Exploring Napa Valley’s Diverse Terroirs Through Cakebread Cellars

From Howell Mountain to the Rutherford Bench, Cakebread Cellars’ Cabernet Sauvignons offer a crystal clear lens to Napa’s finest terroirs

Photo courtesy of Cakebread Cellars.
This advertising content was produced in collaboration with our partner, Cakebread Cellars.

Looking out from Cakebread Cellars’ Dancing Bear Ranch high atop Howell Mountain, the earth-toned patchwork of the valley reveals Napa’s kaleidoscopic range of terroirs with a single glance. 

The crumbly, volcanic soils between Dancing Bear’s rows of Cabernet offer a more complex story—combining millennia of geology with decades of viticulture and a rugged hillside climate. The sharp slopes plunge toward the valley, while each row hugs the hillside’s nuanced curves, exposing the vines to nearly 360 degrees of sunshine. Through each of the 28-acre site’s 24 unique blocks, the rocky earth and mountain breezes evoke a mix of reverence and trepidation.

“This is what a unique vineyard four miles past Lake Hennessey feels like,” says Cakebread VP of operations Aaron Fishleder of the site. “The silence is deafening. We’re trying to show what vines in this type of environment bring to the table.” 

What’s truly remarkable is how Cakebread Cellars does manage to transmit that one-of-a-kind terroir to the table. While Napa Valley is known for its nuanced and everlasting Cabernet Sauvignons, few Cabernet portfolios provide a liquid tour of the 29-mile Napa Valley like this family-owned winery does—especially in a great vintage like 2018. By combining select single-site releases with thoughtful blends, the Cakebread Cellars Cabernet lineup is not only delicious but offers a genuine lens for experiencing Napa’s illustrious terroirs—from any zip code. 

Honing Terroir

“We always want to show a sense of site,” says Fishleder of the estate’s signature Cabernets. “Napa Valley has more to offer than the opportunity to simply make the same kind of wine as your neighbor.” 

With 1,600 acres in the Valley and 600 under vine, Cakebread Cellars has many neighbors, yet it remains uniquely positioned to showcase Napa Valley terroir: Their vast holdings enable the winery to accurately portray Napa Valley in both blended bottles and via single-vineyard close-ups like the Dancing Bear release. 

Current director of winemaking Stephanie Jacobs and the Cakebread team are so deftly able to channel their terroir thanks to a unique approach grounded simultaneously in technology and tradition. “From Jack Cakebread to Bruce Cakebread to Stephanie Jacobs, all of our winemakers have worked together, which gives us great consistency as a brand,” says Fishleder. “Our devotion to crafting wines that pair with food still remains. It’s been a cornerstone since Jack started the winery almost 50 years ago.”

Coupled with that ethos, the team is investing heavily in modern agricultural technologies in order to develop the complex molecules that yield terroir-expressive wines. By focusing on the grape skins—which provide Cabernet Sauvignon’s signature color, tannin compounds, and complex aromatics—Cakebread is able to fine tune their expressions of terroir throughout the growing season. 

“We have become more sophisticated,” says Fishleder, referring to the Cakebread family’s 47 years of Napa know-how. “Now, we’re better able to understand the differences in our terroirs and how to highlight them.” 

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For example, the Cakebread team implanted sensors in their vines to monitor hydric stress and fine-tune their irrigation strategies within each site—allowing exacting irrigation techniques and meticulous monitoring in each vineyard block. 

“Our sensors are embedded within the vines, and they are giving us data on how the vines are using water,” explains Fishleder. “We can see them becoming stressed, and then we use that data to make our decisions.” 

The result is a grape-growing and winemaking strategy with a focus on perfectly capturing the estate’s terroirs—whether the vineyard sites have been in the Cakebread family for decades or represent new frontiers. In the cellar, the detail-oriented approach continues, which allows Jacobs to fine tune each lot to perfectly express the season. 

From the Vineyard Into the Glass

At Dancing Bear Ranch, these innovations (like precise irrigation) allow Jacobs to channel the craggy, iron-rich terroir in a wine that’s at once intense yet elegant. Thanks to its position above the fog line, the grapes here develop thick skins that lend the wine its firm tannic structure, while the large diurnal shifts inherent to mountainside vineyards give the Cabernet significant acidity. In the winery, Jacobs points the spotlight on these two elements, utilizing free-run juice in the final bottling. The result is a 2018 that Fishleder calls, “A mountain Cabernet in every way, shape, and form.”

In contrast, the 2018 Benchlands Select Cabernet Sauvignon—culled from vineyards on the prized benchland soils of Rutherford and Oakville, including Cakebread’s Hill Ranch—instantly transports the drinker to the moderate climes of the valley floor. Soft and smooth, it evokes notions of the verdant rows of Cabernet that have made the Rutherford and Oakville appellations iconic. 

“Everything to the west of Highway 29 is considered benchlands, and we’ve found some of the best vineyards along there to make this wine,” says Fishleder. “It’s very representative of the bench.” 

Rich in alluvial nutrients and highly fertile, Cakebread casts the benchland terroir into a concentrated and expansive wine centered on ripe fruit character. A fusion of five Cabernet Sauvignon clones and gravelly bale loam soils, the Cakebread interpretation of this classic soil type transports the drinker to the lush vineyards at the base of the Mayacamas. 

Moving closer to the cooling influence of the San Pablo Bay, the Suscol Springs vineyard—the newest in the Cakebread Cellars portfolio—lies in southern Napa, where fog and the cool temperatures slow ripening. The subtle balance of fresh black fruit and the wine’s gentle, unyielding minerality speak to the longer hang times and boulder-littered terroir of this site, accentuated gently by Jacobs’ hands and 22 months in French oak. 

“Much of [Suscol Springs] is planted in just pure rock, where there is no soil by definition,” says Fishleder. “And it really shows in the wines.”

Even Cakebread’s entry-level Cabernet Sauvignon is a deft work worthy of contemplation: A beautiful snapshot of the bountiful 2018 season, this bottling sews together terroirs from Calistoga to south Napa with layers of black-fruited complexity and terroir-driven nuance. In the glass, each vineyard’s unique characteristics—tannin, concentration, acidity—coalesce into a beautiful Cabernet redolent of classic Napa Valley bottlings.

“We are asking ourselves a lot of questions like, ‘Should we be looking at Cabernet another way?’ ‘Are there other vineyard bottlings we should consider?’” says Fishleder. “And everyone can have a front row seat to our answers in the glass now.” 


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