Bruce Cakebread knows India well.
So well that he admits that coming to India “feels like home.” He’s been visiting since 2004, hosting exclusive wine dinners each time, and discerning wine drinkers have been marking their diaries to attend and taste the latest Cakebread vintages in his company. India might be a relatively small market for Cakebread Cellars’ premium Napa Valley wines, but as president and COO, Cakebread takes his job as ambassador and promoter of the family winery very seriously.
“The world is getting smaller; our customers are spread all over the world – from Tokyo to New Delhi and Bangalore. It’s important we focus on getting our wines into good establishments,” he says.
The efforts have been rewarding, the growth unmistakable. He enjoys receiving photographs of his wine being sold and drunk around the world; it underlines his faith in persisting with new and emerging markets. After all, even in in his home country, the US, it wasn’t always a happy time for premium wines like his own. “In 1979 for instance, in Austin Texas, people’s preferences were more towards spicy food with beer, as I recall from a tasting we went for during the time…today, 30 years later Texas is our number 4 market in the US,” he says.
The Cakebread philosophy encompasses three key components or beliefs that drives the leadership team, he explains. “One, take the quality path. Interact with your consumers and offer good customer service and good management. This makes you successful, and your core group of employees stay on working with you, because your values are in alignment.”
Cakebread can boast of some of the longest associations in the wine industry. Their winemaker, Julianne Laks, has been working with them for 27 years and counting, and is responsible for instituting techniques such as whole-cluster pressing of white grapes, harvesting at night and barrel-aging a portion of Cakebread’s Chardonnay. Another Cakebread veteran is cellar master Brian Lee (26 years with Cakebread), while Toby Halkovich, director of vineyard operations is a relative newcomer, only 12 years old in the company. Keeping good people close and investing in their growth is important to the family.
Cakebread is a foodie, to use that much-maligned but often completely appropriate term. His travels are filed away in his mind in terms of places, people he meets, and the food he eats. (He launches into a description of a course he’d had some years ago in Bangalore at the erstwhile Ista (now Hyatt) hotel in Bangalore, at a sit-down dinner when I had first met him. “The melon with ravioli – it was stunning!” he exclaims. I am stunned at his power of recall.)
Ah, India. Have things looked up since his early days here? Cakebread laughs, but there is a touch of the philosophical in his response. “If you change your tax structure, life would be good for everyone. But yes, I see changes. Today, if you walk into a restaurant in India, the waiter will offer you a glass of wine. It wasn’t so 10 years ago. I see that growing interest and yes, it’s exciting. I see our customers are much more aware today. Earlier it was all about French and Italian wines. Now, Napa is up there too. This is a clear indicator of awareness of the wine world.”
We chat on about how they make wine at Rutherford, their winery. Cakebread Cellars has embraced the green way of winemaking, namely the Napa Green programme, a voluntary programme created to inspire Napa Vintners to do their bit to preserve the valley’s diversity. This is a comprehensive, “best practices” program for land-use and wine production, focusing on independently certified, environmentally sound farming and production methods. Cakebread explains, “Our winery is certified green. We have a green parking lot – permeable porous topsoil and gravel below, and the drainage system built to recharge the ground water. There is an almond orchard and 50 oak trees adding diversity. We’ve recycled 86% of our waste, and for 2015 our goal is 90% – if our employees achieve that they get an extra percent in their bonuses. Does it make our wine taste better? No. But it’s our responsibility to have a smaller footprint, so as not to make a negative impact on the valley.”
Napa Valley wines are gradually building a reputation for staying power and extended ageing, something relatively new for American wines. “A few weeks ago we conducted a vertical tasting of our Chardonnays from 2003 to 2013 in London to show how our wines can age. These exercises become important as our wines expand outside the US, and wines of calibre need to have aging potential.”
Any American wine lover will tell you that Cakebread’s top wines – Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc – are worth paying top dollar for. They have seen early results and the story behind their acclaimed single-vineyard Cabernet, Dancing Bear Ranch, for example, speaks for the family’s dedication to quality. In 1998, the Cakebreads bought a 28-acre site on Howell Mountain in northern Napa, with elevations reaching 1600 ft. The team then spent the next 11 years of planting, planning and doing trial winemaking before releasing the 2006 vintage nationally. The wines are known for their perfect balance between oak and fruit – that balance hasn’t happened by accident. Extensive research, often with experts at UC Davis, forms the basis of their winemaking.
Another interesting differentiator: the Cakebread emphasis on food and wine is borne out through its culinary programme, the American Harvest Workshop, an annual event closely followed by food lovers everywhere. In addition, Cakebread Cellars’ culinary director Brian Streeter has produced two cookbooks for them. While Dolores Cakebread is famous for her culinary skills, Bruce and his wife enjoy cooking too, and wine is naturally a major part of their cooking. “We always keep a bottle of our white wine in the fridge,”’ he smiles, “It’s nice to sip a glass of wine while you cook – a kind of on-going wine tasting.”
As Cakebread wines continue their domination, Bruce Cakebread continues to wander the world, promoting, observing and interacting with customers. He also keenly promotes Napa Valley as a wine destination. Two-time president of the Napa Valley Vintners, he is passionate about the land they cultivate, gladly handing out tips to travellers wanting to visit, making recommendations on where to eat, stay and how to travel there.
A final word on the wines of Cakebread: “We’ve been blessed with the 2012, 2013 and 2014 vintages, the wines are young but will age gracefully – the 2013 and 2014 are still in barrels. We keep thinking of ways to do what we do, better. How do we grow better grapes, make our wines better? We want our customers to sit with their families, enjoy experiencing our wines and create good memories.”
Cakebread Cellars’ Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc retail in India from Rs 4000 to Rs 9000. Prices vary from state to state depending on taxes. http://www.cakebread.com.