In this episode of “End Of Day Drinks,” VinePair’s editorial team is joined by Cakebread Cellars’ co-owner Bruce Cakebread and Stephanie Jacobs, Cakebread’s winemaker. Cakebread is a family-run business with a history dating back to 1973. In this episode, our guests speak on Cakebread’s modern sustainability strategies, the importance of a family’s legacy, and new technological innovations when it comes to producing world-class wine.
They stress the importance of how sustainability is a journey, not a destination. With the emergence of new technology, wine cellars need to adapt, and over the years, Cakebread has done just that. You will learn the strategies used to improve soil health, and why worms may be the answer.
There are new and exciting developments happening in Napa Valley. Tune in to understand how this family-run business is at the forefront.
Or Check out the conversation here
From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, this is “EOD Drinks” where we sit down with the movers and shakers in the beverage industry. So pour yourself a glass and listen along with us. Let’s start the show. On this episode of “End Of Day Drinks,” we’re talking with Cakebread co-owner Bruce Cakebread and the winery’s winemaker Stephanie Jacobs. We are going to chat with the two of them about how Cakebread promotes sustainability in the vineyard, the importance of the family’s legacy to the brand, how Cakebread makes wines specifically for food pairings, and how the brand is also embracing technological innovations when it comes to making its wines. Finally, we’re going to discuss the surprising role worms — yes, worms, those creepy, crawly critters — play in the vineyard. Let’s get to it.
Katie Brown: Hello and welcome to VinePair’s “EOD Drinks” podcast. I’m Katie Brown, VinePair’s associate editor, and I’m very excited to welcome Bruce Cakebread, co-owner of Cakebread Cellars in the Napa Valley, and Stephanie Jacobs, Cakebread’s director of winemaking. Welcome, guys.
Bruce Cakebread: Hey, thank you.
Stephanie Jacobs: Hi.
Katie: I’m also joined by my colleagues on VinePair’s editorial team. That includes Cat Wolinski, our senior editor, Joanna Sciarrino, executive editor, Tim McKirdy, our staff writer, Emma Cranston, assistant editor, and Keith Beavers, our tastings director. Welcome, everyone. This is obviously a big group, and we’re excited to all ask you our questions, so we’ll try not to ask you all at once. But because I’m already talking, I’ll go first. I’ve been curious to talk to you guys about sustainability because I know that Cakebread is doing a lot to promote sustainability in the vineyard. I was wondering, what are some of the specific actions you’re taking to support advancements in the vineyard and cellar sustainability at Cakebread?
Bruce: Yes, thanks for the question, and it’s great being here. Stephanie and I are looking forward to this going back and forth. We do sustainability not only in the vineyards, which is very important, but also at the winery, too. We look at sustainability as a journey, and it’s not a destination. We learn through trial and error of different things we’re doing. We learn from others, and we try to get other people to come and see what we’re doing and add ideas to it. As new technology comes on the line, we’re adapting to that. In the vineyards right now, I think the main focus is really on soil health. It’s the microbes in the soil, because you get carbon sequestration is critical these days, and people are trying to measure it. There’s a lot of different research articles about it, not only just in vineyards, but just in agriculture in general. We’re trying to understand that area and what we can do to reduce our carbon footprint on that. To me, you take organic farming or biodynamic farming, all are good practices. They’ve been around forever. I think today you have to look at the carbon footprint. If you look through organic farming, biodynamic, they’re not talking about that. We need to talk about that to have agriculture, vineyards included, make an impact on climate change. Whether it’s cover cropping, no-till composting, vermicompost. How can you improve soil health? The soil microbes are also going to sequester carbon. We think this is important as well. That’s where we’re going today to be able to move forward. In the early days, it was making sure you controlled your runoff. If it’s hillside vineyards, it’s having erosion issues and the same now on the valley floor vineyards, for example. I think it’s eight to 10 years ago, we participated in the Rutherford dirt program that helped set back the river and the Rutherford Reach, to allow it to meander the way it used to, because as agriculture came and everyone planted up to the river, we gave up about an acre of ground there. Now, it’s the confluence between a secondary creek and the Napa River. It’s just amazing how that has helped change the river. You don’t have as much sloping in the banks, which allows the fish to come upstream and have a place to rest where they have this kind of confluence. Those are some of the things we’re doing, but I think it’s how we’re measuring our carbon footprint in the soils is one of the big things coming up.
Keith: That’s crazy. This is Keith. I don’t know if this is true, but your family seems to be one of the most prolific vineyard buyers. You guys have so many vineyards and you picked them so carefully. Over the years, as you’ve picked, you’re practicing sustainability. It’s a massive undertaking to make sure that all these vineyards are in the sustainable realm. Is that a big feat, or are you like, “Oh, no, we got this”?
