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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Cakebread Cellars' Winemaker Julianne Laks Celebrates 30th Harvest

Posted By on Wed, Jan 6, 2016 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge Julianne Laks - CAKEBREAD CELLARS
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Thirty years is a long time. More than a third of a lifetime. Thirty years ago, you could purchase any number of sizable properties in the SoMa for well under six figures. It was around that same time that Julianne Laks started making wine at Cakebread Cellars. This past autumn marked her 30th harvest with the winery. Throughout those years, she has helped grow the brand into one of the most recognized names in Napa Valley. Here are a few of her reflections upon three decades on the job.

"The most exciting part of working at the same winery over the decades has been to be deeply involved in looking for ways to improve our wine quality," says Laks. "I’m a perfectionist, and I enjoy the challenge of making the wines with care, consistency and quality. A great wine is not the result of a few broad based decisions, but of the close attention to many small ones."

After working with the same grapes year after year, the attention to detail adds up into a more observable view of the big picture. Still, not all years are created equal. Some harvests are notably better than the rest, and certain moments in time are marked by technical improvements that propel production into a new era altogether.

"I think the 1997 vintage was most memorable," she recalls. "It was a milestone in the evolution of our Chardonnay. In the 1980s, we hand-harvested our Chardonnay grapes in the field, and poured the lug boxes of fruit into a field-crushing unit which was pulled by a tractor along the vine rows as the fruit was picked. This field unit destemmed and crushed the fruit (right there in the vineyard) into a holding tank that was returned to the winery after the harvest finished. Later, in the 1990s, we abandoned this method, and de-stemmed and crushed our white grapes at the winery. We wanted to improve the wines even more from there, so our next step was 'whole-cluster-pressing' in 1997. We gently pressed the whole clusters of our Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. In this way, the juice was not picking up skin tannin (potential harsh components from skin contact) and the natural grape acidity was retained. This change in processing dramatically improved the quality of our white wines and promoted ageability. Today, night harvesting of cold fruit and whole-cluster-pressing are the hallmarks of our fresh, balanced white wines with long aging potential."

These advancements help usher in a line of whites that appeal to a broader audience, including some palates more accustomed to the deeper flavors of red wine. It was around that same time that the label really started to take off. In 1998, Cakebread purchased 200 acres on nearby Howell Mountain, developing these hillside vines into what would become Dancing Bear Ranch. Two years later, they completed a winery in Oakville, and an era of rapid expansion had commenced. Just over 15 years later, the brand is renowned as one of the California's most dependable producers of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. But Laks is hardly to content to rest on these laurels. 

"To envision a great wine and set the stage for action is a powerful tool for success," she proclaims. "We started this process with the development of our Benchland Select Cabernet Sauvignon in 1995. These western benchlands of the Napa Valley are unique in microclimate and consistently produce classic, elegant Cabernet wines. We wanted to capture and highlight the uniqueness of the wines made from this distinctive area. We also took this approach to develop the wines from our Howell Mountain vineyard, Dancing Bear Ranch, where the wines exhibit power and finesse. I’m looking forward to the blossoming of our Anderson Valley Pinot Noir program."

Beyond the benefits of added real estate, the winemaker is hopeful to incorporate scientific development into the bottle. "Recent advances in understanding how the grape berry develops and how grape-growing practices influence the fruit quality has been instrumental in producing better fruit. This translates into a direct result of better wine quality." Diving into the technical deep end, she elaborates further, "the fascinating advancement of phenolic science over the last ten years has enabled us to fully understand the factors influencing color stability and extraction in red wines. Overall, the progress of current research has given us practical knowledge and powerful tools to make superior wines."

After 30 harvests, Julianne Laks is surely showing no signs of slowing down.

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About The Author

Brad Japhe

Brad Japhe

I enjoy my whiskey neat, my beer hoppy, and my meat medium rare. I have been covering craft spirits, suds, and gourmet cuisine for a decade, with work published from New York, across Montana, and up and down the Pacific Coast.


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