Back in 1973, Jack Cakebread was assisting his father at their automotive repair business, located about an hour's drive from California's Napa Valley, when a phone call dramatically changed the direction of his life. The man on the other end was a wine writer who wanted Jack, an accomplished photographer who'd trained under Ansel Adams, to assist him with shoots for a book (Treasury of American Wines) he was writing on a region that hadn't yet attained its current god-like status in a market that was still ruled by Bordeaux and Burgundy.
The assignment took Jack into the enchanting valley and what followed was love at first sight. As his daughter-in-law Karen (she's the wife of Jack's eldest son Steve, who's a chief financial officer in the technology industry), told us on a visit to Delhi this past weekend, Jack was overcome by the desire to become a Napa Valley farmer -- his family owned peach and almond orchards, so it wasn't that much of an impossible objective. Determined to live his dream, Jack visited the ranch of old family friends, the Sturdivants, with an offer to purchase the property. The couple at first said 'no', but the next day, they said 'yes'. There was a problem, though. Jack didn't have the money to seal the deal. All he had was US$1,500 that he had received as an advance for the photography assignment. That would have paid for just an acre of the ranch. But the Sturdivants took the money as an advance payment and Jack's career hit a hairpin bend he had least expected.
Jack became a grape farmer, till the wine bug got him, taking him to the hallowed halls of the University of California at Davis, the Vatican of wine education, and to the doors of Robert Mondavi, who, in the time-honoured tradition of Napa Valley vintners, gave him lots of good advice. Today, 31 years on, each of the 300-plus acres of the ranch that Jack bought is valued at US$100,000. And his Cakebread Cellars wines, which are exported to 21 countries, have been voted as America's most popular in the Wine & Spirits magazine's authoritative 15th Annual Restaurant Poll released this past April.It's a tribute to the effort of the young winery -- led by Jack's wife of 54 years, Dolores, who has co-authored the Cakebread Cellars Cookbook, which has a recipe for a Carrot Soup with Garam Masala and Fromage Blanc that you may want to check out -- to popularise the culture of pairing food with wine -- or "wine with food," as Karen corrected us.
"We want our wines to go with food, that's how we think of our wines," she said. "As a result, we sell 70 per cent of our wines to restaurants." She suggested that we go to www.cakebread.com and check out the recipes. "You can now have a Napa Valley dinner at home," she said. Pitted against the Gallos and the Mondavis, the Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc has been ranked No. 1 -- the ratings were prepared on the basis of orders placed in restaurants around the US -- and their Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon have been placed at No. 3. It's a long way since the first release of 157 cases of chardonnay with which Jack made his first foray. The good news is that we can now sample these wines in our city. The Imperial was the first hotel in the city to place an order for Cakebread Cellars; around the country, the luxury properties of the Taj and Oberoi groups followed its lead, and the Maurya Sheraton also has put the wines on its list.
Our customers travel around the world and if they see Cakebread on their hotel's wine list, they feel at home," Karen says. In India, she's targeting young middle-level professionals with discretionary income and an open mind about wine. There are many of them in the neighbourhood of Napa Valley, in the Silicon Valley, so Karen should know, There's a good reason for Cakebread Cellars wines has caught the fancy of people who understand the F&B business. A lot of science goes into producing these wines. The winery has gone to painful lengths, involving such micro-detailing as getting the number of bunches of grapes per vine and the mapping of the individual rows of vines right, to make sure all grapes mature at one time.
"The idea is to achieve the ripeness of grapes without any increase in the sugar level," explains Karen. Cakebread's viticulturists are also working towards reducing the alcohol levels from the current 14 per cent to 13-13.5 per cent by modifying their irrigation techniques. They've installed probes to monitor moisture levels in the soil to control irrigation flows. They use advanced aids like aerial photography and infra-red imaging to track changes in the vines and the soil. "People don't realise the hard work that goes into the farming side of wines," says Karen. Off the farm, in the laboratory of wine-maker Julianne Laks, experiments are on to employ natural yeasts to give the wines "another layer of complexity." It takes a lot of love and labour to make great wines. At Cakebread Cellars, there's no dearth of either.
THE CAKEBREAD QUINTET... The five wines from Cakebread Cellars that we tasted at the Trident Hilton Gurgaon this past Saturday progressed dramatically along the taste gradient. The evening started with the Sauvignon Blanc 2003, which includes 8 per cent Semillon and is rounded out with 3 per cent Sauvignon Musque, a clone the Cakebreads cultivate in their estate vineyards. A fine aperitif, and not one that slips after the first sip, it was exploding with citrus and melon, and lingered at the back of the palate for several minutes. That was an auspicious start, but the Chardonnay 2002 from the famed Carneros region of the Napa Valley didn't have the impressive quality that distinguished the wine that followed. The Chardonnay Reserve (alcohol content: an unprecedented 14.1 per cent by volume), also from cool Carneros and packed with fruit, spends 12-14 months in French oak barrels and is then aged for a year and a half in the bottle, and it's this process that gives the complexity that's responsible for the wine's redoubtable reputation. The reds, which obviously had breathed a couple a hours before they were served, were a wholesome treat. The Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 (it includes 16 per cent Merlot, 8 per cent Cabernet Franc and 2 per cent Malbec), which has aged for 20 months in French oak, brilliantly balances fruit, tannin and acidity. It's the kind of wine that's good when drunk young or after aging in the bottle for some years. Drink it with grilled meats and hearty stews to double your enjoyment quotient. The evening's charmer, though, was the Benchland Select 2001 (a 100 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon), which combines softness with elegance, and rich, ripe berry flavours with delicately balanced tannins. It's like a woman who besots you. You can never have enough of it.
A NAPA VALLEY EXPERIENCE...
- Karen Cakebread's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
- If you're in Napa Valley, dial (707) 963-5221 (Ext. 236) to fix a tasting session.Please contact us for our nominal and very competitive charges and other details.
- Enroll for Cakebread's cooking classes by going to www.cakebread.com. The classes are held on Saturdays. The classes include a cooking demonstration, winery tour, wine tasting and a lunch.
- To organise a Napa Valley dinner at home, check out the recipes and wine pairing suggestions given in www.cakebread.com.
- To find out more about Napa Valley winery tours, go to www.napavintners.com. It's the official website of the Napa Valley Vintners.