Every fall, the Cakebread family opens their hearts to another year of winemaking and welcomes guests to indulge in the paradise they created more than four decades ago in Napa Valley.
The family business, aptly named Cakebread Cellars, sprawls across 560 acres of vines in the famed Napa Valley—from Calistoga to Carneros—as well as in the pocket-size Anderson Valley to the northwest.
Their exceptional grapes flourish in the terroir and climate of their respective sub-appellations and are cultivated into a distinct range of 14 wines for those in-the-know around the world.
And, if one acre of land supports 900 to 1,600 vines, and one vine produces between four to six bottles of wine a year, the magnitude of the Cakebread operation shifts from mom-and-pop to par excellence very quickly.
The Cakebreads bring a select group of sommeliers, chefs, food producers, media and members of their wine club to their winery in Rutherford for The American Harvest Workshop, a celebration of what is arguably the most important and busiest time of the year in the wine business.
This annual forum is more than a party. It’s an annual educational experience to bridge the gap between wine and food; guests are immersed in the Napa lifestyle—harvesting grapes, working in the kitchen with ingredients from the garden, going behind-the-scenes with pioneering local purveyors, enjoying pairings and touring the region.
2016 American Harvest Workshop
Within two hours of landing at SFO, I’m cruising into Yountville. I was one of the first guests to arrive so I took a short walk into town and stumbled upon the stunning Stewart Cellars Tasting Hall and Library. James Stewart shared the story of his family’s business while I tasted their elegant wines.
Then, I walked to the massive garden that sparked the upscale farm-to-table craze across the street from The French Laundry. Little did I know that the lush landmark I was admiring—the brainchild of chef Thomas Keller—had once followed the orders of Anton Ginella, whose green thumb now oversees Cakebread Cellars’ gardens. Dolores Cakebread, a certified master gardener, planted the winery’s garden early on, and it has grown with support from Ginella, to feature 40 beds of seasonal produce that supply the kitchen with fresh ingredients.
One fanciful delight I met in this garden is the oyster leaf plant. Ginella told us to grab a leaf and chew. (It’s an oyster! But it’s a plant?! But it grows out of the ground?! Whaat’s happening?!) I don’t know how or why this is so hard to find IRL and via the Internet, but I’m so thrilled such an whimsical paradox exists, even if it’s on the opposite side of the country.
The Mediterranean climate is just one of the gifts bestowed upon Napa; it’s ideal for growing just about anything, and the folks here certainly take advantage of the seasons. In fact, it’s a prerequisite for living in and even visiting the region. You must have a profound appreciation for nature, and if you don’t or can’t because it’s not sustainable in your geography, you must at least be open to learn about symbiosis in wine country.
Instead of “On Wednesdays we wear pink”—
In spring, you get excited about pulling asparagus or pea shoots; in summer, it’s green beans and eggplant; in winter, it’s artichokes and broccoli; and in the fall, it’s time for wine grapes!
My invite to the workshop’s 30th anniversary arrived last summer, and I spent days before the September adventure reading about Cakebread Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Guajolote, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Rubaiyat, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Vaca and Vin de Porche. It would be my second trip to Napa, and I was eager to erase any negativity left behind by the self-important company I kept during my first visit in 2014.
The Cakebread culture is without pretense despite carrying a remarkable reputation from the most exclusive wine-producing region in the country.
Bruce Cakebread and his brother, Dennis, who started working alongside their parents (Dolores and Bruce) shortly after the winery’s inception, are the most visible now with their culinary director, Brian Streeter, and their longtime winemaker Julianne Laks. The team’s talent is complemented by a gracious spirit through which hospitality comes first.
Streeter curates the workshop, and introduced us to a broad array of makers and personalities in the area. Nearby, we “threw a pot” at the Napa Valley College Potter’s Studio and went beekeeping in a vineyard. In Sonoma County, we toured Gourmet Mushrooms, Inc. (hello, organic nebrodini bianco!) and Bellwether Farms (cheese!), and had lunch at the home bakery of Della Fattoria (bread!).
And because there’s always a South Florida connection, I had the pleasure of meeting and cooking with Adrienne Grenier, executive chef at 3030 Ocean, and her sous chef Brooke Mallory. We reconnected at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa during the holidays for an epic meal when I was writing the new Fort Lauderdale/Broward County chapter for Fodor’s Travel-Florida (book publishes soon!).
To reserve your spot for an upcoming AHW experience, visit Cakebread’s Culinary section.