Calgary Wine Life: Cakebread Tasting with Dennis Cakebread

15 04 2015

I have long held a soft spot for Cakebread Cellars wines, dating back to when my knowledge and interest in wine were in their infancy.  At the end of my articling year a decade ago, my co-workers and I were out at a nice dinner courteously paid for by our firm the night before we were to find out who would be hired back after articles.  There was suitably fancy wine to go with the upscale meal at our group’s aptly named Last Supper, but the only bottle I remember from that night came after dessert, when a couple wine-loving fellow students ordered a bottle of Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc to the table.  I know (now) that this isn’t Cakebread’s go-to grape or claim to fame, but it stopped me in my tracks.  I had never had a wine like it.  It was instantly memorable and made me understand how people could invest so much time, attention and money in the enjoyment of fine wine, which I have now spent the last ten years doing myself.  When I was in Napa a few years ago I made sure to stop by Cakebread (and have matching wine glasses at home to prove it), all because of that one bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.  So when I got invited a few weeks back to taste through a lineup of Cakebread’s wines with its VP and second-generation owner Dennis Cakebread, my wine life flashed in front of my eyes a little bit.  It was like coming full circle.

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Cakebread Cellars is first and foremost a family business, with the children of original founder Jack Cakebread (who is still involved in the winery) now steering the ship.  While it is now one of the flagship producers of the Napa Valley, it started out almost by accident.  Jack, a mechanic by trade but also a talented photographer, was commissioned to take some portraits of some of Napa’s top winemakers in 1972.  While there, he casually mentioned his dream to one day buy land and settle in the area, and when he was told there was a 22 acre parcel that might be made available for purchase, he lightheartedly advised that he should be kept in mind if it ever went on the market.  By the time he got home from Napa, there was a call waiting to take him up on his offer.  Using his commission on the winemaker portraits as a down payment, Jack closed the deal and entered the wine business.  Cakebread became the 39th active winery in the Napa Valley with its inaugural 1973 release of a small production lot of Chardonnay; 42 years later, there are over 400 wineries in Napa, but Cakebread remains among the cream of the crop.

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Dennis Cakebread was a gracious host and a charming and amiable storyteller, leading us through a comprehensive tasting of eight different Cakebread releases in a small conference room that, assuredly thanks to all the Cab present, smelled remarkably like blackcurrants from the second I walked in.  All of the wines showed quite strongly, from my nostalgia-inducing Sauvignon Blanc through to Cakebread Cellars’ three reserve-level Cabernets and including the first vintage of Cakebread’s newest addition, a Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley in Mendocino.  I scribbled notes down as quickly as I could and will try to share them equally as quickly:

2013 Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc

Just as I remembered.  Pale lemon, almost water-white in colour, and a powerfully aromatic nose with two sides to it:  a green, celery-edged herbaceousness and a brown-butter creamy oakiness, with each side nicely balanced to the other and hints of tropical melon fruit peeking through.  The fruit shines first on the palate, matched with biting acid that immediately makes your mouth water and a lemony vegetal finish that lingers.  The oak influence on the palate is much more subtle (largely thanks to the wine having been fermented in older neutral oak barrels as opposed to new barrels) and is mainly seen in the wine’s generous weight and almost languid mouthfeel.  There is an amazing contrast between the heft and softness of the wine and the searing acidity inside.  Great stuff.

91-92 points

2012 Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay

As with all of Cakebread’s wines, the grapes for the Chardonnay were harvested at night.  As with almost all of its wines, the alcohol reading on the label was 14.1% or 14.2% (the latter in this case), although by law that figure has an allowable margin of difference of +/- 1% which I think may have been taken advantage of here.  This wine was noticeably brighter and more burnished lemon-gold than the Sauv Blanc and featured a warm, toasty oak nose first and foremost, combining vanilla, baked apple, pear, Meyer Lemon, buttered popcorn and even mesquite.  Classic bold Cali Chard in style, the alcohol on this bottle was a little noticeable on the midpalate, but the wine was still open and welcoming, with spicy oak, cinnamon and pears flambé dancing on a frame that was round yet light on its feet.  Dennis Cakebread spoke at length about the winery’s numerous efforts to create a more nuanced, subtle, lighter Chardonnay, from the aforementioned night harvesting to the use of cool climate Carneros vineyards, whole cluster pressing and the avoidance of American oak in favour of the more delicate French oak.  But you can’t hide what you are, especially when you’re California Chardonnay.  And that’s OK.

89-90 points

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2010 Cakebread Cellars Pinot Noir

According to Dennis Cakebread, this will be Cakebread’s last new addition to its portfolio, although keep your eyes open for other upcoming side projects, including one in (!!!) Washington State:  Mullan Road Cellars, a Bordeaux blend-focused project coming soon.  We got to try the inaugural vintage of Cakebread’s new Pinot Noir, the only wine under the Cakebread Cellars label made outside of Napa, just north in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley.  The Anderson is best known as a cooler spot for the production of sparkling wine, so its climate is much better suited to Pinot’s delicate and finicky nature.  California Pinot Noir is my “happy place” wine, as it always expresses such energy, exuberance and joy when it comes out of the bottle, powered by turbo-charged primary fruit flavours.  I know this can differ distinctly from how Pinot from elsewhere in the world shows, and I like the more delicate, earthy style of Pinot too, but if you’re matching wines with moods, Cali Pinot and euphoria go hand in hand.  Cakebread has been working on its Pinot offering since the early 1990s, but it is just coming to market now.  It is an explosion of red fruit (bing cherry, currant, raspberry), milk chocolate and baking spice, an insane display of pure primary flavour for a wine that’s 5 years old.  Its calling card is its incredible silkiness on the palate, scarcely disturbed by very fine layered tannins and soft acidity.  I would serve this a touch colder than usual to help gather and control the alcohol, but it hits all the marks of a good Cali Pinot and is a great sign of things to come.

