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Cakebread Cellars in Rutherford, Napa Valley

By Published On: May 26th, 2024

Interview with Winemaker Niki Williams.

The Cakebread family’s story began in the picturesque town of Rutherford, Napa Valley where they planted grapevines 50 years ago. Their dream has always been to create wines that delight palates and unite people. In 1973, they released 157 Chardonnay cases. The varietal started it all at Cakebread Cellars and for what they’re still best known for. We interview Cakebread Cellars Winemaker Niki Williams to learn more.

In addition to Chardonnay, what other wines are you proud of?

Cakebread Cellars Winemaker Niki Williams: We highlight the unique terroir of Napa Valley and its signature variety with several different Cabernet Sauvignons, including our Dancing Bear blend from Howell Mountain, our Benchland Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from gravely soils leading up to the Mayacamas range on the west side of the valley, and our Vaca Cabernet Sauvignon from the slopes on the east side of the valley.  

We also have an exceptional Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, sourced from multiple AVAs and both valley floor and hillside vineyards – creating a complex, well-balanced blend.

Cabernet Sauvignon. Photo Courtesy: Cakebread Cellars.

Cakebread is also quite well-known for our Sauvignon Blanc, a variety which I love to make because it is so dynamic and aromatic. In addition to our North Coast Sauvignon Blanc, we bottled an exceptional 2023 Viewfinder Sauvignon Blanc with lots sourced from our Napa Valley estate vineyards. It delivers an expressive range of fruit, from crisp citrus to juicy pear to hints of pineapple and guava, and has a layer of texture thanks to its time fermenting and aging in our concrete eggs. 

Sauvignon Blanc on ice. Photo Courtesy: Cakebread Cellars.
Concrete eggs used in the fermentation process for their wines. Photo Courtesy: Cakebread Cellars.

We also have two estate vineyards in Anderson Valley, where we grow Pinot Noir and some new plantings of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. I enjoy working with Pinot Noir and am excited to continue to learn these sites and their unique terroir, so we can highlight the distinct differences between our Apple Barn and Annahala vineyards.

Vineyard at sunset. Photo Courtesy: Cakebread Cellars.

Winemaker Niki Williams: Everyone can experience a taste of Cakebread when you open a bottle with friends and family and a delicious meal. It’s one of my favorite things to do! I also hope that people can visit our property for a full experience of Cakebread Cellars. Our gorgeous winery and vineyards offer a range of options, including The Perfect Pair Wine and Food tasting experience. This tasting starts with a short tour of Dolores Cakebread’s on-property vegetable garden.

The Perfect Pair Wine and Food tasting experience. Photo Courtesy: Cakebread Cellars.

Our resident chefs then highlight the freshest seasonal ingredients from our estate garden by creating four bites for guests to enjoy alongside a special selection of wines. This is available regularly and truly accentuates our belief that wine is best enjoyed with good food and great company. 

We also offer cooking classes with Executive Chef Brian Streeter throughout the year. Each class has a specific theme and features produce from Dolores’ culinary garden. Chef Brian guides guests through a curated menu, passing along his expertise and techniques for each recipe. Guests then enjoy a delicious lunch featuring their creations, the perfect ending to a truly memorable experience. 

Chef highlights seasonal ingredients from estate garden. Photo Courtesy: Cakebread Cellars.

What’s one thing you wish more people knew about your winery?

Winemaker Niki Williams: Cakebread Cellars has an impeccable legacy, but one thing I wish people knew was how committed we have been to sustainable farming and winemaking since our inception. From the beginning, Jack and Dolores Cakebread sought to responsibly craft wines that highlight Napa’s unique terroir while respecting the land as stewards.

We were the second winery to be certified Napa Green, and we are a member of International Wineries for Climate Action – pledging to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. 

Founders Jack and Dolores Cakebread’s legacy lives on. Photo Courtesy: Cakebread Cellars.

This sustainable focus is interwoven into all our decisions and practices, and we continue to evaluate and leverage new technology and innovation to improve quality and to reduce our environmental impact from vineyard to cellar. Our vineyards are farmed according to organic practices and with precision irrigation to reduce water use. In the winery, we have reduced water usage by sanitizing our bottling line with steam and our tanks with BlueMorph UVC technology. We have also installed microturbines to help power the winery.

What makes Cakebread wine unique?

Winemaker Niki Williams: Wine tells a story of place and time, and – with its diversity of soil and microclimates – Napa Valley weaves an interesting and intricate story.  The wines of Cakebread Cellars showcase the rich complexity of our vineyards and terroirs by using low-intervention winemaking practices that allow the natural flavors and textures of our fruit to shine.

Tasting room offers a classic wine experience. Photo Courtesy: Cakebread Cellars.

They have always been crafted in a classic style that emphasizes the balance of all components, keeping alcohol levels moderate, maintaining fresh acidity and carefully selecting oak cooperage that frames the fruit. 

Our wines are vegan because we do not use any animal-based fining agents. We have a production team that takes a lot of pride in the work that we do to deliver high-quality estate-made and estate-bottled wines. We bottle all our wines with our own line, which means we oversee all aspects of production from vineyard into bottle.

Guests wine tasting. Photo Courtesy: Cakebread Cellars.

Share the full history of Cakebread Cellars.

Winemaker Niki Williams: In 1972, Jack Cakebread – an auto garage owner and photographer – was hired to photograph Napa Valley winemakers for The Treasury of American Wines. He fell in love with a little plot of land in the heart of Napa and purchased it with the income from this trip. Jack and his wife, Dolores, began planting Sauvignon Blanc vines and released the first vintage of Cakebread Cellars Napa Valley Chardonnay in 1973. Chardonnay is the varietal that started our legacy and continues to be a key pillar of our portfolio. 

