Mullan Road Cellars
and the next generation of great reds.
Dennis Cakebread holds all the titles at Mullan Road Cellars: CEO, president, sales and marketing director. His latter titles may be more important for this fledgling winery because Dennis, a business Berkeley grad and a former certified public accountant, can talk and sell, and his passion for the winery matches both his salesmanship and his fluency. Undoubtedly, he has told his story many times to the wine press — Mullan Road’s unique soil, the scant rainfall, the exceptional sunlight hours — but it’s easy to get the feeling, as he narrates, that’s it’s all fresh and new, and not merely recitation. Its passionate marketing, and judging from the reception of Mullan Road, his narrative is telling.
Presently, he’s touring specific U.S. wine markets to further study the market. Walla Walla is a “hot” place and destined to become a top producer where superb red blends from Leonetti and Doubleback have been emerging for several years. There is a lot going for Walla Walla: 45,000 wine acres (almost the size of Napa’s vineyards), with 13 appellations. It is now the third largest wine producer in the country. California wine owners have long had their eyes on Walla Walla — Gallo, Trinchero, and Foley — but as Cakebread reminds us, he’s “beaten the California competition there by years.”
Dennis Cakebread is a member of the iconic Napa Valley Cakebread family. The word “family” conjures melancholic memories. Think of the former family owned wineries that have disappeared over the decades: Sebastiani, Mondavi, Martini, Chimney Rock, now consumed by conglomerates. Yet for the last 42 years Cakebread Cellars survives because it is single-minded about quality and excellence. Cakebread Cellars produces some of the classiest wines in Napa.
So why a new venture? At Cakebread, says Dennis, “we topped out our production in 2005 and wouldn’t exceed that level.” Cakebread admits to being restless: “I wanted a new project…I looked northward to Walla Walla. When I saw it, I saw an Eden in eastern Washington. I loved the place and the more I thought about it, the harder it was to stop thinking about it.”
Why Mullan Road? Cakebread is a history aficionado, who studiously reads about the region. He liked offering to us the history behind the Lake Missoula Floods — floods that occurred thousands of years ago and which created the “enigmatic terroir of Walla Walla.” He knew the effects of the region’s glaciers and volcanos. And he knew about Marcus Whitman, a 19th century physician and missionary whose work lead to the creation of Walla Walla, and ultimately to the elite Whitman College. He was hooked. When it came to naming the winery, history again came into play. “I wanted a name to stand on its own. Mullan was a mid-19th century U.S. army officer responsible for building the road from Fort Benton in Montana to Fort Walla Walla in Washington. It was respect for the land; I wanted the winery’s name to be identified with someone from the region.”
To Cakebread, Walla Walla made more sense than venturing into a new California winery, where the cost of an acre is a king’s ransom. Eastern Washington was growing but still needed exploring. Near constant sunlight, helpful winds, only 8 inches of rain a year, comparatively inexpensive land, and helpful and collegial wine neighbors (Leonetti, L’Ecole 41, and Pepper Bridge) added to the appeal. And there was the Seven Hills vineyards — the source of the best grapes in Walla Walla for the last 25 years — and the Royal Slope, a soon to-be-named appellation. There was nothing not to like.
For now, there are only three people at the winery, with no full-time workers. “The point,” says Cakebread, “is to make it a full-fledged winery. Aryn Morell, a Seattle native, is our winemaker. We have a few vintages; the 2012 is very good, but the 2013, believe me, will be even better. We’re still hand-picking the grapes; production is 2,000 cases. We’re using more French oak. There’s a lot to do, but it’s satisfying. And the press’ wine ratings for our 2012 have been in the 90s. That’s very gratifying. There’s a long way to go. Only 2,000 cases, but we’re getting there.”
2012 Mullan Road Cellars (Bordeaux red blend: 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot), Seven Hills vineyard, Walla Walla, $45: Black current, lacing of cassis, rich plum, medium oak notes, deep texture, well-constructed, lasting and delicious finish 5-STARS/OUTSTANDING
QRW does not rate wine numerically believing it impossible
to add a number to a nuance.
“5-Stars/Outstanding”: Extraordinary character and quality—in a class by themselves.
“4-Stars/Excellent”: Fine quality—a benchmark of their type.