Established 1978
Wine Wisdom

Wines With A Photo Finish

by Ed Schwartz

The world of wine is full of improbable stories. How Jack Cakebread began his wine career is as improbable as any.

While serving with the United States Air Force’s Strategic Air Command in North Africa in the 1950s, Cakebread became interested in photography. Continuing that interest, he studied photography with the preeminent landscape lensman, Ansel Adams.  He also worked at the Oakland car repair shop that his parents owned.

In 1972, he was commissioned to do the photography for a book that was being written by Nathan Chroman, at that time the influential wine writer for the Los Angeles Times. Chroman, an attorney, became interested in wine when he picked up a wine book in the library while studying for the bar exam. The book he wrote is called The Treasury of American Wines, and Cakebread’s photos were an integral part of the book’s success.

During the time Cakebread was on this assignment in the Napa Valley, he stopped in to see longtime friends of his family, Jack and Helen Sturdivant. Right before leaving, Cakebread, seemingly on a lark, said he’d be interested in buying their Rutherford property if they ever wanted to sell it.  The next morning, the Sturdivants told him they would like to sell the ranch.

On that very afternoon, the Cakebreads—Jack and his wife, Dolores—met with them to work out the details. There was one hitch: Jack didn’t have the money. But he decided to use the advance from the book assignment to make a down payment on the land, and, as quickly as that, the Cakebreads owned a 22-acre plot in the Napa Valley. It turned out to be one fine place to grow grapes.

Jack grew up on a ranch and loved wine, especially the wines of Bordeaux. And he received good wine advice from wine notables-as-neighbors Robert Mondavi and Louis M. Martini. Soon after, Jack enrolled at UC Davis to study winemaking and viticulture.

He consulted with the experts at Davis, and they suggested that cabernet sauvignon would be the ideal grape to grow, as well as sauvignon blanc.  Jack did just that; he was his own winemaker until 1978, when his son, Bruce, joined him as winemaker.

Growth was slow but sure; Cakebread wines were excellent from the first production of 170 cases. Over time, many more acres were planted. In 1985, a new winery, designed by the noted architect William Turnbull, Jr., increased the winery’s capacity to 28,000 cases. This top-of-the-line winery now has 15 vineyard sites, totaling 560 acres in Carneros, Rutherford, Howell Mountain, and Anderson Valley. The wines always had a great following among top restaurants, and some of that credit goes to Jack’s wife, Dolores.

From the beginning, she stepped into the role of chief hostess, master gardener, and professional cook. The skills that she developed in these disciplines have put Cakebread Cellars in the forefront of the American healthy eating movement since the early 1980s. Dolores was also responsible for Cakebread Cellar’s singular initiative, the American Harvest Workshop, an annual four-day seminar, to which top chefs from all over the world come to interact with the winemakers, local food producers, the media, and other interested wine and food lovers.

The current Cakebread team is experienced and innovative. Bruce Cakebread is president and his brother, Dennis, is in charge of sales and marketing. Julianne Laks is the winemaker; her assistant is Stephanie Alstott. Toby Halkovich is in charge of the many Cakebread vineyards, and chef Brian Streeter heads the winery’s ambitious culinary program.

And now for some of the wines:

2012 Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc—Vital and fresh, this wine also has a very elegant side. Lots of attractive grapefruit and lime notes. We loved this wine for its balanced taste, which is so easy to enjoy.

2011 Cakebread Chardonnay, Napa Valley—This is a classic chardonnay, again, elegant and stylish with lovely complex flavors. There are touches of creaminess, good fruit, fine oak, and nice acidity, all beautifully integrated.

2011 Cakebread Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley—Lovely and bright; just a shade lacking in fruit, so it’s a bit tart at this point. The vintage year wasn’t particularly generous.

2010 Cakebread Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley—This is a “wow” of the first order—wonderful expression of complex fruit from stem to stern. Lots of luscious!

2010 Cakebread Cellars Dancing Bear Ranch, Howell Mountain—Grand in scope, it has a full and deep concentration of black fruit and spice. This is a superb wine, from one of the best places on earth to grow cabernet.

Ed Schwartz began his career in wine promotion at New York’s “21” Club. As his interest in wine grew, he moved west to be closer to the grapes. Ed has written more than 500 published articles on wine, food, and travel.

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