Mullan Road Cellars: A Journey into the Royal Slope AVA

By Published On: March 6, 2021

In the spring of 1853, a young man fresh out of West Point by the name of Lieutenant John Mullan was ready to put his topical engineering training to the task of improving a wagon route from Fort Benton to Fort Walla Walla, which was then known as the Washington Territory. Because of war, construction would be delayed by about five years.  Overseeing a workforce of 200 people, Lt. Mullan through a combination of perseverance and ingenuity, would develop a road that would serve as a primary centralized route for settlers migrating to the Pacific Northwest and be aptly named for the person who led the charge.

In 2012 while scouting wineries in Walla Walla, Dennis Cakebread, a long-time Napa vintner, came up upon “Mullan Road” signage in town.  A big fan of history, he took it one step further investigating and ultimately took inspiration from the story establishing Mullan Road Cellars—paving a trail of his own to create high-quality wines.

“The new venture idea has been in our long term planning since the early 1990’s—it got interrupted by a couple of different projects and then the Great Recession also slowed down any activity,” said Cakebread.  “When I got to Walla Walla/Eastern Washington, the region excited me by the prospects, the type of wine that seemed make-able, and the people.”

As the winery has evolved, Cakebread has moved to only utilizing fruit from the newly established Royal Slope AVA, located in east-central Washington, the appellation is wholly contained within the Columbia Valley AVA.   In combination with its steeply south-facing slopes and northerly latitude, the grapes from this AVA are highly regarded for their exceptional quality.  “Elevation, soils, slope exposure and local climate all add up to an interesting area,” said Cakebread.

From the onset, Cakebread hired veteran winemaker and Washington native Aryn Morell.  Having spent time in Napa Valley consulting with wineries like Chimney Rock and Chappellet, he has a foundational background both in science as well as art, but what really distinguishes Morell is his curiosity and keen interest in experimentation that goes beyond accepted practices trying different techniques to push the limit of winemaking.

In a further quest for quality refinement, Mullan Road Cellars has moved away from Bordeaux-based to specifically Cabernet Sauvignon focused blends. “Our goals have always been to develop a house style—that of elegance and balance while also having some boldness in what goes into the bottle.  Variables are about tannins. The type of tannins come from the vintage, freshness, age-ability and mouthfeel both on entry and lingering,” said Cakebread.

Mullan Road Cellars remains largely independent from Cakebread Cellars allowing the winery to stand on its feet, but at the same time, the Eastern Washington region has a lot of similarities to the Napa Valley.   Dry sunny days and cool nights make for optimal growing conditions for Bordeaux grapes.

2020 has presented many challenges for the wine industry, but in the spirit of Lt. Mullan, Cakebread will continue to persevere and pave a path forward.   When asked about challenges to overcome, Cakebread noted, “I don’t think any experience lesson can be avoided—they keep life more interesting. It has been fun and interesting to learn about a completely different growing region.”

Wine Recommendations

2016 Red Wine Blend- A composition of 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc.  Flavors of raspberry, black cherry, and vanilla followed up by a nice long finish.  Drink now or hold this wine back for 5-10 years.

At 14.1% ABV, this wine would pair nicely with a cheeseburger and fries.

2017 Cabernet Sauvignon- A composition of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc.  Beautiful cherry aromatics with flavors of dark fruit in conjunction with nice texture and soft tannins.

About the Author: Joe Campbell

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Located out of the Sierra Foothills of California, Joe Campbell provides color commentary as well as insight within the wine industry both from the lifestyle consumer and business segments of the industry. He can be reached via email at : .