Napa Stalwart Cakebread Cellars Makes a New Bet on Washington State

The winery's new Mullan Road Cellars from Walla Walla shows great promise

Seven Hills Vineyard, source of some of the grapes for Mullan Road's red wine.

One of the most memorable wine tastings that I have attended was in the late 1980s in Dallas at a long-since shuttered restaurant, Jennivine, that was farm-to-table before the concept had been invented. My enduring memory of the tasting, which was called "Pairing Wine and Cheese," was that goat cheese pairs especially well with sauvignon blanc. Cakebread Cellars Napa sauvignon blanc was the selected wine on that occasion. The cream in the cheese moderated the wine’s bright acidity just enough to place the herbal flavors front and center, but still left enough liveliness to maintain interest on the palate.

Since then, I have tasted through most of the Cakebread wines, and recognize that the winery has diversified, mainly into pinot noir and zinfandel. Most significantly, they maintain their position as one of the "originals," those Napa Valley wineries established before the area acquired cult status, and have seen every fad, failure, and farce that has followed them. Despite my remarks above, it is Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon with which they have been most closely associated ever since Jack and Dolores Cakebread, who founded the winery in 1972, released their first one, a 1974 vintage, in 1976 to much acclaim.

The mantle has passed to Jack and Dolores’ sons, Dennis and Bruce. Dennis came through Dallas recently and I was fortunate to catch up with him at a wine pairing dinner organised by Sēr, the innovative steakhouse with the best view in Dallas, from the 27th floor of the Hilton Anatole Hotel (I was a media guest at the dinner). Recently installed executive chef Kevin Spencer and sous-chef Mike Shetsky designed and prepared the menu. Cakebread Cellars made the wine. Bruce retains the titles of chairman and senior vice president of sales and marketing for the winery. He wanted to show a couple of favorites, as well as the first wine from a new venture, Mullan Road Cellars, in Walla Walla, Washington, that Cakebread is involved in.

We started with the 2014 Cakebread Cellars Napa Sauvignon Blanc ($25). This wine may be the answer to the question “What does Napa sauvignon blanc taste like?” as it is stylistically at the core of what Napa produces. Herbaceous, but not as much as New Zealand. Acidic, but not as much as New Zealand or Old World (primarily Loire Valley) examples. Fruit dominates minerality, a marker for its New World origins (with deference to South Africa’s unique mineral-driven style). It paired like a hand-to-glove with Spencer’s incisive Shigoku oyster with gooseberry soup, grappa, and citrus coriander. (Had he heard of Oz Clarke's description of the smell of sauvignon blanc being like "cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush?")?

We skipped the Cakebread cabernet sauvignon in favor of Mullan Road Cellars' first and thus far only wine: a 2012 red blend of 51 percent cabernet sauvignon, 37 percent merlot and 12 percent cabernet franc, all from Washington State ($48). Winemaker Aryn Morell (who has quite a Napa résumé, including Chappellet, Joseph Phelps, Silver Oak, Quintessa, and Chimney Rock, just to pick out the highlights) used purchased grapes to craft a Bordeaux blend. Despite being so young, it is harmonious and sophisticated, and definitely displaying the fruit-forward character of New World expressions of Bordeaux blends and worthy of five to 10 years of aging. Ultimately, it will be its ageability that determines its place in history.

The winery's choice of Washington State for this new venture was driven by the fact that Washington is the nation's third-largest wine-producing state (after California and New York) and, as Dennis puts it, considering the quality of what is being produced there, "As I looked for a ‘new’ place to start up a new wine project it seemed to make sense to go where the great wines were being made and there is lots of room for growth.” Walla Walla, he says, “has a wonderful ambience, is developing a wine culture, has many nice people in the industry who are open and helpful, and has potential to develop into something special. Meaning it has land, climate, geography and the people to make it go.” I have to agree with his choice of the region, given that he wanted to be in Washington State. There cannot be a more wine-centric town in the U.S. than Walla Walla, and it's the only town I have been to where the airport has more wineries than departure gates (dozens of them occupy Nissen huts near the runways left over from the site's days as a World War II training base).


Future plans for Mullan Road are evolving, although a 2012 cabernet franc will be released shortly. For Dennis Cakebread, he has his hands full right now.