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Chappellet Winery - Napa Valley

Chappellet Vineyards, A Napa Valley Dream Come True

Donn Chappellet was aching to get out of the city and away from the hassles of running a big company. His vending machine business in Los Angeles had grown from an entrepreneurial two-man operation to become one of the largest food service companies in America in just a dozen years. But by 1965 it wasn’t a challenge anymore, and perhaps more importantly it wasn’t enjoyable anymore.

At first he thought he’d buy a ranch and raise cattle. He had a taste of that life as a young boy when he used to hang out at his parent’s cattle ranch near Tehachapi, California. His second thought was to start a winery. Wine was already a big hobby of his and the more he looked at vineyard land, the more intrigued he became. Not only did the lifestyle look like it would suit him and his family, he figured there was a great opportunity that lay ahead in the wine business.

It took two full years of research before zeroing in on Pritchard Hill above Lake Hennessey, high off the floor of Napa Valley. “I remember well my conversations back then with André Tchelistcheff [the dean of California winemaking], Donn recalls. “He was convinced that the hillsides were the best locations to grow grapes. Most of the Napa vintners did not grow on the hillsides because it was far more expensive than farming on the level valley floor.”

In 1967 the Chappellets purchased 320 acres of Pritchard Hill property to establish only the second new winery in Napa Valley since Prohibition. Located on the eastern slopes of Lake Hennessey 1,400 feet above the valley floor, it was also one of the first wineries to practice hillside farming. Pritchard Hill had been the site of various vineyard plantings dating back to the 1870s. The property now though, was a mix of hayfields and newly planted vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay, Riesling and Chenin Blanc. The volcanic soil ranges from extremely rocky to sandy silt to heavy clay. Together with the high altitude, the land has proven to be a stressful environment in which to grow grapes. But this added stress on the vines results in small yet intensely flavored grapes that produce a more powerful, long-lived wine than those from the valley floor.

The Chappellets wasted no time in building a winery facility. Completed in 1969, the dramatic and impressive geometric structure is a section from a tetrahedron, which forms a pyramid shape. Its shape, as seen from an overhead view, serves as the Chappellet Vineyard logo.

Chappellet’s first wines were 500 cases of 1968 Chenin Blanc and 200 cases of 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon, both of which were quickly swallowed up by anxious consumers. In the late 1960s it was not particularly hard for a new Napa winery to be noticed. There were still not many wineries in existence, so there was a strong intrigue-factor that allowed a number of new wineries to get off to a fast start. As wineries proliferated this early advantage gradually dissipated, requiring wineries to stand on their own merits.

The next two Chappellet Cabernet vintages, 1969 and 1970, were stellar, setting the tone for the years ahead. Chappellet Vineyards has remained steadfast and has continued to be a top producer of Cabernet Sauvignon throughout its twenty-eight year history. Well-known national wine columnist, Jerry Mead, writes “Cabernet Sauvignon is what Chappellet is best known for and with good cause. Its Cabernet is definitely world class.” Los Angeles Times wine writer, Dan Berger, places Chappellet Vineyards on his short list of all-time great California wineries. Chappellet’s legacy of consistent, high quality, age-worthy wines is an achievement to marvel.

The winery has also established a well-known reputation for its Chenin Blanc. More than a few wine critics have declared the Chappellet Chenin Blanc the best they’ve ever had. Chappellet also makes a delicious wine named, “Old Vine Cuveé” that is produced from Chenin Blanc grapevines that are more than 30 years old. Merlot and Chardonnay vines were added almost immediately after acquiring the vineyard property and have also been a mainstay in the varietal line-up. In 1988, the Italian grape, Sangiovese, was planted and is scheduled to make its debut shortly. A few years ago the Chappellets also planted a bit of Cabernet Franc to be used in blending with their Cabernet Sauvignon and perhaps into a future Meritage wine.

One year after buying the initial 320 acres of land, Donn purchased an adjacent parcel of land roughly the same size. But with 640 acres, still only 110 acres are suitable for vineyard land. They also farm and use the grapes of four neighboring vineyards. “Our goal is to keep using grapes exclusively from Pritchard Hill,” says Donn. Overall production will eventually grow to 30,000 cases, up from 20,000 to 25,000 today.

Over the years, Chappellet Winery has graduated a handful of winemakers to create wineries of their own. Philip Togni, who was the first winemaker, now has his own winery. Joe Cafaro, Tony Soter (Etude Winery), and Kathy Corison all bottle wine under their own label now. The Chappellet winemaker since 1990 has been Phillip Corallo-Titus´.

