Karen Cakebread, founder and sole owner of Ziata Wines, is passionate about only two things: promoting wines that enhance the enjoyment of food, and interacting with the residents of remote villages throughout the world. Her success with the first gives her the means to pursue the second, despite the demands of starting her own business.
Karen grew up in Silicon Valley. As early as she could, she began taking oenology classes and making wine at home. She joined Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s, almost as her first job, and rose through the ranks to become an ace marketer for the computer division. There she met Steve Cakebread, eldest son of the Cakebread Cellars family, at the time H-P’s director of finance, married him, and moved with him to Hong Kong, and then Singapore, where he headed H-P’s global finance operation. Although not active in the management of the family wine business, Steve consulted with the company in finance, and Karen moonlighted for Cakebread, introducing the Napa wine to the trade throughout Asia, exercising her passion about wine and food. Opening major wine accounts in Japan was one of her first successes.
It was in Hong Kong that her second passion developed. Taking a break from the high pressure city she joined a tour to Nepal, and has been trekking there and elsewhere in the undeveloped world’s villages ever since, mostly at high altitudes and with characteristic high energy..
Karen returned to the US in 1988 where she went to work for Cakebread Cellars where she directed Cakebread’s annual “American Harvest Workshop”, a culinary program for restaurant chefs. Each year, Karen invited five chefs for a 4-day program. The chefs tasted wine with the wine maker, picked grapes in the vineyard, and created menus around the wines using local foods.
Lots of the chefs were inspired to go back and seek out local producers and work with them to create new dishes around wines,” Karen says. “Wine belongs on the table. That’s not a new idea, but it is one I believe in it. I created Cakebread’s first cookbook.” Cakebread now has two full time chefs, she notes.
While at Cakebread Karen joined the board of Napa Valley Vintners. When its long time Executive Director, Elaine Mackie, died of breast cancer, Karen and a group of friends raised money to fund a foundation in her honor. With treks to Nepal (rafting photo above), Mongolia, India, Turkey, and to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the trekkers have raised nearly $500,000 for the foundation.
“We are not backpackers or hikers,” Karen says. “We like to go to villages, meet the people, learn about their life with no electricity or plumbing, and eat their food. It is very humbling.” Karen and her group have discovered that, although they do not speak the local languages, they yet can communicate with the villagers.
After 18 years with Cakebread Cellars, Karen decided it was time to go off on her own. So she left the company in 2006 and launched Ziata Wines in 2008, named after her mother, Annunziata, in the midst of the recession. She is the sole employee, has no partners, and no investors. Last year she produced 500 cases of wine with her hands in every aspect: buying grapes, working with the wine maker, making stylistic decisions, designing packaging, renting facilities and coordinating production, and, of course, selling. “I want to be involved from vineyard to table,” she says. She has released two wines, a sauvignon blanc and a pinot noir.
”When I release a wine I call up friends that are chefs and restaurant owners – some just starting out and some with a large following,” she says. “We create recipes and promote them on my website.” Half of her sales are to restaurants. Among her customers are Cindy Pawlcyn’s group and Robert Keller.’s Ad Hoc.
“The wine must be something people like and get behind,” Karen says. “I am a new brand among hundreds of new brands. I have to find people who have the same passion I have, and I have found quite a few of them”
Karen’s objectives about where she wants to take her winery are “not locked in”. She expects to grow slow and easy, as she can afford it. Next year her trekking group is going to Bhutan. The trekkers: Karen, Nancy Duckhorn, Lyndsey Harrison, Paula Kornell, Janice Mondavi, Katie Murphy, Polly Ogden, Holly Peterson, and Joan Smith. More pictures of the trekkers’ adventures are in the slides below.
Above, left to right, Joan, Paula, Polly, Holly, Lyndsey, and Janice in the Gobi Desert.
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