Bruce: It’s kind of interesting because the Napa Valley Vintners started the Napa Green program, which started out as Napa Green Land back in the mid-’90s. It’s a really good program as third-party certification that was able to come out and inspect your property to make sure what you say you’re doing, you’re doing. Then, it gave you a five-year checkup on things that you needed to do to remain compliant. Then 2008, they started up the Napa Green Winery program, which we’re the second ones to be involved in. That really looked at reducing inputs in terms of electricity or water, increasing or recycling. If it’s a mindset, it makes it so that we can say, “Yeah, we can do this.” It’s more of a mindset to say, “I’m going to change to make sure that we have all the properties up to speed.” We’re very fortunate because each of the different 16 properties is unique and special. Being a family business, it’s a long-term responsibility, a generational perspective.
Bruce: My brother and I hand it off to the next generation. Hopefully, they’ll look at us and go, “These guys did a good job, and we’re going to improve on what they’ve passed down to us.” That is how we look at it. but it is a generational perspective instead of “What are we going to do this year”? I think that really helps us in that area.
Keith: That’s great.
Tim McKirdy: Hey, Bruce, this is Tim speaking. I’ve got a quick follow-up to that question as well. And something I’m fascinated about — because you guys have obviously been in Napa since winemaking was invented in Napa in the early 1970s, as we know. That’s just a joke.
Bruce: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I get it. It’s just, come on, man, I’m not that old!
Tim: I just wonder, with that generational idea of sustainability, have you seen that develop over time in the region? The conversations that are being had and maybe even a loose definition. Have you seen that evolve over time?
Bruce: With Napa Valley, it’s a long-term focus with the whole community, because if you think back to 1968, the community voted in the Ag Preserve. This prevented the lands from being developed into housing and suburban expansion. If you go back and look at the Napa Register, some of the articles back then, it’s fascinating because not everybody was on board. It was a heated discussion about some of the long-term family owners saying, “Wait for a second, I want to give my son or daughter a parcel of land so that they can build their house so they can live here.” That helped set the stage. Then, we have erosion control plans so there are restrictions on where you can and can’t plant. When you come to Napa, these are the rules that everyone plays with. If you don’t like it, it’s no problem. You go over the hill to Sonoma, or you can go somewhere else and do whatever you want. That was a joke, just to let you know. This is the poker table that we’re playing with. These are the house rules. If you accept those, then you want to stay within the house rules and be able to do that way. With the Ag Preserve, with the erosion control plan, winery definition ordinance, Napa Green Land, Napa Green Winery, all these programs are built up over time to get everybody, the whole community, just not a few people. That’s where when you get the whole community or the whole industry going, that’s where you can make a bigger impact. If it’s just us, we’re not going to move the dial. If we can get as a collective, the whole industry or a whole community to do this, then it has more power behind it. You take our Napa Green Winery, for example, one of the easy ones is doing flashlight, battery, and recycling. It allowed the employees to bring their batteries to the winery. Then, we’d recycle it as wine and say everyone is going to put it in their garage. I’ll get to it. Maybe they don’t. That was changing. Behavior is bigger than just the winery footprint. It impacted 60 other employee family homes. That’s how you are able to create a bigger footprint to try and move the dial. I think that we have to do more than what we’re doing today to change the curve on our climate- change challenges.
Joanna Sciarrino: Hi Bruce, this is Joanna. This question relates to that. And to push the boundaries there, on your site, you mentioned that you regularly partner with UC Davis on innovative trials in the vineyard and also in the cellar. Could you tell us about some of those trials and what you’ve learned as a result?
Bruce: I’ll talk about what Davis is doing, and then I’ll pitch it over to Stephanie, and she can talk about what she’s doing in the winery. Over at UC Davis, the Vineyard Geology Department has an amazing, neutral winery. It’s the first in the world as a research winery. They’re recycling all their water. They’re capturing their water. They’ve treated it, recycling it. Dr. Roger Boldon, who was my professor way back in 1977, visited — this was a long, long time ago. Roger, an Australian guy, comes out and says, “Hey Bruce, we want you to sponsor these research fermenters.” I didn’t know how much a fermenter costs. “Yeah, no problem, Roger, count me into it.” Then, he goes, “Well, here’s the price.” “Jesus, I could buy 10 of these, what do you need?” It turns out he goes, “No, no. Actually, these are kind of automated, and then they have a clean-in-place system where you can take that wash water, recycle it. They’re just changed from the current practices in the cellar.” They asked 16 family wineries in the state to each sponsor one of these. The idea is to get the students coming out of there, be able to think differently when they get into the industry. I think that’s really important for us because we get someone who’s working in a neutral winery to understand how that works. They’re valuable to us because here’s what we’ve been doing for 40, 45 years. It’s impressive what UC Davis is doing. We feel honored to participate in that. I’ll pass it over to Stephanie and let her finish up on that one.