88-89+ points

2009 Cakebread Cellars Merlot

At 6 years past vintage, this was the oldest wine we tasted, as Dennis preferred the Cakebread Merlot with a little age on it.  The extra time in bottle showed up in the wine’s colour, which, while still opaque and nearly black at the core, faded to a pale brick at the rim.  Everything sensory about it was very different from every other wine at the tasting:  the fruit was stewed rather than fresh, almost to the point of fruitcake, and secondary and tertiary flavours predominated, from the more expected anise and nutmeg to sunbaked notes of hot rocks and sandpaper to a clear tomato-y meatiness:  meatloaf with ketchup, but in a good way.  Combine this with way more structure than you would expect from a New World Merlot and you get something wholly unexpected that grows on you the more you have of it.  I like a savoury streak in my reds, and this one delivered beautifully.  I would love to try more vintages and see if they’re all like this.

91-92 points

2012 Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon

Dennis Cakebread surprised the room by stating that the family winery was best known for its Chardonnay; many of us thought of it as a Cab house first and foremost, and the four Cabs out of eight wines in this tasting helped back up the impression.  We started with the base estate Cabernet Sauvignon, from the excellent 2012 vintage, which was blended with a touch of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  One look at it made me actually write the tasting note “and here’s the purple”:  it was a deep, dark, unabashed, glass-coating violet, a colour that set up everything that was to come with the wine.  The nose was very grape-y, an aroma strangely unusual for wines, but also featured swirls of blackberry jam, talcum powder, baker’s chocolate, dust and spice.  Huge fruit and huge structure ignited as soon as you took a sip, with tannins that somehow instantly coated the mouth and yet allowed waves of powerful dark grape and currant fruit to shine through before locking down again on the finish.  The quality of the wine was evident throughout – one to watch for.

91-92+ points

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2010 Cakebread Cellars Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon

The tasting concluded with a run through Cakebread’s three reserve Cabs, each from a different area of Napa and each showing a different approach to the Cabernet grape.  It was a real treat to try four Cabs from the same producer and the same general area in succession and pick out distinct personalities and expressions in each.  The Vine Hill Ranch was from the Oakville area and was much less purple and electric in colour than the base Cab, a tamer ruby/garnet in the glass.  The nose was the dictionary definition of “cassis”, almost singularly displaying powerful blackcurrant aromas, mixed only with a slightly green herbaceousness and a little touch of funk.  Mint, black cherry, rosemary, tomato and leather joined the party on the palate, but grassy currant still carried the day.  Deft and soft in texture, with pillowy tannins that offering subtle embedded grip, the wine was remarkably divergent from the Cab that came before, with a finish that remained long after the wine did.

90-91 points

2011 Cakebread Cellars Benchland Select Cabernet Sauvignon

I will spare you the suspense:  this was my wine of the tasting.  Darker, thicker and denser than the Vine Hill Ranch, the Benchland Select Cab from the Rutherford region immediately adjacent to Oakville (literally two minutes away by car) was absolutely textbook California Cabernet Sauvignon.  From the classic nose of blackcurrant and mint/eucalyptus to the incredible acid structure and delicate yet powerful tannins that grip you immediately on the palate, this was a regal wine that is built to last.  Sour cherry, blackberry, tobacco and coffee play supporting roles, but the distinct mintiness is the calling card of the wine:  there is no way it can be anything other than Cab.  If you have this, hang onto it for a little while longer before you open it, but you’re in for a huge treat when you do.  Amazing.

93-94+ points

2011 Cakebread Cellars Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon

We ended with Dennis’ self-proclaimed favourite wine in the Cakebread lineup, one that the family has been working hard to refine and grow:  the Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet from up in the hills of the Howell Mountain subregion of Napa.  Dancing Bear is blended with some Merlot, which may help explain the wine’s dark garnet colour in spite of its young age.  As compared to the juicy yet herbal Vine Hill and the majestic Benchland Select, I found the Dancing Bear to be broad, relaxed and confident, coming across as more mature than it was with mellow tannin and a smooth, silky mouthfeel.  The big black fruit was there as expected, but mixed with brown sugar, tomato leaf, chalk, liquorice and cinnamon, easing into possibly the longest finish of any of the wines on display.  It was riveting to try this side by side with its vintage-mate the Benchland Select and see firsthand just how much range and depth Napa Valley has to offer Cabernet Sauvignon.  There’s not much that tops getting reacquainted with one of your first wine loves, and it was all the more rewarding that the experience matched the memory.

92-93 points

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