Read an Excerpt
When my wife, Dolores, and I bought the property that became Cakebread Cellars, Napa Valley was not the culinary destination it is today. The year was 1973, and if you wanted to have a nice dinner in a local restaurant then, you had better like steak.
I’m Jack Cakebread, and I’m the one who made the impulsive offer on that Rutherford cow pasture. Dolores and I were active members of the Berkeley Wine and Food Society at the time, and we enjoyed visiting Napa Valley. Besides, we wanted a new challenge. For twenty years, we had been running an auto-repair shop in Oakland—Cakebread’s Garage, a business my father started. The prospect of growing and selling wine grapes and having a place in the country had a lot of appeal. When family friends offered to sell us their twenty-two acres—mostly pasture and walnut trees—Dolores and I made the leap.
The food scene in wine country was limited then, to understate the case. For years after we started Cakebread Cellars, when Dolores wanted to cook for guests, she had to bring many of the ingredients with her from Oakland. The San Francisco Bay Area’s top seafood, meat, and produce purveyors did not send trucks to Napa Valley, a mere fifty miles north, because there wasn’t the population or restaurant traffic to make deliveries worthwhile.
What a change we have witnessed. Today, food lovers from around the world consider Napa Valley a dining mecca. Our farmers’ markets, cheese shops, wine merchants, and well-stocked grocery stores supply almost anything a serious cook could want. The surrounding region nurtures a thriving world of artisan food producers, from cheesemakers to salumi masters to duck farmers. And at Cakebread Cellars, we like to think that our American Harvest Workshop has helped shine a spotlight on these entrepreneurs.
We were advocates for local eating long before the word “locavore” emerged. In fact, the idea for the American Harvest Workshop—now in its twenty-fifth year—came from my feeling that American food was not getting its due. In the mid 1980s, the French and Italian governments were spending enormous sums to promote their food and wine here. Yet no one was making a similar effort to spread the word about the maturing culinary scene in America.
In 1985, I met a young Dallas hotelier who shared my thinking. Over a glass of wine, Bill Shoaf and I hatched a plan for the American Harvest Workshop, an annual retreat that would bring up-and-coming American chefs together with the best Northern California food artisans. We knew our raw materials were just as good as the products coming here from Europe. We just needed our talented chefs to recognize the quality of what was made in America and to take pride in serving it.
That first Workshop, held at the winery during the harvest of 1986, created a template for a gathering that we have now hosted for a quarter century. We have refined the itinerary over the years to keep it fresh and relevant and to incorporate new purveyors. But the Workshop’s mission and the basic format have remained unchanged.
Each year, we invite five chefs from around the country to be our guests at the winery for four days in mid September to share the excitement of harvest. Call it a summer camp for chefs, if you like. Our son Dennis, who travels widely as the winery’s head of sales and marketing, keeps an eye out for new restaurant talent. When he particularly enjoys a meal on the road, he’ll try to get to know the chef and discern whether he or she has the kind of temperament that fits with the Workshop program.
We learned quickly that the retreat is no place for big egos. The participating chefs need to enjoy collaborating and be able to get along as a group. Over the course of the Workshop, they will plan and execute two multicourse dinners together in our winery kitchen, sharing a market basket of ingredients. We ask them to leave their signature dishes at home, to bring no ingredients with them, and to come prepared to explore and experiment with what our purveyors provide. It’s a reality cooking show without the cameras.
In that way, the Workshop operates like a writers’ or artists’ colony, where like-minded people come to escape everyday pressures and to plant themselves in a new environment, in the hope of stimulating their creative juices. At the Workshop, we strive to provide a comfortable, nonjudgmental venue where chefs can take chances, share techniques, and recharge their batteries.
Initially, the Workshop was just for the trade. Although we have always invited a few journalists to participate, and in the early years we included sommeliers, the program was never open to the public. But gradually we realized that some of our “foodie” customers would enjoy being part of the experience, and in 2003 we began making a few spaces available to them. For those amateur enthusiasts (we call them Cakebread Cooks) who can secure a spot, the Workshop is a dream vacation, assisting the chefs in the kitchen, tasting wines with the company president (our son Bruce), and touring the cellar with the winemaking team.
We welcome all the participants to the winery on a Saturday afternoon with a tour of Dolores’s vegetable garden and a mini farmers’ market in our courtyard. Our partner purveyors are all there with samples of their products—Bellwether Farms with its fresh ricotta and fromage blanc (page 77); Jim Reichardt with his meaty Liberty Ducks (page 147); the Hog Island Oyster folks with a raw-bar selection (page 27); and several others whom you will find profiled in the pages that follow. No transactions take place at the market; it’s strictly show-and-tell and the first exposure the chefs have to the ingredients we expect them to use when the cooking gets under way.
The following three days are a whirlwind short course in winemaking, viticulture, artisan food production, and wine and food pairing. Over the years, participants have enjoyed guided chocolate tastings featuring cocoa nibs from around the world, hiked valley-floor and mountaintop vineyards with Bruce and Dennis, “cupped” coffee (that’s trade talk for evaluating it) with local roasters, thrown clay with Napa Valley potters, and waded into Tomales Bay with an oyster farmer. No one becomes an expert from these experiences, but we hope all the participants gain a deeper appreciation for the effort that goes into fine wine and food.
The group spends time with our viticulturist, Toby Halkovich, learning about techniques we employ in the vineyards, such as the high-tech aerial imaging that helps us make watering decisions. We show them some low-tech methods, too. Professional falconer Rebecca Rosen has demonstrated how she helps us protect our ripening assets in our Carneros vineyards. Birds can do a lot of damage—they know just when the grapes get sweet—so we rely on Rebecca’s falcons to drive them off. We first learned about Rebecca through her work at a nearby air force base, where her falcons help keep the landing strip cleared of birds.