“It’s an absolute privilege to be here,” says Phillip. “Fifteen years ago I tasted my first Chappellet wines and knew immediately they were beyond the normal parameters of quality,” he continues. Even at a relatively young 40, Phillip already has 28 years of winemaking and viticultural experience behind him. “When I was 12 my father recruited me to help plant and harvest our family’s 50-acre vineyard.” That early fostering carried through to his schooling at U.C. Davis and then to his first professional wine job in 1981, as Chappellet’s assistant winemaker. After a five year stint Phillip left to take the winemaker position at Stratford Winery. Then in 1990 he returned to become Chappellet’s full-fledged winemaker.

This month’s featured selections are excellent examples of Phillip’s influence on Chappellet’s long lineage of finely crafted wines. The 1992 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon is the first in a new series of wines by Chappellet Winery. It utilizes the same high-quality estate-grown grapes as the higher priced “Signature Series” of Chappellet Cabernets but is made in a more approachable style. It has softer tannins, more developed aromas and flavors that are apparent at an early age. The wine is a wonderful blend of Cabernet and Merlot grapes from vines averaging over 27 years in age. It is made in a style to be enjoyed now and at least for the next ten years. The featured 1993 Chardonnay is also made entirely from the winery’s estate vineyards in the hills of Napa Valley.

The Chardonnay vineyards range in age from 8 to 32 years old and due to their age and location, are low yield vines producing intensely concentrated fruit. Both are wonderful wines from one of California’s oldest and most consistently high quality wine producers.

Donn Chappellet

‘Not many wineries were making good quality wine,” is how Donn Chappellet summed up the opportunity ahead of him in 1967. ‘I considered getting into cattle ranching but decided it was too isolated of a life for me and my family,” he said. ‘I knew I wanted to pursue some type of agricultural lifestyle and wines had been a hobby of mine for a long time,” he continued. Farming and ranching were in Donn’s blood at an early age. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he often visited the family’s 500 acre ranch just outside of LA while he was growing up. ‘It was something I knew and felt comfortable in doing,” he confided.

Donn attended college and studied Economics at nearby Pomona College. While still in school he married his childhood sweetheart, Molly. During summer break one year, they took a trip through the northern California wine country and became enthralled with the area. ‘I remember visiting wineries like Wente and B.V. and thinking what a nice way of life that would be,” said Donn. Their dream would have to wait though.

In 1954 fresh out of school he and a friend started a vending machine business. They had learned of a new vending machine that made coffee fresh-brewed instead of the instant coffee made in other machines at the time. They secured the rights for the product in California and launched their business. Their fledgling company, ‘Interstate United,” soon expanded to a national scale. What started as a tiny two-man operation ended up as the third largest company in the industry and publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Donn grew weary of the grind and eventually left the company in 1964. He stayed on for another year as a Director until the company was finally sold to a British conglomerate. At that point it was time to pursue his dream.

The search began for a vineyard site and continued for two years before they finally found the hillside property on Pritchard Hill. He moved his family of eight to Napa Valley and never looked back. At one time or another the entire Chappellet clan has contributed to the winery’s success. Son, Cyril, directs the winery’s sales and marketing efforts. Daughters, Alexa, Carissa, and son Jon-Mark all have various territories throughout California and other parts of the country where they are responsible for selling the family wines. Eldest daughter, Lygia is a professional artist and has three children of her own. Son, Dominic, is starting his first harvest at the winery this year.

Molly Chappellet has done more than her share of promoting the family business. She has authored and photographed a spectacular, full-color, 300-page book that is a tribute to life on the vineyard and the things of nature which have shaped their way of life. A centerpiece of the property is Molly’s large carefully designed and meticulously maintained garden. Her innovative creations from the garden have established her as a well-known chef.

For close to thirty years Donn, Molly and the rest of the Chappellet family have created a lasting legacy of excellence—from the modern pyramid shaped winery they designed and built, to the care and conservation of the vineyard land to the high quality wines they produce each year. In the words of Robert Mondavi, who wrote this note to the Chappellets on the 25th anniversary of their winery: ‘What a great addition you and your family have been to the wine community. From the very beginning, starting with the special location, the creativity of a unique winery, and the distinctive style of wine, you established a special niche which is much appreciated by all.”