Interview with Cakebread Cellars’ Winemaker, Stephanie Jacobs

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    1. As the fourth winemaker in forty years, having spent over a decade as the assistant, it would seem Cakebread inspires a lot of loyalty from its team. Is that fair to say? Can you tell us what it’s like working at this family-owned winery?

    It’s definitely fair to say that Cakebread inspires loyalty from its team.  On the wine production side of the business alone, many of the team members have called Cakebread a long-time professional home.  I’ve spent nearly 14 wonderful years at Cakebread, as has our vineyard operations director, Toby Halkovich.  Both my winemaker predecessor, Julianne Laks (who just retired in Dec 2017), and our cellar production manager, Brian Lee, are part of the Cakebread employee 30+ year club.  It’s also fair to say that the long-term tenures lead to more consistent wines vintage after vintage.

    The family-owned, family-led structure is a major reason why Cakebread is such an incredible place to make wine. The Cakebread family’s guiding motto is, “One heartbeat since 1973,” meaning that teamwork and all employees’ contributions are critical to our success.  That collaborative spirit certainly makes for better wines coming out of our cellar, as does the family’s dedication to quality. Bruce Cakebread, our winemaker between 1979 and 2002, and now president, always stresses that quality comes first.  As a winemaker, having the best grapes, the best equipment and the best team members, means I can make the best wines possible.

    2. What are your favorite wines from the portfolio to make? And do you have much opportunity for experimentation?

    Everyone always asks me that, but it’s truly hard to say.  Pinot Noir is probably the nearest and dearest to my heart since one of my early winemaking roles at Cakebread was Pinot Project Leader.  A lot of people don’t actually know that we make Pinot, so I enjoy introducing it to new fans. The truth is that we’ve been making it for a couple of decades, growing nine different clones of Pinot Noir between our two family-owned estate vineyards in Anderson Valley. I’m particularly proud of our Cakebread Two Creeks Pinot Noir that showcases a blend of rich, full-bodied fruit from both vineyards. At $44 a bottle, it’s a pretty amazing find!

    While our Cakebread philosophy of producing food-friendly wines with balanced fruit, acid and tannins hasn’t wavered over the past 44 years, we do continue to experiment in the cellar and evolve our winemaking approaches to achieve the highest quality possible. For example, our Pinot Noir experimentations with native yeast and grape stem fermentations has helped us increase the level of wine complexity, adding nice spicy, earthy notes and highlighting characteristics of the vineyard.

    3. What innovations, either in the vineyard or cellar, are employed at Cakebread?

    Several of us on the Cakebread production team are UC Davis alums, so we enjoy partnering with their Viticulture and Enology researchers to explore new innovations – from the vineyards to the cellar – in pursuit of quality.  That could mean new technology and equipment, like the infrared spectroscopy machine that we’ve started using in the lab to analyze large amounts of grape samples in short amounts of time.  What may have taken four hours in the past now only takes an hour, which is precious time savings during the busy harvest season and helps us make timelier grape picking decisions. 

    Innovation isn’t just chasing what’s new.  It could also mean revisiting older historic techniques that have fallen out of fashion or are less commonly used.  For example, we harvest nearly all of our grapes at night because we think it greatly improves fruit quality, plus it provides cooler temperature working conditions for our picking crews during the warm Napa weather months.  Concrete egg fermentation tanks and larger-sized puncheon oak barrels are other examples of “what’s old is new again” when it comes to winemaking explorations.

    4. When did you discover your love of wine? How did you decide to become a winemaker? 

    I was first exposed to the culture of wine during a high-school exchange program in France, but it was really during my college time at UC Davis that I fell in love with my future profession.  When I first enrolled in the Davis fermentation science program, I planned to focus on beer-making.  But as I began my pre-requisite winemaking courses, I was hooked.  Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy sipping a beer or even home brewing.  But wine is a constant-changing subject, since mother nature gives us so much growing variability from vintage to vintage.  Being a winemaker tests your creativity and ability to adapt along the way, which I find intellectually rewarding, not to mention incredibly fun!

    5. Given concerns over climate change, drought, and a changing ripening period, where do you see Napa Valley wines in the next forty years? 

    The past several years – and the extreme heat, rains and wildfires they’ve brought – have taught us to expect the unexpected with each growing season.  

    We’re taking proactive measures to address these challenges from a viticulture perspective.  From planting new grapevines in different row directions (ensuring uniform sunlight for the grapes) to installing humidification technology (lessening stress to the vines when temperatures spike), we want to make sure our fruit is protected.  We’ve also diversified our vineyard locations throughout the Napa Valley, including cooler climate growing areas like our Suscol Springs property in southeastern Napa.

    From a winemaking perspective, I’ve learned that you have to figure out how to stay calm, stay flexible and constantly adapt.  I feel confident that Napa Valley’s vintners will continue to balance tradition with new ways of doing things to craft world-class wines for years to come.