50 years of Chappellet Vineyard

The Pritchard Hill area in the eastern hills of the Napa Valley is home to a lot of stars these days – wineries like Continuum, Bryant Family, Ovid, Brand, David Arthur and Colgin. But it all began with the founding of Chappellet Vineyard in 1967.

Well, actually, there has been some grape-growing on Pritchard Hill, named for homesteader Charles Pritchard, since the late 1800s. But the area’s modern era began when Donn and Molly Chappellet set up shop. The couple and their five children (and one on the way) were looking to move from Beverly Hills to the Napa Valley, where Donn dreamed of making great wine. Famed winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff had advised them to look for hillside property, and they fell in love with Pritchard Hill and its rocky soils. The first Chappellet wine was a 1968 cabernet sauvignon.

Molly and Donn Chappellet at Pritchard Hill in 1968. (Photo courtesy of Chappellet Vineyard.)

There were some grapes on the property, including cabernet sauvignon, chenin blanc, gamay and riesling, when the Chappellets arrived. But this is cabernet land, so the roughly 100 acres of vineyards are planted now with about 65 acres of cab, with the remainder split among the other red Bordeaux varieties, as well as a little chenin blanc, a variety that Chappellet has long been known for. The vineyard rises from 800 feet of elevation to 1,800 feet.

This year, Chappellet marks its 50th anniversary. Donn Chappellet died last year; son Cyril is now chairman of the company. Cyril’s mother, Molly — the author of three books and a noted gardener — is still very much a presence at the winery, and a number of other family members work in the business.

Cyril Chappellet, his brother Dominic and longtime winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus took the opportunity to hold a library tasting last month at the winery, pouring 10 vintages of Chappellet cabernet. Cyril admitted that they’d “cherry-picked” the vintages, adding that “what we had available” figured into the decisions, as did the desire to have wines from each decade represented. He said they also had looked for wines that were “interesting and representative.”

Like many mountain cabs, Chappellet’s show a lot of power. That was the common thread throughout the 10 vintages in the tasting. Beyond that, the style has evolved some, becoming riper, with plusher fruit – an evolution that can be seen with many Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons.

The first wine poured was the 1969 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the winery’s second vintage. Although its meaty, savory notes pointed to an aged wine, it’s extraordinary for a 48-year-old California cab. It started out fairly austere but expanded in the glass. The 1975 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon also showed extremely well, with some fleshiness, hints of meat, mint and celery seed, and some sturdy tannins.

In 1980, Chappellet introduced the “Signature” wines, with Donn’s signature on the label. The 1980 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon, like the 1969, relaxed and expanded in the glass and showed notes of red fruit, meat, soy sauce and muscular tannins. Corallo-Titus joined Chappellet the next year, working under then-winemaker Cathy Corison. (He left for a time but became winemaker in 1990.) The 1987 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon was sturdy and a little cedary, with red fruit. From the 1990 vintage on, Chappellet produced the Signature cab every year.

The wines of the 1990s changed significantly. The winery started an extensive replanting program in 1989, and nearly everything about the vineyard was changed. “There was a big change in the plant material,” Corallo-Titus says, with new rootstocks and clones. While the old vineyard had been dry-farmed, the new one was irrigated. Row direction and trellising were also changed.

The result was wines that were quite a bit riper and richer-tasting. Corallo-Titus says the aim has been to make wines that are bigger and more interesting without being too rustic and drying or, as he puts it, “going big in the right way.”

In 1997, the winery also added a new top tier, Pritchard Hill, reserved for a portion of what the team thought were the best lots, those with perfect balance. The wines definitely are powerful and extracted, made in a style that many consumers have come to expect from Napa Valley cab.

The 1999 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon is ripe and extracted, with black fruit, anise and muscular tannins. It’s still very young but opened up in the glass. I think the winery lost its way a bit with the 2004 Pritchard Hill cab: It’s very ripe, to the point of smelling cooked, and the tannins have some bitterness. The 2007 Pritchard Hill is also very big but has better balance; there’s ample powerful black fruit, a slight note of dried fruit and very firm tannins.

The 2012 Pritchard Hill has a long way to go. It’s actually still a little primary, with obvious oak. But the power, concentration and liveliness are there. The 2014, which will be released this fall at $235, is a hard to evaluate at this point because of its extreme youth and prominent oak. But it’s dark, dense and concentrated, with some grapey character and decent freshness.

The youngest Signature cab in the tasting was from 1987, and I was curious about wines with a little less age. So I dug around in my wine collection and came up with three vintages. They had been stored in decent, if not pristine, conditions (perhaps a little too much temperature fluctuation). I found the wines to be extremely interesting and enjoyable, although I wish I had found some wines that were the same vintages as the Pritchard Hill bottlings we tasted, for comparison’s sake.

The 1995 Signature cab had a spongey cork that pretty much distintegrated, and its browning color wasn’t promising. But the wine was silky-smooth, with sweet fruit and notes of cedar and tobacco leaf. The 1997 was the most tannic of the bunch, but the wine had plenty of youthful cherry fruit, good color and a lively character. Finally, there was the 1998, from a much-maligned vintage. The wine seemed a little dilute at first, especially in comparison with the other two vintages, but it fleshed out as it opened up in the glass, revealing notes of red fruit and soy sauce, supported by drying tannins.



One thought on “50 years of Chappellet Vineyard

  1. As a 20-year collector of dusty old Napa Valley cab-based bottlings and industry consultant, this has long been one of my fave properties. I have acquired 12-15 older cabernet bottlings from the estate and all have shown pristinely, including the aforementioned ’75 and ’69, with the latter in rarified air as it’s considered one of the best bottlings in Napa history alongside the ’74 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard and legendary ’41 Inglenook. Even chenin blancs from their original planting on the hill were showing elegantly 12-15 years on. Plus, these are all good people and I wish them continued success as both a collector/consumer and industry peer.

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