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Jack Cakebread, Pioneering Napa Valley Winemaker, Dies at 92


Jack Cakebread, who together with his spouse, Dolores, turned a 22-acre cattle ranch in Rutherford, Calif., into certainly one of Napa Valley’s main wineries, alongside the way in which serving to to propel the once-obscure area to world viticultural stardom, died on April 26 in Napa. He was 92.

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

Mr. Cakebread, an auto mechanic with a sideline in pictures, was coming back from a shoot in northern Napa County when he paid a go to in 1972 to a few household buddies at their farm in Rutherford. He was 42 years previous and solely vaguely interested in what a life past automotive restore would possibly appear like.

“I mentioned to them simply very casually, ‘You recognize, if you happen to ever need to promote this place, let me know,’ and I drove dwelling,” he mentioned in an interview with the journalist Sally Bernstein. “I obtained dwelling and the cellphone was ringing.”

The subsequent day Mr. Cakebread and his spouse bought the farm with a $2,500 down cost. The 2 {couples} drew up the contract on a yellow authorized pad.

On the time, Napa was removed from the vinous paradise it’s at present. The area’s farmers largely raised cattle or grew apricots, almonds and walnuts. Only some dozen wineries dotted the valley.

One among them, based by Robert Mondavi in 1966, was simply up the street. Mr. Mondavi got here from a winemaking household, and he grew to become a mentor to a whole era of Napa winemakers who obtained their begin within the Nineteen Seventies, together with the Cakebreads.

With Mr. Mondavi’s counsel, Mr. Cakebread pioneered lots of the methods that got here to outline high-end Napa wines, above all a detailed consideration to the agricultural facet of winemaking. Although he was an ideal fan of expertise — he was among the many first to make use of a neutron probe to measure soil moisture — he additionally insisted on getting his fingers soiled, rising each morning earlier than daybreak to work in his vineyards.

“Daily one thing new comes up, aerial imaging, and so forth.,” he instructed The Santa Rosa Press Democrat in 2004, “however the one means you actually know is to go away footprints within the winery. Not tire tracks. Footprints.”

Cakebread Cellars offered its first wines, a mere 157 circumstances (1,884 bottles) of chardonnay comprised of bought grapes, in 1974. On the identical time, the Cakebreads planted sauvignon blanc vines on their new plot. It was a daring selection: The grape was largely unknown amongst American drinkers, and planting it in Napa was virtually unheard-of.

“Once we put in sauvignon blanc, everyone thought we had been mistaken,” Mr. Cakebread instructed The Boston Globe in 1984. “However we determined to make solely wines we preferred to drink, as a result of that’s what we might do in the event that they didn’t promote.”

It was no mistake. Together with Cakebread’s fruit-forward but balanced chardonnay, sauvignon blanc grew to become a signature wine, and it helped drive the varietal’s surging reputation amongst American wine shoppers.

Nonetheless, it took virtually 20 years earlier than the Cakebreads may decide to the vineyard full time; till then they labored at their storage, in Oakland, and commuted north on the weekends. They lastly offered the storage in 1989 and moved to Rutherford.

Right now Cakebread is certainly one of America’s most extremely regarded wineries, often topping an annual ballot by Wine & Spirits journal of the most well-liked manufacturers amongst main eating places. It controls 1,600 acres of land and says it sells about 100,000 circumstances a 12 months.

In time, Mr. Cakebread assumed one thing of the function that Mr. Mondavi had as soon as performed, mentoring younger winemakers and shepherding the group round Rutherford. He served as president of the Napa Valley Vintners Affiliation (as did two of his sons, Bruce and Dennis), and lots of of his former workers now lead wineries of their very own.

“Jack was this nice sage,” mentioned David Duncan, the chief govt of Silver Oak Cellars in close by Oakville, which his father based the identical 12 months Mr. Cakebread began his vineyard. “He was at all times so welcoming, and so passionate in regards to the group.”

John Emmett Cakebread was born on Jan. 11, 1930, in Oakland. His father, Lester, owned Cakebread’s Storage, a restore store, the place his mom, Cottie, additionally labored.

His father additionally owned a farm in Contra Costa County, the place he grew almonds, walnuts and apricots, and the place Jack labored as a boy, in between shifts on the storage.

Jack attended the College of California, Berkeley, however didn’t graduate. He served within the Air Pressure in the course of the Korean Conflict, assigned to the Strategic Air Command as a jet engine mechanic.

After his service, he returned to the storage, which he took over after his father retired. He additionally took up pictures.

What started as a passion became an avocation, particularly after he began attending workshops led by the panorama photographer Ansel Adams. Inside just a few years, Mr. Adams trusted Mr. Cakebread sufficient that he had him educate a few of his courses.

Mr. Cakebread ultimately drew the eye of an editor at Crown Publishers, who commissioned him to take the images for “The Treasury of American Wines,” by the wine aficionado Nathan Chroman. When the e book was revealed in 1973, it featured almost each industrial vineyard within the nation — all 130 of them. Right now there are some 11,000.

It was the e book mission that despatched Mr. Cakebread to Napa on that day in 1972, and it was the advance he obtained for it that supplied the cash for the down cost on the cattle ranch.

Mr. Cakebread shifted his inventive consideration to winemaking, however he by no means deserted pictures: Years later, he may nonetheless be discovered toting a Minox digicam across the vineyard.

Jack and Dolores Cakebread regularly pulled again from day-to-day administration within the 2000s, ceding management to their sons Bruce and Dennis. However they remained lively: Mrs. Cakebread ran an annual workshop introducing cooks to winemaking, whereas Mr. Cakebread grew to become an everyday at enterprise faculties, lecturing in regards to the enterprise of winemaking.

Amongst his phrases of recommendation was endurance.

“I’ve realized that climate goes to do what it’s going to do,” he instructed The Press Democrat. “I solely fear in regards to the issues I can change, I don’t fear about what I can’t.”

Dolores Cakebread died in 2020. Mr. Cakebread is survived by his sons, Dennis, Bruce and Steve; 4 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.



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