It seems only fitting with Mother’s Day right around the corner that a wine brand named for a mother would celebrate a new varietal in the winery’s line-up, and the 10th anniversary of the first release.
Ziata Wines, owned by Karen Cakebread and named for her mother, recently released its first chardonnay, adding it to pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, and a red blend named Mia Madre, another nod to Cakebread’s mother.
Cakebread’s mother, Mary Annunziata Webb – Ziata is a shortened version of Annunziata – died in 2014, but Cakebread said, “I feel like her spirit is in every bottle, she’s still part of the brand.”
“Every time Mother’s Day rolls around, I start reflecting back about her life,” Cakebread said.
Mary’s life was “rough” growing up, Cakebread said, and she had a lot of struggles to overcome.
“But she was very, very strong, very tough, but very loving,” Cakebread said of her mother. Her mother raised Cakebread and her two older brothers “pretty much on her own.” Mary was once a “Rosie the Riveter” during World War II, and worked while raising her kids to pay the rent. In the South Bay, when it was called “Valley of the Heart’s Delight,” before all the orchards were replaced with Silicon Valley, Cakebread and her brothers would accompany their mother to a second job where she worked in an apricot orchard. Back then they called it “cuttin’ ‘cots.”
In Cakebread’s adulthood she finally grasped her mother’s history, all that she had made it through, and all that she’d done for her family.
“It wasn’t until later in life, having her here with me more, that I really understood what she went through in life. We talked about it a lot. That inner strength, it was just amazing,” Cakebread said. “That’s why (Ziata) is so personal to me, it’s my love for my mother. That’s why I’m so passionate about it, in addition to being passionate about wine and the agriculture side of the business.”
Ziata’s first wine was a Sauvignon Blanc, and it got shelf space in Sunshine Foods in St. Helena thanks to Mary. Mary lived around the corner from the market and did all her shopping there. One day she called Cakebread and asked if she was going to sell wine to Sunshine.
Cakebread said she probably would. Her mother had already talked to the wine buyer and had his business card. A week later Mary was asking Cakebread if she had called Sunshine yet. She had not, but did soon after.
The wine buyer “tasted it and said he’d take a case. I said ‘Don’t feel obligated because my mother told you that you needed to carry it.’ He said, ‘Oh, don’t worry you’re not the only kid in Napa Valley whose parents come in here and tell me I need to sell their kid’s wines,’” Cakebread said.
“So that was Mom’s account. I said ‘You got the placement, you need to watch the shelf. You need to let me know when it’s getting low,’” she said.
For Mother’s Day, Cakebread teamed up with some local restaurants including Sam’s Social Club, Cook, Bottega, NapaSport, and Auberge du Soleil so that Ziata wines will be sold by the glass, Cakebread said.
Coming up with the name
Living among vineyards – something Cakebread said she can’t imagine living without – is almost coming full circle for her after working in the orchards and being raised for a while on a farm. She loves the outdoors and ag living, she said.
Her mother recalled that Cakebread was not one of those children who would get up on Saturday mornings and watch cartoons on TV. Cakebread would be out the door as soon as possible, returning only when it got dark.
Several years ago when Cakebread was still working in the high-tech industry, she spent five years living in Asia, in Hong Kong and Singapore. That’s when she realized she’s “not a big-city girl.” She would come back to California to work harvests, and because she was homesick. Then through a turn of events, she wound up being offered a job working for her then-husband’s family’s winery, Cakebread Cellars, where she worked for 18 years.
She left Cakebread in 2006 and did some consulting work before she decided to launch her own label. Coming up with a name proved tricky at first. She wanted the name to have meaning, something personal, but no words felt right.
“I thought, ‘Wow, now I really understand why people put their family names on labels, it’s easier that way,” she said. She started to look at family names on her mother’s Italian side, but they were all already on a label somewhere.
She was brainstorming by herself when she wrote down her mother’s middle name, Annunziata, and it felt right.
“I called her that growing up because I thought it was just such a cool name,” Cakebread said.
The last five letters, “ziata,” are “fairly phonetic, hopefully easier to remember and the z is a little bit more unusual,” she said.
Now she had the name, next came the label, something Cakebread credits for the success of the brand.
“I have the best designer ever, Michael Vanderbyl,” she said. He is based out of San Francisco and has a home in St. Helena. She had worked with him on another project and he told her then that if she ever started her own winery, he wanted to design the label for her.
Vanderbyl’s style is to use a lot of white space, and he crossed the z in Ziata after Cakebread told him that she does that in her own handwriting, a style she picked up living in Asia. The label, like her wines, and just by chance pretty much everything in Ziata, has a softer feel to it.
“Part of the success of Ziata is the fact that his label speaks to people. It’s simple but it’s bold yet feminine all at once. I get a lot of compliments on it, a lot of people want to talk about it,” she said.
Coincidentally, “annunziata” is the Italian word for feminine.
“My brand is really female-centric. It didn’t really start out to be that way,” Cakebread said. “Me, obviously, naming the brand after my mother, and having a female winemaker (Jennifer Williams) … it just all sort of organically happened. It wasn’t my marketing plan to like ‘OK, I want to be different, I’m going to have an all-woman brand.’ That was never in my mind. I just said I want to hire the best winemaker I can to help me achieve the style I want.”
It turns out it’s “perfect to have a woman winemaker.”
Ziata’s newest release, a 2016 Chardonnay is, like all Ziata wines, a bit more refined, elegant.
“My goal was to express the fruit, with a little bit of oak to give it some complexity and weight,” Cakebread said. “All my wines, my goal is to work with fruit that has good natural acidity, and to express that in the bottle, not let the fruit hang out there too long, so where (acidity) starts diminishing.”
She likes to “pick on the early side of ripeness, to retain that natural acidity and freshness. That’s kind of the theme with all the wines, and really it’s about food and wine together. When I think about wine, I think about eating, I think about food.”
Spending many years with Cakebread, and in the kitchen with chefs, “you just realize how important acidity is in wine. It’s fresh, more refreshing to drink, it will age longer, it will go with more food. It’s really important to have good acidity.”
Pointing to Cathy Corison’s style and tasting some of her wines from the 1990s and early 2000s, Cakebread “they have good natural acidity and those wines are aging beautifully. They are beautifully structured, elegant.”
The next chapter
Cakebread does everything at Ziata, except for actually make the wine, she said. “The biggest challenge of making wine is selling it. The distribution is complicated and frustrating,” she said.
So, two years ago, Ziata partnered with Trinchero Family Estates, which was looking to add new brands to its portfolio.
“This opportunity just kind of fell out of the sky. They were creating a portfolio of wines that were” high end, in the luxury category, and smaller production. ”They were looking for brands to bring in to that family. I kind of came in on the ground floor of that idea and concept. Now it’s up and running, and they’ve brought in more into that portfolio,” she said.
In addition to being a part of the Trinchero portfolio, she makes her wine at one of their retrofitted buildings that is now a small winemakers’ studio.
“You can make wine on its time, not on a schedule, like at a custom crush,” she said. The facility offers a lot more flexibility than at a custom crush facility.