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A Napa Icon In Washington State

A Napa Icon In Washington State

Mullan Road Cellars is the Washington State wine project led by Dennis Cakebread, founder of one of Napa’s iconic wineries, Cakebread Cellars.  The winery focuses on small-production, age worthy Bordeaux-style red blends sourced from top vineyards like Seven Hills in Walla Walla and Stillwater Creek in the upcoming Royal Slope AVA.

For a bit of history, the winery is named after the military road built by Captain John Mullan that connected Fort Benton, Montana to Fort Walla Walla, which was the first wagon road into Washington state via the Rockies.

With the assistance of winemaker Aryn Morell, a veteran with experience at renowned California wineries such as Silver Oak, Joseph Phelps, Quintessa and Chappellet, there’s definitely a very bright future for the winery as it taps into the expression of the Washington terroir.

Earlier this year, I tasted the 2015 Mullan Road red blend at a local event and was very impressed.  Though still young, the wine was dense and expressive with a nice backbone of dark fruits complemented by floral and spice notes and a mouthwatering acidity.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dennis to learn more about his new project in Washington, his journey in the wine industry and the future plans for Mullan Road Cellars.

Dennis Cakebread

TVP: You’ve been very successful in Napa with Cakebread Cellars.  Why Walla Walla?

We had it in our strategic plan for a long time (since the early 90’s) that once we hit capacity at Cakebread Cellars, that we did not want to just keep growing and potentially lose what makes Cakebread special, that we would go start a new project in another region. As I looked for a place to start up my new project, when I visited Walla Walla I was struck by the strength of the wine community, the quality of the wines and saw the potential of the region.  So, Walla Walla it was.  In hindsight, it was a great decision.

TVP: What has been the biggest challenge for you in establishing Mullan Road Cellars?

Learning a new grape growing region with some very distinct differences from what I had known for the last 45 years.  The higher latitude means colder winters, later spring and a fall that slams the door on growing conditions.  It has been fun, educational and sometimes challenging.

TVP: How would you characterize the uniqueness of Washington terroir?

Not only is Washington State’s terroir ideal for Bordeaux varietals, which is something that initially attracted me to the region, but the weather is also a valuable player. The longer days during the summer allows the fruit to ripen longer and the lack of rainfall provides quality grapes for producing wine. Washington in particular has continued to grow over the last few years into a wine region producing some exceptional wines that are absolutely worth noticing.

TVP: Mullan Road specializes in a Red Bordeaux-style blend.  Are there plans to release single varietal bottlings?

As we continue to make wine here, we will evolve into a Cabernet Sauvignon labeled wine, which means we will adjust our protocols to make a 75% varietal wine starting with the 2017 vintage.

TVP: On a personal note, what are your most favorite and least favorite things about our industry?

Growing and making wine is a wonderful industry full of variations each year and seemingly an unlimited number of challenges.  Sometimes, you have to scratch your head at the challenges coming our way.  Like the new tariffs coming out of the trade war with China is affecting how we get our glass and then of course climate change seems like it impacts our weather, making it more extreme.  Getting to meet and know the people in the industry and the customers continues to make it all rewarding.

TVP: Throughout your career, you’ve been very active in many industry-wide issues such as direct-to consumer shipping.  What do you see as the key issues or opportunities for the wine industry in the next few years? 

The changing demographics of wine consumers will grow into our biggest challenge as we try to stay relevant to our new customers.  It will be interesting to see how that all impacts the wine industry.

TVP: What’s next for Mullan Road Cellars?

We are focused on making great wine each year.   That process requires continued learning, experimentation and reviewing the results.  It might take us 10 years or so before we feel comfortable in making additional wines, and I would expect that to happen at some point.

TVP: What’s one bit of advice you would give to aspiring vintners and winemakers?

Don’t quit your day job.  It takes longer and more investment than you can imagine.  Don’t believe excel worksheets….