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Dennis Cakebread (Photo: Courtesy Cakebread Cellars)

CSUEB alumnus promotes a stellar cellar of fine wines

  • May 17, 2012

Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in Cal State East Bay Magazine. Read the most recent magazine, The Food Issue; view more photos; and check out back issues online.

Dennis Cakebread’s father Jack started Cakebread Cellars 38 years ago as a hobby, buying a ranch in Rutherford from friends. By 1973, the Napa Valley vineyard had produced its first vintage, 157 cases of chardonnay.

Over the years, Dennis Cakebread, who concluded three years of study at CSUEB in 1973, had always helped out in the Napa-based wine cellar, with the grape picking crews in the fields, and with winery sales.

In 1986, after a career in banking, Cakebread headed home full time, joining his brother, Bruce Cakebread, who runs Cakebread Cellars’ wine production as president and chief operating officer.

As head of sales, Dennis works on changing laws to open new states like Massachusetts and New Jersey to direct-to-consumer wine shipping. He’s also in charge of the cellar’s wine clubs and books wine tasting events and pairing dinners all over the country, spending about 10 weeks a year on the road.

Since they don’t do a lot of traditional advertising, Cakebread’s wine sales largely rely on word of mouth among their long-time customers and a group of so-called ambassadors, wine club members who get the word out about new vintages or special wines.

Best known for its chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, Cakebread Cellars has 13 vineyard sites and ships its wines to 39 states. As of 2005, the family winery, which still adheres to more traditional production methods, was bottling 175,000 cases annually — neither a boutique winery nor a mega-producer. 

During the 1970s, Cakebread attended California State University, East Bay (then Hayward) as a general studies undergrad, transferring to Berkeley, where he graduated. He returned to CSUEB in 1975 to work on a master’s degree in business, but decided to become a CPA and continue working at an accounting firm instead of earning a degree.

After 10 years as a CPA, he went to work in the banking business at the Federal Home Loan Bank as a consultant, helping the bank navigate the savings and loan bailout. But Cakebread says he knew his industry was troubled, and the family winery was growing. “My dad said: You have to come back and help us,” he recalls.

Cakebread says his classes at CSUEB, particularly a statistics class, help him understand the business’s manufacturing process even today. “Going to grad school really helped me focus,” he says. “I probably use what I learned there more than anything else,” in his approach to business.  

Cakebread notes that Napa Valley, a destination for so many wine lovers, makes less then 4 percent of all of the wine made in California.

“It’s a tiny amount of what’s made,” he says. “But everyone knows Napa because it’s kind of like the garden of Eden.

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