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Napa's '70s Survivors

When I started visiting the Napa Valley in the late 1970s, the region had begun to explode with new wineries after a relatively slow post-Prohibition resurgence.  As is often the case, the local connoisseurs were sometimes the last to recognize the impending potential of their own region.  I was somewhat surprised that the better San Francisco restaurants at the time carried few Napa wines on their lists, still preferring the classic French producers. 

But even then, with only a few vintages under their belts, many of us knew that some of those founded in the early 1970s were something special.  The year 1971 brought us Caymus and Raymond.  Then came the stellar Class of 1972 – Diamond Creek, Silver Oak, Carneros Creek, Franciscan, Clos du Val, Sullivan, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Stags’ Leap Winery and Mount Veeder.  The smaller Class of 1973 wasn’t too shabby, either, with Joseph Phelps, Cakebread, Domaine Chandon and Trefethen.  They became known for their iconic wines, and many for their iconic founders and winemakers as well.  Just run your eyes down the list again.

I’ve loved following the path of these wineries in the almost 40 years since I first discovered them. I visited many of their wineries when they were still brand new and their owners full of optimism and confidence.  Several of them now are owned by someone else, some more than once. And even though they may still produce excellent wines, they have become “brands” and are no longer personalities.  But a few are now into the second generation of family ownerships.

For example, Cakebread.  “Actually, I consider myself the one-and-a-half generation,” says Dennis Cakebread as we sample his wines in New York.  Dennis and brother Bruce now run the business, but they were also there as young men when their parents, Jack and Dolores Cakebread, founded the winery.

So many Napa wineries make good wines that there is always the need for each to stand out from others in the crowd.  Dolores found one way to differentiate with her cooking and her winery cooking classes, and it is still difficult to think about Cakebread without thinking about local food.  For years there have been cooking classes and, since1986, the American Harvest Workshop, currently overseen by Brian Streeter.

Like other wineries founded in the early ‘70s, Cakebread has gone through expansion programs, acquiring vineyards and more grapes.  “But in 2005, we decided we had grown enough, that we had reached the right size,” Dennis says.  “We said that if we added something new, then something had to be made smaller.”

Recently, they have added something new – an Anderson Valley Pinot Noir – to go along with their standard Cabernet, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot.  “But basically we keep the methods that we have used for years.”

For another article I was working on, a retailer friend of mine was talking about how he hadn’t stop selling high-end Napa Cabs during the current recession.  Just the opposite. “What has really helped me,” he said, “is that many restaurants aren’t taking their allocations.” He reeled off an impressive list of wines he can now buy and sell more readily, then added, “and, of course, Cakebread.”

It looks like the business will still be around for the third – or second-and-a-half – generation when Dennis and Bruce retire.

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