With about 200 wineries spread throughout the Napa Valley, it's easy to miss the turnoff into Cakebread Cellars. The winery is in Rutherford, a shout away from the gourmet Oakville Grocery Co. and next to Turnbull Winery along Highway 29.
The 40-year-old winery is physically small enough to feel homey and manageable to visitors no French chateau-type labyrinths here yet large enough to be a respected player on the international wine scene. When you're a Napa Valley winery that produces 175,000 cases of wine each year and you ship around the world including the United Kingdom, Russia and Asia you're major league.
Brian Streeter was giving a walking tour of the well-shaded, pastoral grounds. The chef is the winery's culinary director, the hands-on overseer of its myriad wine and food programs. His "The Cakebread Cellars American Harvest Cookbook" (Ten Speed Press, $35, 208 pages) is the Bee Book Club's choice for November.
Over here is the fermentation room, a tidy barnlike building permeated with the musty smell of aging wine waiting to come into the world. Stainless-steel tanks tower alongside stacks of French white oak barrels.
Over there is the Pecan Patio, an outdoor dining area that seats 70 for receptions and other special events. A fountain splashes nearby.
The patio joins an outdoor cooking area, with a barbecue made of fieldstone and granite, a wood-burning oven, a gas grill, a charcoal grill and a smoker.
"They're nice tools to have," Streeter said.
Outdoor tasting stations are strategically placed throughout the property, and are attended this day by clusters of smiling visitors swirling and sipping reds and whites. Cakebread is known mostly for its cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays.
Out back is an Eden-like organic garden lush with 50 kinds of vegetables, fruits and herbs that are key ingredients in Streeter's kitchen.
The centerpiece is the homelike Winery House, wrapped by a wood deck outside. Inside is all high ceilings, tall windows, wood floors, plush couches and chairs, antique-looking armoires and dressers, and a handsome stone fireplace.
"Our dining room feels like somebody's living room," Streeter said. "We have a commercial kitchen, but it's set up to feel very much like a really nice home kitchen."
We sat at a table in the library. Streeter is a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, and he landed his job at Cakebread Cellars when he heard its executive chef was leaving.
"I interviewed with (winery founders Jack and Dolores Cakebread) and we hit it off," he recalled. "I thought, 'This will be a cool job for a couple of years.' Twenty-four years later, I'm still here."
These days, two of Jack and Dolores Cakebread's sons run the day-to-day operation of the winery. Bruce Cakebread is the company president and Dennis Cakebread directs marketing and sales. The winemaker is Julianne Laks.
Among Streeter's many duties is the directorship of the winery's 26-year-old American Harvest Workshop. The internationally known gathering is Cakebread's signature event, held during September crush.
It brings together chefs from multiple countries, as well as Northern California artisanal food-makers and purveyors, and food and wine connoisseurs. They converge for five days of hands-on seminars, farm visits, tastings, cooking demonstrations, farmers markets and spectacular dinners. About 125 chefs have participated in the program since it began.
"It's magical," Streeter said. "People want to learn more about wine and food, and reach the next level of their education."
The cookbook is how the winery "tells the story of the workshop and the people who have been a part of it," he said.
The book is organized by season, and is approachable and straightforward, a comfortable guide for the home cook.
"It has 100 recipes from the workshop that lend themselves well to home preparation and wine pairing," Streeter said. "About 60 are from chefs who have done the program, and the rest are from my staff and myself."
With the fall-winter cooking season here, Streeter's Bee Book Club presentation will be especially timely. After all, many home cooks are beginning to plan their upcoming seasonal meals and holiday feasts.
With novice home cooks in mind, Streeter offered some tips and guidelines for kitchen time over the coming months.
"There's a lot of pressure when everybody's coming to your home for dinner," he said. "In general, it's best to have a repertoire of tried-and-true (dishes) you're comfortable with, and maybe introduce only one new item each year. Don't attempt a lot of things you haven't prepared before.
"To start, create a game plan and be well organized," he said. "Sit down and think before you act, which is one of the things professional chefs learn early.
"Put together a menu, but be sure you read through the recipes and understand them fully how much time they will take, what ingredients you'll need. Then get your shopping list together.
"(On the day of) figure out the things you can do ahead of time, such as prep work and the simpler dishes. Which things will take longer? Get those started first.
"Here at work, I have a number of different heat sources I can use," he pointed out. "When you're cooking at home, and you have a turkey plus all the sides that go with it, you have to juggle your oven and stovetop spaces. That's one of the reasons I'm a big fan of cooking the turkey on the grill outside it frees up the oven."
When it comes to pairing an array of foods with wines, Streeter advises simplicity.
"I put a selection of red and white wines on the table and allow my guests to decide for themselves.
"That's what holiday meals are about you put all the food and wine out there and everybody takes what they want and as much of it as they want. Everybody goes home happy."
TRY IT YOURSELF
Cakebread Cellars offers a variety of programs open to the public, including wine-and-food pairings, themed cooking classes and the American Harvest Workshop, a five-day hands-on program. It maintains four wine clubs, with special events for members. Recipes are on the website. Cooking demonstrations by chef Brian Streeter are on YouTube. For more information and to sign up for classes and events, visit www.cakebread.com or call (707) 963-5221. The winery is at 8300 St. Helena Highway (Highway 29), Rutherford, Napa Valley.