We also take advantage of the free labor to show Workshop participants how a harvest crew works. Early one morning, we take them to one of our vineyards, pass out grape knives, provide a brief safety lesson (those curved knives are vicious), and then divide the group into two teams. The competitive spirit prevails for about forty-five minutes as teams scurry to fill their picking bins. About the time it sinks in that grape picking is hot, sticky, backbreaking work, we call a halt, weigh the bins, and award bragging rights. Until we transitioned almost entirely to night harvesting, the real vineyard crew would pick alongside the chefs so the culinarians could see how fast the pros are.
Our Story in a Nutshell
Dolores and I met in high school in Oakland, as World War II drew to a close. We remained sweethearts through college and married at the start of the Korean War, when I enlisted in the Air Force and didn’t want to leave her unattached. By the time I finished my tour of duty, we had two sons, Steve and Dennis. Bruce, our third and final child, arrived shortly after we resettled in Oakland, in the small family home we purchased from my parents.
I went to work with my dad at his auto-repair shop, Cakebread’s Garage, while Dolores looked after the boys. After my father died, I bought the garage and Dolores helped me run it. We were a team then, and we still are, sixty years into our marriage.
When we purchased the twenty-two acres in Rutherford from the Sturdivant family, we had no plans to be vintners. We thought we would grow wine grapes and sell them to others, but we were surrounded by winemakers and soon caught the bug. The University of California at Davis offered winemaking classes, and local vintners like Louis Martini and Bob Mondavi were generous with their knowledge. That foundation gave us enough confidence to make our first 157 cases, a 1973 Chardonnay from purchased grapes.
We were juggling a lot of balls in those early years. We still lived in Oakland and ran the garage, making the two-hour round trip to Napa Valley after work and on weekends. At the auto shop, we had two six-button phones, and Dolores had to remember which one to answer with “Cakebread’s Garage” and which one with “Cakebread Cellars.” It seemed like we might never get to the bottom of the to-do list in Napa Valley. We had to convert the cow pasture we had purchased into a productive vineyard, equip a winery, landscape the property, and build a brand.
From the beginning, we welcomed visitors, instinctively sensing that hospitality could and should be our winery’s hallmark. “Wine-and-food” has always been one word at our house, and Dolores’s culinary skills blossomed with this new opportunity to entertain. She took cooking classes from some of the prominent chefs who were beginning to teach in the valley, and planted a huge vegetable garden—her first—around the winery.
To get retailers and distributors to try our wines, we would invite them to lunch or dinner. We had no kitchen at the winery then—just a grill and a microwave—but Dolores would always manage to present a nice meal, with fresh vegetables from the garden, and by the time our guests left, we had new friends and usually an order. Often we would host the staff of Bay Area restaurants that we particularly enjoyed. Many of these folks had never been to Napa Valley, and it made a big impression to visit our winery and have Dolores cook for them.
In the ensuing years, as we engaged a top architect, William Turnbull, to design our first winery building and remodeled the farmhouse on the property, Dolores directed her attention to the grounds. She studied for and obtained certification as a Master Gardener, and she continues to oversee the ever-evolving landscape here. The colorful flower beds in front of the winery, along the highway, have become a Cakebread Cellars signature and a leading indicator of the changing seasons.
Dolores has help with the vegetable garden now—Marcy Snow is its fulltime caretaker—but she remains the last word in what we grow in this three-quarter-acre plot. We can garden year-round in Napa Valley, so our winery kitchen is always well supplied with herbs and produce from Marcy’s and Dolores’s efforts. When the harvest exceeds what the kitchen can use, we stock the farmstand in our parking lot and alert the winery employees. The tourists who visit us aren’t usually big produce buyers—they’re staying in hotels and dining out—but many of the limo drivers who bring them here are fans of our farmstand. Given the value of the vineyard land that we devote to Dolores’s garden, Cakebread Cellars produce is wildly underpriced.
For our winery’s two chefs, menu making begins in the garden. If Marcy has an abundance of baby turnips, Chioggia beets, and English peas, that’s what they use. Many restaurants today boast about farm-to-table cooking, but it’s a daily reality here, and with a much shorter distance between land and table. To have this wealth of gorgeous produce just a short stroll from the kitchen door is a chef’s fantasy and perhaps why Brian Streeter has remained with us for twenty years. Brian was a twenty-two-year-old culinary school graduate when he started in our kitchen. After many years as our resident chef, he is now the culinary director and Workshop manager. Tom Sixsmith, a veteran of several of the country’s top kitchens, is our day-to-day chef.
We have been hugely blessed to have two of our three sons choose to make their careers at the winery, so that Cakebread Cellars can remain in family hands. Bruce, who has a degree in viticulture and enology from the University of California at Davis, has worked at the winery since college, rising from my winemaking assistant to winemaker to company president. Dennis spent a decade in the banking industry before joining us and is now the senior vice president of marketing and sales. He is the one most likely to be on a plane to Dallas or Denver, the face of the winery to many consumers, retailers, and chefs. Steve, our oldest, works in finance and advises us on financial matters. He also travels a lot internationally and makes a point to ask for Cakebread Cellars wine wherever he dines.
After seventeen years of commuting between the winery and the auto shop, Dolores and I sold the garage in 1989. We built a home near the winery and still report for work every day, although we don’t travel like we used to. For so many years, while we were building our business, we criss-crossed the country and beyond to support the chefs who were buying our wines. If they wanted Jack or Dolores Cakebread for a winemaker dinner, we were there, be it in Cincinnati, Singapore, or Tokyo. Our winery’s success rests on the quality of our wines and the strength of these friendships. Now Bruce and Dennis are the winery’s ambassadors and will continue our support of the culinary arts, a key objective of the American Harvest Workshop.