May 17, 2022

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Jack Cakebread, Pioneering Napa Valley Winemaker, Dies at 92

2 min read

Jack Cakebread, who with his wife, Dolores, turned a 22-acre cattle ranch in Rutherford, Calif., into one of Napa Valley’s leading wineries, along the way helping to propel the once-obscure region to global viticultural stardom, died on April 26 in Napa. He was 92.

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

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

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

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

At the time, Napa was far from the vinous paradise it is today. The region’s farmers mostly raised cattle or grew apricots, almonds and walnuts. Only a few dozen wineries dotted the valley.

One of them, founded by Robert Mondavi in 1966, was just up the road. Mr. Mondavi came from a winemaking family, and he became a mentor to an entire generation of Napa winemakers who got their start in the 1970s, including the Cakebreads.

With Mr. Mondavi’s counsel, Mr. Cakebread pioneered many of the techniques that came to define high-end Napa wines, above all a close attention to the agricultural side of winemaking. Though he was a great 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, rising every morning before dawn to work in his vineyards.

“Every day something new comes up, aerial imaging, etc.,” he told The Santa Rosa Press Democrat in 2004, “but the only…

Clay Risen

2022-05-14 14:27:51

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