Stephanie: Well, we’ve taken the automated pump-overs in-house and are starting to integrate them into our fermentation protocols so that we can have exact frequency and volume to pump over each tank and where it’s automated and controlled into a computer system so that you don’t necessarily have to be moving pumps around cleaning in between each pump or even be at the winery. If, for whatever reason, we have an extreme event or and need to be away from the winery for a little bit, we can still keep making wine.
Bruce: It’s amazing how we’ve changed in a positive way when we make changes. You want to look at the win-win out of them and be thoughtful when you make a change in how that could improve the wine quality. That’s one of the wins. Back in the ‘70s, my father bought a field crusher. Instead of bringing the fruit back in a gondola and doing that whole de-stemming at the winery, they just pick the lug boxes and dump it out in this tank and crusher that’s driven by the PTO on the tractor and stems to go back out the vineyard. We bring the fruit back as crushed grapes or mousse, and with whites, we press it, then we put it in the tank. Today, we’re picking all at night so that we can bring in the fruit cold so we’re not having to pay our utility company to cool down our juice that Mother Nature does for free for us.
Bruce: Then, we get to our trucks and off the highway so we don’t have people sit and we don’t have our fruit sitting on the road waiting for it to come in the winery. The bottom line is: Cold fruit makes better wine. That’s the change that’s happening, and what’s exciting is Stephanie’s been with us for 18 or 19 years now. I think what makes it fun to work with long-term employees, that they’re always looking for the next way to improve what we’re doing. We’re not trying to just sit on our hands, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but just take those incremental steps to be able to improve and adapt. Since our customer is getting savvier in terms of what they want from wine and what we can measure and how we grow it, it’s an exciting time to be making wine.
Keith: This is Keith again. I don’t know if this is even a question, but more of a comment. It’s just exciting to hear because of your absolute focus with your company in sustainability and not just in the vineyard, but practices around the vineyard. And at the same time able to harness new technology to help you in a certain way to make wine. That technology is being used not to do anything negative to the Earth or to the vine or to the people that you work with. I just find it wonderful that you have this absolute natural way of seeing the vineyard and the people. Then, at the same time, you have an automated system. You could be, I don’t want to say just chilling out somewhere on the phone.
Bruce: Stephanie, is that what you’re doing? Just hanging out, looking at your phone, texting?
Stephanie: Yeah, yeah.
Bruce: I thought so.
Keith: That was just a comment. I just find that amazing.
Bruce: Well, it’s great, because we have a great team that’s focused on this. Because you can’t Lone Ranger this. We have a Napa Green Committee from all departments taking field trips over to Benzinger and see what they’re doing with their biodynamic. I think we have a trip with the vineyard guys coming up in March, going out to look at a vermicompost operation over in Sonoma. The most memorable is we went up to Sierra Nevada Brewing up in Chico. It’s about a two-hour bus ride. We didn’t look so much at the brewing aspect of the tour, but all their green practices and all their sustainability. It was so impressive. I think that when we’re coming back on the bus, you want to be like those guys. Everyone says I want to be “like Mike.” We want to be like Sierra Nevada because they are doing it just an incredible amount. My son lives in Brooklyn. We’re going to Paulie Gee’s, and there’s a little brewpub next door. I stopped in there a little bit early and I asked him about Sierra Nevada. He was able to say all the sustainability practices. To go from Chico, Calif., in Northern California, to Brooklyn, I was really impressed. That was pretty cool.
Cat Wolinski: OK, hold up. Where in Brooklyn does your son live?
Bruce: He lives just outside of Bushwick.
Cat: OK, I used to live near there.
Bruce: Yeah, he’s in the music business. He worked for a band management company, then a side gig with a record label called Exploding in Sound. They just got a new song on NPR, which is pretty cool for them. That’s my plug.
Keith: You hear a lot about family. This is a family winery. I want to talk about the family business. You guys have been doing this as a family for a long time, since the ‘70s. To be able to keep this in the family for as long as you guys had and the place that you may wind and watch it evolve the way it evolved is pretty amazing. You just were talking about rerouting the river, and Rutherford alone is incredible. I just wanted to ask about the family business and how that has affected winemaking throughout the years?
