Winery of the Week: Cakebread Cellars

With a name like Cakebread Cellars, many Napa novices mistakenly assume the iconic winery is home to primarily oaky Chardonnays with big notes of butter and toasted brioche. Cakey, bready wines. The assumption could not be further from the truth.

Cakebread Cellars is the brainchild of high school sweethearts Jack and Dolores Cakebread, who founded the vineyard in 1973. At the time, though he grew up farming, Jack ran a car repair business and dabbled in professional photography. While in Napa in 1972 for a shoot, he purchased a ranch in Rutherford. Over the next year, the Cakebreads spent nights and weekends on the ranch planting, at which time neighboring vintner Robert Mondavi became a mentor and friend. 

Over the next several decades, the Cakebreads helped build Napa to the wine mecca it is today. In addition to leading the winery, Jack – who passed away earlier this year at 92 – would serve as president of the Napa Valley Vintners Association and Winegrowers of Napa County; as president and on the board of directors of the Wine Service Co-op; and on the board of directors of the American Agriculture Credit Bank. Dolores – who passed in 2020 at 90 – not only co-authored two wine country cookbooks but served as president of the San Francisco Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier and was a member of the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and the San Francisco Professional Food Society.

Since 2005 when the Cakebreads stepped back from the day-to-day operations, Cakebread Cellars has been successfully and responsibly led by their sons Dennis and Bruce, both of whom are also past presidents of the Napa Valley Vintners Association. Today, they sell approximately 100,000 cases of wine annually.

The winery – a California Green Medal Award winner for its commitment to sustainability – was among the first in Northern California to grow Sauvignon Blanc grapes, something it still does today. In addition, they produce Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and even a Rosé (that sells out each year–fast).

Given the extensive lineup, the best way to determine the top bottles in one’s collection is by visiting the winery and tasting them all. Currently, there are ample experiences on property. If visiting for the first time, a best bet is The Perfect Pair experience ($100 per guest), which is a food and wine tasting that begins with a tour of Dolores’ famed garden before guests are seated for a four-course pairing hosted by the winery’s resident chefs. Should a peek at the vineyard’s sustainable practices be of interest, opt for the Sustainable Wines & Vines Tour ($75 per person), which features a guided walk through the ranch and production facility while sipping on four varietals along the way. If visiting with a group of 10 or more, there are private experiences open to book ranging from cooking classes and pairing lunches to custom tours followed by four-course dinners.

Should a visit not be in the cards for a bit, there is no reason to delay the Cakebread Cellars experience from the comfort of home. Some great bottles available right now include:

Cakebread Cellars 2021 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley: Given the historic planting and popularizing of Sauvignon Blanc in the region, do not miss this great grandchild of that first vintage. Expect citrus, but in a more tropical fashion than one may be used to from a New Zealand version, which are known for the big grapefruit burst. And the acidity is perfect. $30

Cakebread Cellars 2020 Chardonnay, Napa Valley: While aged in French oak barrels, this is not a butter bomb. Complex with a floral nose, the apple notes come through beautifully, and while it does have a rich texture, there is a balanced minerality to each sip. $40

Cakebread Cellars 2018 Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley: A showstopper from one of Cakebread’s most celebrated and remote vineyards, this big, dark wine makes black cherry and boysenberry its stars, and they deserve a standing ovation. $175

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