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Sitting on a deck at the Cakebread Dancing Bear Ranch atop Howell Mountain, Bruce Cakebread summed up his experience as a second-generation member of the winemaking family: “We were lucky.”

He was talking about the serendipity that led the family to acquire the prime hilltop acreage during winter holidays when other vintners were on vacation, but also about the circumstances that led his parents, Jack and Dolores, back in 1972 to come up with $2,500 to buy 22 acres that launched Cakebread Cellars.

The occasion was a media dinner that was part of the launch for the newest project unfolding far below on the valley floor on the original Cakebread property where the family is opening the new visitors center.

Brothers Bruce and Dennis Cakebread now lead the winery, which has continued to evolve since the early days when their parents were making wine in one small building on the property that Jack Cakebread discovered on a photography assignment in Napa.

Even as Cakebread has grown over the years to its current production of 200,000 cases, it has retained the feel of a family project. Dolores Cakebread, a Napa County Master Gardener and culinary school graduate, created estate gardens, and spearheaded a culinary program that included an annual American Harvest Festival, welcoming chefs from around the country to work with Brian Streeter, who joined Cakebread as a winery chef more than 30 years ago.

The family has added to their vineyards, including Dancing Bear, named for the inhabitants who occasionally feast on the mountain grapes. They now have 15 estate vineyards, but the original property on Highway 29 in Rutherford remained the heart of the enterprise and as the brothers planned the newest project, Bruce Cakebread said it was important to them to honor the spirit of their parents’ original endeavor.

The new Visitors Center, created by BCV Architecture + Interiors, built upon the master plan created by Don Brandenburger, comprises a 10,000 square-foot renovation and 36,000 square-foot addition, but by design retains a cozy family feel.

The original winery was designed by William Turnbull, owner of a nearby winery on Highway 29. The expansion retains the wooden exteriors, made from reclaimed Redwood wine tank staves. A reception area, filled with light from large windows, displays items and images from the winery’s history, including Jack Cakebread’s original camera and his portrait of his mentor, Ansel Adams. Wine barrel stave light fixtures were made from retired Cakebread wine barrels by Berland Design in Richmond, California.

Beyond this, are nine new private tasting rooms. “This new space is the culmination of our winemaking philosophy and emphasis on hospitality coming together,” said Dennis Cakebread. The goal, he said, builds on the idea of providing visitors with a educational introduction to Cakebread wines that combines warm hospitality and “an unparalleled view into the winemaking process.”

The new space, he said, allows more opportunities “to build rich experience for our guests, from wine and food tastings to winemaking education, always in the same small, intimate groups.”

Bruce Cakebread said, “When we welcome guests to the winery, it’s important to us that we connect our visitors with the craft of winemaking.” The nine distinct indoor tasting experiences tell that story, from the vines, to fermentation, aging and bottling.”

“Cakebread’s focus on providing an immersive guest experience and connection to the winemaking process truly sets it apart,” said Hans Baldauf, the project’s principal-in-charge. “The winery has long eschewed large tasting bars for more intimate experiences.”

Each tasting room was designed with small tastings in mind, although the designs and functions differ. In addition to the new Lab and the Tank Room, the other tasting rooms take their names from Cakebread’s vineyards.

The Annahala Ranch, Suscol Springs, and Apple Barn tasting rooms were inspired by Cakebread Cellars’ wine and food programs. Here, chef Streeter directs Cakebread’s pioneering culinary program, which showcases Dolores Cakebread’s thriving gardens.

Four tasting rooms — Doggwood, Foster Road, Dancing Bear Ranch and Cuttings Wharf — offer wine tastings inside the cellar. Foster Road and Dogwood are in the fermentation hall and look out at 12 concrete egg fermentation tanks. Foster Road hosts tastings of Cakebread’s white wines, while visitors to Doggwood taste reds.

The Dancing Bear room, at the axis of the cellar, is a club-like room that hosts the winery’s new library tasting. Above, the second-level Cuttings Wharf room has wide windows that give guests a front row seat to the production facility and winemaker and cellar crew at work.

The Lab tasting room was designed to be bright and practical, like the space where Cakebread’s winemaking team makes their 17 wines. Looking out onto the bottling line, glossy white counter-height tables on a polished concrete floor create the setting for technical tastings and workshops.

The Tank Room is the largest tasting space, with enough room to comfortably host larger groups or special dinners. The space doubles as a production space for the winery, with nine large, stainless steel fermentation tanks lining the walls.

The remote Dancing Bear Ranch, reached by a long and winding road, has a wilderness feel, offers a perspective on the valley and the wine industry the Cakebreads helped build. But the place to learn the story is at the new facility, designed to a detail including the “green” parking lot.

“We wanted everyone to know, from the moment they step out of their car, what Cakebread Cellars is about,” Bruce Cakebread said.

Visits to Cakebread Cellars Visitors Center are by appointment only. Experiences include the Current Release Tasting ($25), Reserve Tasting ($65/$40 for wine club members), White Wine Tasting ($35/$25 for wine club members), Red Wine Tasting ($40/$25 for wine club members), a Library Tasting ($85/$60 for wine club members), Wine & Food Pairing ($55/$30 for wine club members) and more. Additional details and reservations can be made online at Cakebread.com.

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You can reach Sasha Paulsen at 256-22262 or spaulsen@napanews.com.

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Features Editor

Sasha Paulsen has been features editor at the Napa Valley Register since 1999. A graduate of Napa High School, she studied English at UC Berkeley and St. Mary's College and earned a Masters in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.