Bruce: Our family DNA goes back to my grandfather, because he started a garage in downtown Oakland changing oil back in 1926. Over the 50 years that they had that business, my grandfather and my father ran it. In 1973, my parents bought the friends of my grandparents’ 20 acres up in the middle of Napa. They wanted to retire, and we’d go up there during the summers and hang out. My grandparents would take my three brothers up there to get us out of Oakland for a while. Then, we ended up buying it from them. My father and grandfather worked together and then both my brother and I worked with our parents until about 2002. We started doing succession planning. They step back and my brother and I have been running it. Then, in 2018, we’re both in that process of stepping back. This is the normal way of how family businesses go. I was in a class out of Kellogg that does great family business work and does Zoom calls for three days a week in February. One of the things I learned: They had a quote from Desmond Tutu: “You don’t choose your family. They’re God’s gift to you as you are to them.” If you take that to the next step and apply that in a family business, you didn’t get to choose your family and you don’t get to choose your business partner. You’re all together, and you have to work through because there’s always going to be challenges to keep working through. I think our strengths, with my brothers and my parents, is we’ve always had that common goal. Here is a vision where we want to be, where each one of us brought something different to the table to get us on that path, to get us to the goal. We’re not all doing the same thing. We all had our different style and different way of doing it. It wasn’t that we’d end up on first base or third base. We all end up on second base. I think that has been really helpful. We’ve gone through the founder or what they call one-generation to what we are today is a sibling partnership. Then, with the three-generation or the cousins. Now, we’re making this kind of transition to what they call a cousin consortium. The cousins are scattered all over the country, whereas Dennis and I live in the same town.
Bruce: It takes a different way to communicate and make sure that it’s transparent on what we’re doing. My brother and I were older operators. We grunt at each other walking through the hallway there. We knew what the other guy was thinking or saying. We have to slow down now as we bring the cousins in, because it’s a different way to communicate. Each generation has its own way. We need to be able to keep that blend going from the second generation and third generation. Each stage, each transition, can be treacherous. We have a good foundation of seeing our grandfather and father work and then our parents did for Dennis and myself. I have confidence that we’ve been through this before, and we know what can happen. In a family business, the worst thing is you get too comfortable, and you’re not pushing yourselves, and then life passes you by, the industry passes you by. You have to always be thinking, “How are we going to stay put and get ahead?’
Tim: Bruce, this is Tim speaking again. One of the things that I wanted to ask again ties into that idea of consistency that you seem to be alluding towards — maintaining a family style of wines over time. To my understanding, one of the things that are continuous through Cakebread is this idea of making wines that pair with food, farm-to-table wines before anyone was even putting a hyphen between those words. I just wonder if that’s something you can confirm. Then, Stephanie, if you can follow up by telling me what that actually looks like? What does that process mean from a winemaking and grape-growing standpoint? What are you thinking about when you’re trying to craft a wine specifically for food?
Bruce: I’ll start out as the history of us in the early days. When we bottle, we bottle on Saturday morning, and our parents would invite a bunch of friends up. We didn’t have that much to bottle say, finish about noon and then everyone has lunch and has a couple of what they bottled. It became a standard of “We’re going to Jack and Dolores’s place for lunch,” and then pretty soon all our good friends started showing up around 11:30 instead of 8 to help bottle. They knew they were going to still get fed. That was the beginning of understanding that the best wine is the wine that’s on their dinner table and just fits in.
Keith: This is Keith, and that’s great. I love the fact that, again, this is another comment. I don’t have questions here, but I also think it is great. As Americans, we don’t always understand that food and wine go together. It’s so great that the philosophy here is these wines are made and you can eat with them and it’s going to be awesome. Just a comment.
Tim: I’d love to hear Stephanie’s input. What are the considerations from yourself, as a winemaker, within the realm of this conversation?
Stephanie: I think our wine styles really haven’t changed over the years. We make wines that we like to drink, and that goes back to Jack and Dolores and Bruce and Dennis. Those wines happen to be fruit-forward, fresh acidity, a nice balance of tannin, and a structure that goes well with food. I think Dolores really ran with that and planted the estate garden produce — a garden that’s there on the property — and became a pioneer in wine and food education culture over the years. A real part of our company culture has always been the food and the wine. The style hasn’t changed. The way we’ve made the style has changed a little bit over the years with advances of research and technology, which we kind of touched on a little bit: the night harvesting, a whole- cluster pressing over the years to limit oxidation and prolong aging, then the berry sorting. Getting a shaker table was the coolest thing ever, that we could sort berries and anything that we didn’t like, we could take out, and it wouldn’t go into the fermenter. And then going to the optical sorter, which is even more advanced, where a puff of air would push out a berry that was not quite the right color or a little bit dehydrated. Here we are, improving our fresh-fruit character and our acidity in our wines through technology and without having people bent over a table for hours picking bad berries. Out in the vineyard, we’re looking for real fresh fruit and nice acidity: ripe, dark fruit characters, but not overripe characters. There’s plenty of acidities that go well with the wines and to go well with the food.
