Jack Cakebread, Napa Valley’s pioneering winemaker, has died aged 92

Jack Cakebread, who and his wife Dolores transformed a 22-acre ranch in Rutherford, California into one of Napa Valley’s premier wineries, helping along the way to propel this once obscure region to worldwide viticulture stardom, has died. on April 26 in Napa. hey what 92

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

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

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

The next day, Mr. Cakebread and his wife purchased the farm with an advance of $ 2,500. The two couples drew up the contract on a yellow legal pad.

At the time, Napa was a far cry from the wine heaven it is today. The peasants of the region mainly raised cattle or grew apricots, almonds and walnuts. Only a few dozen wineries dotted the valley.

One of them, founded by Roberto Mondavi in 1966, which was just down the street. Mr. Mondavi came from a family of winemakers and became a mentor to an entire generation of Napa winemakers who started in the 1970s, including the Cakebreads.

With the advice of Mr. Mondavi, Mr. Cakebread pioneered many of the techniques that have come to define high-end Napa wines, especially a great deal of attention to the agricultural side of winemaking. Although he was a huge 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 comes out, aerial images, etc.,” he told The Santa Rosa Press Democrat in 2004, “but the only way you really know is to leave footprints in the vineyard. Not tire tracks. Footprints.”

Cakebread Cellars sold their first wines, just 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 – grapes were largely unknown to American drinkers, and planting them in Napa was almost unheard of.

“When we put the sauvignon blanc on, everyone thought we were wrong,” Mr. 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 have done if they hadn’t sold. . “

It wasn’t a mistake. Along with Cakebread’s fruity yet balanced chardonnay, sauvignon blanc has become a distinctive wine and has helped drive the grape’s growing popularity among American wine consumers.

However, it took nearly two decades before the Cakebreads were able to commit full-time to the winery; until then they worked in their garage in Oakland and commuted north on weekends. They eventually sold the garage in 1989 and moved to Rutherford.

Today Cakebread is one of America’s most respected wineries, regularly topping an annual Wine & Spirits magazine survey of the most popular brands among top restaurants. It controls 1,600 acres of land and claims to sell around 100,000 crates annually.

Over time, Mr. Cakebread has taken on some of the role that Mr. Mondavi once played, leading the young winemakers and leading the community around Rutherford. He has served as president of the Napa Valley Vintners Association (as well as two of his sons, Bruce and Dennis), and many of his former employees now run their own wineries.

“Jack was a great sage,” said David Duncan, managing director of Silver Oak Cellars in nearby Oakville, which his father founded the same year that Mr. Cakebread started 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 boy, between shifts in 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 the service, he returned to the garage, which he took over after his father retired. He also dedicated himself to photography.

What started out as a hobby has turned into a calling, especially after I started attending workshops led by landscape photographer Ansel Adams. Within a few years, Mr. Adams trusted Mr. Cakebread enough to teach him some of his lessons.

Mr. Cakebread eventually attracted the attention of a Crown Publishers editor, who commissioned him to photograph for “The Treasury of American Wines,” by wine enthusiast Nathan Chroman. When the book was published in 1973, it featured nearly all of the country’s commercial wineries, all 130. Today they number about 11,000.

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

Mr Cakebread shifted his creative focus to winemaking, but he never gave up photography: years later, he could still be found with a Minox camera walking 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 held an annual seminar to introduce chefs to winemaking, while Mr. Cakebread became a regular business school goer, lecturing on the business of winemaking.

Among his advice was patience.

“I understand that time will do what it will do,” he told The Press Democrat. “I only care about the things I can change, I don’t care about what I can’t.”

Dolores Cakebread died in 2020. Mr. Cakebread leaves his children, Dennis, Bruce and Steve; four grandchildren; and two great grandchildren.