In August, Cakebread Cellars held their inaugural Cabernet Day - a celebration of the Napa Valley’s most prominent varietal, and an occasion for winery chefs Brian Streeter and Thomas Sixmith to flex their culinary muscles.
Hosting the festival was Cakebread’s new vice president of operations, Aaron Fishleder, who was on hand with soil samples to give the attendees a mini-seminar on what makes the Napa Valley such a great place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon.
Fishleder, 47, has a contagious, youthful enthusiasm. In a quiet moment, I sat down with him on the stone border of a flower bed in a courtyard behind the welcome center for a chat
John Henry: What does Cabernet mean to you?
Aaron Fishleder: I think that in general Cabernet is very important to the Napa Valley and I think we do it really well. Our weather and soils lend themselves to growing great cabernets. My first vintage in the valley was 2000, and since then the industry has matured in a number of ways, which have started to culminate in some amazing Cabernets. Now we’re heading in a new and exciting direction with what people are doing.
John Henry: What do you look for when you drink Cabernet?
Aaron: When I’m tasting Cabernet, I am interested in what the winemaker was doing. I know the vintages pretty well. But how did the winemaker deal with the rains of 2011? Or that rainstorm of 2010 when we got five and a half inches or rain in five days? What kind of things did they do? Did that winemaker just put a bunch of oak on that to hide green flavors? Sometimes, it's "Wow, this person did a nice job under those circumstances.”
“The other thing I look for is: Are the people true to what they are doing? Is their winemaking schizophrenic? When I taste a line-up of winery X’s wines, do I see a trend? I want to know that they are being authentic. They believe in what they are doing and stay true to their core principles.”
To what does Cakebread owe its success?
One of the reasons I was excited to join Cakebread is that they are true to what they are doing. We are not trying to compete with anyone else. From the beginning, Jack and Dolores Cakebread said they wanted to make wines that pair well with food. That’s what we’re doing here.
Is Cakebread investing in technology?
We, as an industry, are really just asking: What can technology do for us? For example, we’re putting water sensors in the vine to observe water usage. This is a big step for us to reduce the overall amount of water but also improve fruit quality. At the end of the day, we want to be good stewards of the environment, but also we want to make the best wines we have ever made, every single season, better than the year before.
What is the difference between a chemist and a winemaker?
I think a winemaker can be a chemist, but a chemist can’t be a winemaker. It is not just a science, it is an art. The best winemakers can use science, but they walk a line. There is a touch and a feel an artist has with a palette or with clay. During blending, we can taste wine and use sensory evaluation to make adjustments that science alone is incapable of doing. The chemist would say, ‘all of the compounds are in the right range.’ But at the end of the day, how does it taste?
Why will wine endure?
“I don’t think of wine as an alcoholic product. Wine is a food. In the past 30 years, it has become part of the fabric of our society. We are going to make wine for everyone, young and old people, and for those special events, for those nightly dinners and those tough weeks. I think people get together and have parties and drink wine with food and celebrate. That’s why I think wine endures. I don’t think something can replace that.”
After being inspired by our conversation, Fishleder went back to his post by the soil samples and I toured the food stations spaced around a large lawn. I approached a barbeque that was billowing smoke through a chimney and saw Chef Streeter putting slices of cheese on patties over a sizzling fire. He told me they were duck sliders which he would garnish with rhubarb ketchup and red onion jam. I could sample across the courtyard with the 2017 Dancing Bear Cabernet Sauvignon.
(The Dancing Bear Vineyard, by the way, got its name from a particularly persistent bear that got good at climbing the fence around the vineyard on Howell Mountain.)
Chef Streeter then told me he also made a Hunter’s sausage with mustard seed and smoked ham from a pig purchased from a 4H student at the Napa Valley Expo Livestock Auction. The sausage, paired with Cakebread garden slaw, I could taste at another station, paired with the 2014 Benchland Select Cabernet Sauvignon.
The smoked ham was placed on a buttermilk biscuit with red pepper jelly. That was paired with the 2018 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I wished Chef Streeter had paired this with Cakebread’s delicious chardonnay. The grilled beef brochettes with shiso aioli, however, was ideal with the 2017 Vine Hill Cabernet Sauvignon.
Satisfied with this little bit of grazing and drinking, I noticed a group of beautiful women in elegant sundresses taking what looked like an epic group selfie. I introduced myself to Nancy Yim, Brandy Shih, Fanada Chen and Van Tran - four boisterous and genuinely delightful women from Austin, Texas. Yim has been a Cakebread wine club member for three years and suggested they fly in for Cabernet Day. They ended up making a girl’s weekend out of the trip.
Yim said, “We all love the Dancing Bear Vineyard. We appreciate [Cakebread’s] passion for winemaking and sustainability efforts. Certainly, the convenience of the shipments to our little island of blue in Texas is a plus as well.”
Chen then got distracted by Rebecca Rosen, Napa Valley’s resident falconer, standing nearby with a large bird perched on her gloved hand. I asked if it was a falcon, and she said, “Oh no. Falcon’s are like beautiful women. They expect to be treated like a goddess and they don’t take guff from anybody.” She was holding Hootbert, a spectacled owl with huge eyes surrounded by white downy feathers, whom you can follow on Instagram @a_k_a_bubbles. Chen asked what Hootbert ate. Mice, apparently, of which Rosen buys frozen, in bulk.
“Are they expensive?” Chen asked.
“More than they should be if you ask me!” Rosen replied.
I looked around and noticed that the food stations had been cleared. No one was left to pour wine. It was only the four Texas ladies, Rosen and I left on the lawn. Alas, beautiful afternoons do not last.
I asked the Texas ladies where they were having dinner. “Mustard’s,” they said. I responded: “Perfect.” Just another day in the Napa Valley.
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John Henry Martin agrees that frozen mice are more expensive than they should be. If you do to, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org