Dolores Cakebread, co-founder of Napa Valley’s Cakebread Cellars, passed away peacefully in her sleep Oct. 2, at the age of 90. She and her husband, Jack, started their winery in 1973, and from the start, Dolores stressed the importance of great food paired with great wine, helping build Napa’s reputation for hospitality.
In 1972, the couple were owners and operators of a successful automotive repair shop and parking garage in Oakland, Calif. They had both grown up there and started dating as teens. (The high school sweethearts celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary earlier this year.) Jack also worked as a freelance photographer and was hired that year to go to Napa to take images for the book Treasury of American Wines, by Nathan Chroman. Inspired, the couple ended up purchasing a 22-acre ranch in Rutherford, which would become the location of Cakebread Cellars.
Dolores Cakebread was instrumental in establishing Napa Valley’s high standard of hospitality and was a leader in the culinary renaissance that took place in Napa in the 1980s. During the first Cakebread harvest, to thank their friends and volunteers, she made them dinner and poured Robert Mondavi wines (because they didn’t have their own to share yet). It was the first of many big meals she would cook at the winery. She told Wine Spectator in 1998 that she had to give up cooking for crowds a few years later when she found herself preparing for 100 enthusiastic “volunteers” every weekend.
From that spirit, Cakebread Cellars started one of the first and most active food programs in Napa Valley, including public cooking classes and the American Harvest Workshop, which promoted wine and food as part of a healthy lifestyle.
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In that 1998 interview, Cakebread said that their approach to food-and-wine pairing starts with the wine, not with the food. “Once you pull the cork, you can’t change the wine,” she explained. “It either works or it doesn’t. But with food you can change the texture and the balance to make it better with the wine. That’s what I do.”
A graduate of the University of California Cooperative Master Gardeners Program, she planted her garden on the Cakebread grounds. She also published two cookbooks with Brian Streeter, Cakebread’s culinary director: The Cakebread Cellars Napa Valley Cookbook and The Cakebread Cellars American Harvest Cookbook, in collaboration with author Janet Fletcher.
Cakebread was also president of the Les Dames d’Escoffier’s San Francisco chapter, and was a member of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the San Francisco Professional Food Society.
Dolores and Jack stepped back from a formal role at the winery in 2005, but her legacy there lives on. She is survived by her husband, sons Steve, Dennis and Bruce, four grandchildren, one great-grandchild and her sister, Shirley Ann.