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Advantage Cakebread

Does anyone understand the food-and-wine chain better than Cakebread?

All of us need to eat and drink, but people who love to eat and drink trot off to fine restaurants to order good food to enjoy with good wines. 

But even for something as simple as this to take place, two production chains have to merge in a restaurant’s dining room.  The food chain begins with farmers who grow produce which is sold directly or indirectly to restaurants, where chefs transform it into tantalizing menus for consumers.  At the same time, the wine chain begins in vineyards, either owned by a winery or independent farmers, which produce grapes the vintners turn into wine to sell to restaurants who re-sell it to consumers.

Because consumers have personalized demands on the end products – food and wine – of both chains, the chains need each other.  The restaurant provides the winery with revenue and a conduit to reach “on premise” consumers.  In turn, the winery provides the restaurant with its highest-margin revenue source as well as a source of pleasure for its dining customers.

No one puts together these diverse, yet related, people – farmers and culinary artisans, vineyardists and winemakers, chefs, foodies and winos – better than Cakebread.  It’s called the American Harvest Workshop, a love and work fest of just about everyone represented in the food chain except the big commercial food distributors.  I attended the 27th annual workshop last week in Napa Valley, and it was both a blast and an eye-opener.

That Cakebread is in this leadership position is a result of the passion and foresight of founders Jack and Dolores Cakebread.  Not long after they opened the winery in 1973, Jack and sons Bruce and Dennis became fixtures on the road, learning early a key to their success would be restaurant sales.  Meanwhile, Dolores planted the Cakebread gardens and brought her kitchen to the winery.  Anyone who visited Cakebread in the early years realized that the winery understood the importance of pairing wine and food – on their premises.  They also hired in 1989 culinary director Brian Streeter to oversee the writing of cookbooks, winery food events and the workshop.

The workshop is fun, but it is not play.  It is hard work.  Five chefs are invited – this year Greg Biggers of Sofitel Chicago Water Tower, Mark McDowell of Makena Beach & Golf Resort in Maui, Jim Severson of Sevy’s Grill in Dallas, Brad Turley of GoGa in Shanghai and Eric Haugen of the Lambs Club in NYC – to work alongside 10 paying foodies called Cakebread Chefs, usually members of its wine club, in preparing two dinners open to the public.  Local farmers and food artisans are brought in to interact with these 15 chefs, offering a wide range of ingredients and advice on how to use the more-exotic ones.

Over three-and-a-half days, Streeter and wine educator Michael Weiss stirred the pot.  The 18 chosen purveyors set up a private “farmer’s market” for the chefs in the Cakebread courtyard.  The chefs visited the Cakebread vineyards with Bruce and Dennis, learned about how to pair their food with wine and seriously harvested a literal ton of grapes.  Winemaker Julianne Laks, herself in the middle of harvest, explained how wines were made. Purveyors – Point Reyes Cheese, Hog Island Oyster, Della Fattoria artisan bakers – were visited.  Menu assignments were randomly given the five visiting chefs, and Cakebread’s resident chef, the indefatigable Thomas Sixsmith, made sure the ingredients these chefs requested to feed about 65 diners each of the two evenings was on hand from Cakebread’s garden and from the chosen purveyors.  The evenings of the two meals, the five pro chefs kept the 10 amateurs (me included one night) working flat out in the crowded kitchen to make sure the menu took life.  Beautifully plated, complex dishes hit the table just after Cakebread wines were poured.  Afterward, winery staff and chefs shared a glass or two of Cakebread in the kitchen.

In short, Cakebread was way ahead of the curve back in the mid-1980’s on the farm-to-table movement, on the desire by chefs to start their own gardens and do hands-on local sourcing, on a better appreciation by restaurants in how wine – but not just any wine – could enhance their foods, and on the rewards of food and wine tourism.  Fortunately, a few other wineries are now “getting it” about establishing inter-relationships of farmers, winegrowers, chefs and food and wine fanatics. 

As this new table is being set, Cakebread already has a seat at its head.

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