Dennis likes to describe his Anderson Valley pinot by what it is not and will never be. “When you taste some pinots, they are bruisers with high alcohol or you get wines with a lots of syrah added,” he said. “That is not what we are going for. Hopefully, when people taste these pinots, they will say these are different, elegant, refined with delicate tastes.”
When Jack and Delores mortgaged everything in 1973, they did not know that one day they would make some of America’s most popular chardonnays, cabernets and sauvignon blancs. It is too early for Dennis to claim success in Anderson Valley, but hopes are high. “We are not known for pinot noir, but hopefully someday we will be.”
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog