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Pioneer Napa Valley winemaker Jack Cakebread dies at 92

Jack Cakebread, who along with his wife, Dolores, transformed a 22-acre cattle ranch in Rutherford, Calif., into one of Napa Valley’s premier wineries, helping propel the once-obscure region to the world celebrity of viticulture, died on April 26 in Napa. He was 92 years old.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his son Dennis, the president of Cakebread Cellars.

Mr. Cakebread, an auto mechanic with a sideline in photography, was returning from filming in northern Napa County when in 1972 he visited a couple of family friends at their farm in Rutherford. He was 42 and only vaguely curious about what a life beyond car repair might be like.

“I casually told them, ‘You know, if you ever want to sell this place, let me know,’ and I drove home,” he said in an interview with journalist Sally Bernstein. . “I got home and the phone was ringing.”

The next day, Mr. Cakebread and his wife purchased the farm with a down payment of $2,500. The two couples wrote the contract on a yellow notepad.

Back then, Napa was far from the wine paradise it is today. Farmers in the region mainly raised cattle or grew apricots, almonds and walnuts. Only a few dozen cellars dotted the valley.

One, founded by Robert Mondavi in ​​1966, was just up the road. Mr. Mondavi comes from a family of winemakers and he mentored a whole generation of Napa winemakers who got their start in the 1970s, including the Cakebreads.

With Mr. Mondavi’s guidance, Mr. Cakebread pioneered many techniques that have come to define premium Napa wines, most importantly a close attention to the agricultural aspect of winemaking. Although he’s a big fan of technology – he was among the first to use a neutron probe to measure soil moisture – he also insisted on getting his hands dirty, getting up before dawn every morning. to work in his vineyards.

“Every day something new pops up, aerial imagery, etc.,” he told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat in 2004, “but the only way you really know is to leave footprints in the vineyard. No tire tracks.

Cakebread Cellars sold its first wines, a mere 157 cases (1,884 bottles) of Chardonnay made from purchased grapes, in 1974. At the same time, the Cakebreads planted Sauvignon Blanc vines on their new plot. It was a bold choice: the varietal was largely unknown to American drinkers, and planting it in Napa was almost unheard of.

“When we put out Sauvignon Blanc, everyone thought we were wrong,” Cakebread told the Boston Globe in 1984. “But we decided to only make wines that we liked to drink, because that’s what we would do if they didn’t sell.”

It was not a mistake. Along with Cakebread’s fruity yet balanced Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc became a signature wine, and it contributed to the varietal’s growing popularity among American wine consumers.

Still, it took nearly two decades before the Cakebreads could commit full-time to the winery; until then, they worked out of their garage in Oakland and commuted north on weekends. They finally sold the garage in 1989 and moved to Rutherford.

Today, Cakebread is one of America’s most highly regarded wineries, consistently topping an annual survey by Wine & Spirits magazine of the most popular brands among fine dining restaurants. He controls 1,600 acres of land and claims to sell around 100,000 cases a year.

In time, Mr Cakebread took on some of the role Mr Mondavi had once played, mentoring young winemakers and guiding the community around Rutherford. He was president of the Napa Valley Vintners Association (as were two of his sons, Bruce and Dennis), and many of his former employees now run their own wineries.

“Jack was this great sage,” said David Duncan, managing director of Silver Oak Cellars in nearby Oakville, which his father founded the same year Mr Cakebread opened his winery. “He was always so welcoming and so passionate about the community.”

John Emmett Cakebread was born on January 11, 1930 in Oakland. His father, Lester, owned Cakebread’s Garage, a repair shop, where his mother, Cottie, also worked.

His father also owned a farm in Contra Costa County, where he grew almonds, walnuts, and apricots, and where Jack worked as a child, between shifts at the garage.

Jack attended the University of California, Berkeley, but did not graduate. He served in the Air Force during the Korean War, assigned to Strategic Air Command as a jet engine mechanic.

After his service, he returns to the garage, which he takes over after his father’s retirement. He also dabbled in photography.

What started as a hobby turned into a vocation, especially after he started attending workshops led by landscape photographer Ansel Adams. Within a few years, Mr. Adams trusted Mr. Cakebread enough to have him teach some of his classes.

Mr. Cakebread eventually caught the eye of an editor at Crown Publishers, who asked him to take the photographs for “The Treasury of American Wines”, by wine lover Nathan Chroman. When the book was published in 1973, it featured nearly every commercial winery in the country – all 130. Today there are around 11,000.

It was the book project that sent Mr. Cakebread to Napa that day in 1972, and it was the advance he received for it that provided the money for the down payment on the ranch of livestock.

Mr. Cakebread shifted his creative focus to winemaking, but he never gave up photography: years later, he could still be found carrying a Minox camera around the winery.

Jack and Dolores Cakebread gradually withdrew from day-to-day management in the 2000s, handing over control to their sons Bruce and Dennis. But they remained active: Ms. Cakebread ran an annual workshop introducing chefs to winemaking, while Mr. Cakebread became a regular at business schools, lecturing on the craft of winemaking.

Among his advice was patience.

“I realized the weather is going to do what it’s going to do,” he told The Press Democrat. “I only worry about things I can change, I don’t worry about what I can’t.”

Dolores Cakebread passed away in 2020. Mr. Cakebread is survived by his sons, Dennis, Bruce and Steve; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.