From car mechanic and professional photographer to vintner, Jack Cakebread found success no matter where the road took him. Moving to Napa Valley in the 1970s, he launched Cakebread Cellars, and over the next five decades built it into an internationally recognized family-owned winery. Cakebread died April 26 at age 92.
Throughout his career, Cakebread produced a range of wines from Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. But it was Chardonnay that sealed his legacy. At a time when the grape was gaining a following in California, he and his winery helped pioneer a rich, fruit-centered style that is still the basis for many modern Chardonnays.
Cakebread was born in California in 1929. His father had started a car repair company in Oakland a few years earlier, and he spent much of his early life in the shop. In 1939, the family purchased a ranch in Contra Costa County where Cakebread got his first taste of farming, learning how to grow almonds, walnuts and stone fruits.
By 1948 he had become a partner in his father's garage. But it was his side business as a freelance photographer that would ultimately lead him to wine.
During the 1950s and '60s, Cakebread studied under the influential American photographer Ansel Adams. Then in 1972, he traveled to Napa for a photography assignment while working on The Treasury of American Wines, by Nathan Chroman. While there he decided to visit his close friends, the Sturdivants, for lunch.
The Sturdivant family owned a 22-acre ranch in Rutherford with a vineyard. Over a bowl of soup, Cakebread offhandedly mentioned that he would buy their land if they ever decided to sell it. They called that afternoon accepting his offer.
Jack used an advance from the book for a down payment on the land. He and his wife, Dolores, ripped out the existing vineyard and planted Sauvignon Blanc. While waiting for the vines to mature, he purchased grapes from Trefethen Vineyards and made four barrels of Chardonnay, selling the wine to a store in Napa.
In the beginning, the Cakebreads continued to run the garage, working on the winery during the evenings and weekends. They relied on friends and family, particularly their three sons, to produce the wines. Dolores would cook meals in Oakland and bring them with her to serve to customers who offered to help around the winery.
That connection to food led to the creation of a food and wine program designed specifically to highlight the bounty of American cuisine. Launched in 1987, the American Harvest Workshop brought hundreds of local chefs and food purveyors to Napa for seminars, pairings and dinners.
The 1980s were a time of expansion for the family. They purchased a 12-acre ranch adjacent to their property and Cakebread started promoting the wines abroad. Their son Bruce joined the winery directly out of college, taking over as winemaker. Son Dennis later took over the sales and marketing side of the business.
When the vine pest phylloxera hit Napa Valley in the 1990s, the family had to replant many of their vines. Ever the optimist, Jack saw the crisis as a chance to start fresh. He spent thousands on multispectral imaging, a mapping technology used by NASA, to take photos of his vineyards. He also invested in moisture-reading probes to analyze the soils.
Around the same time, the winery started looking to Carneros as a cooler site for its Chardonnay, and added Pinot Noir to the lineup. It also expanded its vineyards, buying properties in Anderson Valley, Carneros and Napa. The winery now owns 13 vineyards representing nearly 560 acres.
In addition to marketing abroad, Cakebread actively promoted Napa and its wines at home. He was president of the Napa Valley Vintners association in 1990. He was also a member of the board of directors for the Wine Market Council and served as president of the Winegrowers of Napa County.
In 2002 Cakebread handed responsibility of the day-to-day operations to his son Bruce, who became president and chief operating officer. Jack remained CEO of the winery until 2015, ensuring that the winery and his legacy would live on well after he was gone.
Dolores Cakebread passed away in 2020. Jack is survived by sons Steve, Dennis and Bruce, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.