Bruce: It’s interesting, the optical sorter Stephanie was talking about, being able to pull out dehydrated fruit, as we go through climate change, this piece of technology is critical to allow the winemaker to hold back, not pick early because of the heat, but they were allowed to go get your mature fruit, and able to sort out the dehydrated fruit. It’s just a tool. You lose volume, but you’ll gain it back in quality. As we look at climate change, before you had to go and you couldn’t wait or else you end up with raisins. I think that’s one of the things as we look at climate change, this type of technology helps us adapt.
Cat: Along with that technology — this is Cat —Stephanie, do you feel with that changing technology, are you also changing the way that you make wines as the consumer palate is changing?
Stephanie: Not necessarily as the consumer palate is changing. Like I said, our wine still really hasn’t changed all that much over the years. We have changed up some of our fermentation protocols to encourage the wine style that we like and to improve it and make our wines age well. I have plenty of color, for instance, in reds. We now can analyze how much color and tannin that we’re extracting during fermentation and can look at those results and change the fermentation protocols to either extract less color and tannin or extract more color and tannin. That’s a recent development in the last 10 years.
Cat: I also love that you’re so excited for the shaker.
Katie: You guys are clearly always evolving from a sustainability and a technological standpoint. What can we expect to see next from you guys at Cakebread?
Bruce: One of my passion projects during this pandemic is understanding more about vermicompost, or using worms. Then vermicompost tea, in terms of the impact on soil microbes. I’ve been looking at that as growing worms. I’m learning a lot. Also, I tried butter-making, making homemade butter.
Keith: How did that work out?
Bruce: Some were good, and some were OK. But what’s good about butter is that you scrape it off and start over again.
Keith: Not with those worms, though.
Bruce: I’m not sure if you guys remember the movie “Ben.” The guy who liked all the rats.
Keith: Oh, yeah.
Bruce: That’s where I attached to my worms here. I’ve been planting lettuce during the winter so we can make good salads, and I always put a little bit of my vermicompost in the bottom of the hole when I plant new lettuce, and we’re rocking. Can we do this with vineyards, too? This sounds really weird, and my wife’s not all that keen on it, but trying to look at using cardboard as weed controls, using a concept that came from no-tilling. It looks terrible. It looks like you have a bunch of cardboard boxes out in your vineyards. I have to work on that, but we did two short rows. As we come to the spring, I want to pull it up. But I’ve been peeking underneath there. We have a lot of the worms that come up, and it turns out worms like cardboard. Well, it’s kind of a carbon source for them. It’s pretty cool to see if we can improve the soil microbes underneath the vine, because that’s always a hard place to get to in a vineyard. Can we do that? Now I have to work on the looks, so to speak, because it’s not very pretty. If you have a pandemic, let’s make lemonade out of it. Those are a couple of things I’ve been working on.
Keith: Wow. That’s incredible.
Katie: Very cool. I don’t know what I was expecting when I asked that question, but I wasn’t expecting worms.
Keith: Cardboard, water, and worms. I thought it was great.
Katie: Well, thank you guys both for joining us today on the podcast. It was such a pleasure having you guys and learning more about Cakebread. We’ll look forward to having you back some time and get drinks in person when Covid is all over.
Bruce: We’ll bring you some compost tea.
Tim: Oh, yes. I’ll bring the worms if you bring the butter.
Bruce: I’m not sure who I want to give up. All of them have names.
Keith: I was going to be the one to ask have you named any of the worms. I was going to ask the question.
Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of “EOD Drinks.” If you’ve enjoyed this program, please leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps other people discover the show, and tell your friends. We want as many people as possible listening to this amazing program. Now, for the credits.
“EOD Drinks” is recorded live in New York City at VinePair’s headquarters, and it is produced, edited, and engineered by VinePair’s tasting director — yes, he wears a lot of hats — Keith Beavers. I also want to give a special thanks to VinePair’s co-founder, Josh Malin, to the executive editor, Joanna Sciarrino, to our senior editor, Cat Wolinski, senior staff writer Tim McKirdy, and our associate editor, Katie Brown. A special shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, VinePair’s art director who designed the sick logo for this program.
The music for “EOD Drinks” was produced, written, and recorded by Darby Cicci. I’m VinePair co-founder Adam Teeter, and we’ll see you next week. Thanks a lot.