Winery’s grand entrance. Photo Courtesy: Cakebread Cellars.

Similarly, Dolores Cakebread left her unique mark on Cakebread’s legacy by establishing the foundation of our culinary program. She planted and maintained a culinary garden at the winery that still exists today, inspiring tasting menus and cooking classes to inspire our food-friendly wines.

The garden is just outside my office, and I love to see it change with the seasons and watch our culinary team harvesting fresh-picked produce for their delicious dishes. We’ve always believed that wine is best enjoyed around the table with good food and great company, and that is baked into our DNA even today, thanks to Dolores’ contribution.

Dolores Cakebread in the garden. Photo Courtesy: Cakebread Cellars.

More than fifty years later, Cakebread Cellars has remained family-owned as their sons, Bruce and Dennis, are sustaining their legacy and continuing to deliver exceptional wines and a genuine, welcoming experience to all of our guests.  

Working for a family-owned brand means we have an unwavering commitment to quality and sustainability because it is the Cakebread family name on both our labels and our vineyards. 

How did you get started in the wine industry?

Winemaker Niki Williams: I am a Midwest farmer’s daughter, so agriculture, love of good dirt, gratitude for the gifts of Mother Nature and great appreciation for the seasonal cycle of growing and harvesting have always been part of my world. Great winemaking is essentially great farming and paying close attention to the unique conditions of each vineyard block every vintage.

I am inspired by many women who paved the way before me, including Dolores Cakebread. Dolores was a pioneer in the industry, particularly for her forward-thinking approach to wine and food pairings. She passionately believed that wine and cuisine are partners in enhancing the dining experience, a philosophy that was ahead of its time. 

Cakebread Cellars Winemaker Niki Williams. Photo Courtesy: Cakebread Cellars.

Cakebread Cellars has long been a champion for women in the wine industry, so there’s so much inspiration in our company’s history. In 2002, Julianne Laks became the first non-family member to lead winemaking at Cakebread, followed by Stephanie Jacobs in 2017. I am also fortunate to work closely with Jessica Luke Baumgartner, our amazing Director of Viticulture. Being part of Cakebread’s legacy of dedicated, passionate women is an ongoing source of inspiration.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the winemaking process? 

Winemaker Niki Williams: Making wine has taught me to be a much more patient person, and I have learned to give wines space and time to evolve. Wines almost always go through an awkward period that used to make me panic. I call it their “teenage phase” because they are moody, have funky blemishes, and seem closed off. Rather than overacting, I have learned to be patient and allow them to work through their issues and find their true character. I now find so much satisfaction in watching them change and transform. 

Do you remember the first time you fell in love with wine?

Winemaker Niki Williams: I was fortunate to be treated to lunch at a simple neighborhood trattoria in Florence by a local guy. The kind with no menu, just delicious local food and wine. I did not even know what was coming my way but had three outstanding courses set in front of me – along with carafes of Chianti. It was so tasty, yet so simple and unpretentious. It just all made sense together and created so many layers of flavor, which are still stuck in my memory. The fact that wine can evoke such a response continually amazes me, that it can leave a lasting mark and create a whole new level of experience. 

Red wine poured during their 50th anniversary celebration. Photo Courtesy: Cakebread Cellars.

Describe your winemaking approach.

Winemaker Niki Williams: My winemaking philosophy centers on creating balanced, elegant blends with low interference. I think a light touch is key to bringing out the flavor and complexity of each variety. This aligns well with Cakebread’s philosophy of balancing tradition with innovation, so it has been an easy transition to join our team. 

How are you celebrating Earth Day?

Winemaker Niki Williams: Cakebread has planned a tree planting day the past two years at our Suscol Mountain estate vineyard. It is a great experience for our entire team because we work together to dig holes in the hard mountain dirt and plant baby trees. We planted 50 trees in 2023 for our 50th anniversary and 51 trees in 2024. We added name tags to the trees we planted, so it was fun for everyone to check on the progress of last year’s trees.  

What do you love about winemaking?  

Winemaker Niki Williams: I love that winemaking requires collaboration with a team. It is a monumental process from growing to bottling and then selling and pouring into glasses, and it requires the cooperation and shared vision of so many people. I love working with people who are inspired to be part of this process and who share their hard work and talents because it unites a diverse and interesting group of individuals. 

Do you have any winery traditions with your team?

Winemaker Niki Williams: When we complete a bottling, our entire cellar team will taste and share their descriptors and thoughts about each wine. I want everyone to experience the final result of our hard work, and I then use their words to craft our tasting notes. We also have an annual team tasting where everyone brings a bottle of wine that we taste blindly and then try to guess who brought which wine. It’s a really fun and insightful way to learn more about your teammates.  

How does your team help you as a winemaker?  

Winemaker Niki Williams: Our dedicated team helps in countless ways – from sampling vineyard blocks to tracking ripening, running lab analyses, processing all the grapes, filling and topping barrels, blending lots, collecting samples, monitoring quality assurance parameters, ordering all the packaging materials, running the bottling line, maintaining our equipment and buildings and cleaning.

Our Assistant Winemaker, Connor Eck, helps me in so many ways I cannot even begin to list them all. But a very critical one is reuniting me with my glasses, cell phone, etc. whenever I lose them.

I am also very fortunate to work with two amazing winemakers within Cakebread Cellars’ portfolio, Sally Johnson Blum and Jane Dunkley. We face many of the same challenges, so it’s helpful to bounce ideas off each other. We are very supportive of each other, and I love tasting their wines because I can always catch little notes of their personality inside the glass.

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