Established in Napa Valley in the late 1960s (making it a true veteran Napa producer), Chappellet Vineyards is one of those California wineries that was part of the renaissance of Napa, a time when everything was exciting, from who purchased what vineyard to who planted what variety where. It was a time of figuring it out, and for the most part, these pioneers did a marvelous job, as many of the wines – red and white – from the 1960s and 1970s are still drinking quite well.
But given the whims of the wine business – especially in Napa Valley, where competition is fierce – no producer can rest on his or her previous successes. So it’s a pleasure to see the new portfolio from Chappellet and how single vineyard wines that make up the winery’s new Grower Collection are bringing a new focus to this long time Napa firm.
I recently sat down with Dominic Chappellet, son of founders Donn and Molly Chappellet in Chicago, to learn his thoughts about the new and old of the winery. Serving as vice president, Chappellet is down to earth, easy going and a treasure trove of information about the vineyards that the winery sources for wines such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Viognier, as well as Pritchard Hill, where the winery was situated some fifty years ago.
Tom Hyland: When was Chappellet established?
Dominic Chappellet: My parents bought the winery in 1967. The first commercial vintage was 1969, although we did label the 1968.
TH: Tell me about Pritchard Hill. I’ve never been up in that area.
DC: It’s east of Napa Valley, almost directly east of Rutherford, up in the hills overlooking Lake Hennessy. It was named after Charles Pritchard, who homesteaded it in the 1860s. He was an important figure in Saint Helena then. I think he was mayor for awhile; certainly well known in the community. That’s where the name comes from.
We got there because my father was searching out the best property to grow great Cabernet and make wines in the style of wines he had in his cellar, such as Latour, Lafite and Mouton. These were the wines that served as aspirations, to make wines in that vein. In doing that, he was looking throughout the Napa Valley as to where to get beautiful fruit. He did a lot of research, and much of that consisted of talking to people that had been there, such as Robert Mondavi, Andre Tchelistcheff (famed Napa winemaker from the 1930s to 1970s).
My father was an entrepreneur from Los Angeles. Right after college, he and his friends got into a business where they sold coffee vending machines. It just happened to be the only vending machine at the time that brewed coffee cup by cup, so they had a little niche in the market, and did very well. This allowed them to go and chase their dreams in their early 30s; my dad’s dream was to go and make great wine.
The way we got to Pritchard Hill was because Andre Tchelistcheff, the great BV winemaker for so many years, did a tasting with my father, and said ‘well, I see what type of wines you like, and I would say that I get the majority of my grapes from the valley floor, and a little bit from the hillsides. If I could get more from the hillsides, I think I could make better wine.’
So that really stuck with my dad. He thought that if Andre Tchelistcheff is saying he’s looking for more hillside fruit, I’m going to look for a hillside vineyard. That’s what got us there. It was actually the first hillside vineyard they looked at. If you’ve ever been there, I think you’d say ‘that is a place I want to be.’
Is there a Pritchard Hill AVA?
There is no Pritchard Hill AVA; this is a Napa Valley AVA. There really won’t ever be a Pritchard Hill AVA. My dad trademarked the name in 1971 or 1972. If we could have some control over what it would mean to have an AVA to protect that site, fine. The problem is there’s so much room between the other AVAs around us, that to become a Pritchard Hill AVA to encompass so much of what is not Pritchard Hill, we just felt very strongly that it should be very site specific when we use that name. So we’re lucky enough that we have that name.
We’re the only ones that can call a wine Pritchard Hill and use it on our front label. We own it. We allow some of our neighbors to refer to the fact that they grow grapes up there.
Tell me about the Grower Collection. How many wines are there?
The Grower Collection has just been released with the 2017 vintage. The wines were released in March and April. We’ve got 5 different Pinots, 3 Chardonnays and one Viognier.
Had you produced a Pinot Noir before?
We had. We had a Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir for many, many years for our wine club. So we knew we liked the fruit there, and over the years we had some Chardonnay starting off on Pritchard Hill; we planted that some time in the 1980s. Never went back to it on the hill there, we just kept wating to make Chardonnay, so we were sourcing some from Napa, some from the Coombsville area, some from the Red Hen area.
Then we found ourselves heading into Carneros and then eventually around the bend and deeper into Sonoma, until as of 2017, none of our Chardonnay was coming from the Napa Valley. (We were 100% in the Sonoma part of Carneros for the Chardonnay). We sort of went down the valley and then up around the corner and found ourselves deeply into Sonoma for the Chardonnay.
Of course, the Pinot was coming from Sonoma and now all of the Chards. So our reasoning for the Grower Collection was that all of this was coming from someplace other than Napa Valley, Pritchard Hill; we should highlight where it’s coming from.
The reason we went to Pritchard Hill was to a specific place to make a specific type of wine. So if we’re getting great fruit from the Calesa Vineyard, from the Sangiacomos, let’s really highlight those small vineyards and the blocks. And some of them are one block, one row, maybe 50 cases. The most we make is about 100 cases with the Calesa Pinot Noir. They’re small production, meant to be site specific.
Making those wines for John Loeb at Sonoma-Loeb (a producer of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) gave us an in with all those growers.
I would imagine that these Growers Collection wines will make for a stronger, more complex identity for Chappellet. How difficult is it to stand out from the crowd?
It’s a very different landscape than when we got there. My father’s marketing plan back in the 1970s was that I’ll make wine and they’ll find it. But that was when we were one of two or three or four new wineries in the Napa Valley, as opposed to the 500 brick and mortar wineries we have there now.
So I think that almost answers the question in itself. Just like you were saying, you’re differentiating yourself from the crowd while remaining relevant. Giving your direct consumers wines that they’re excited about. Relevant in the market. We’re not the new kid on the block, which in a way is great, but it can also be a hindrance – you’re part of the old guard.
So all of that plays in. We’re also very lucky in that we have a large family. All of us care about our wines. I’ve got brothers and sisters going out to restaurants and talking about the wines.
Notes on current Chappellet releases
Chappellet Viognier “Cold Creek Vineyard” 2017 Grower Collection (Carneros) – Aromas of vanilla cream, golden poppies and a touch of mango. Medium-full, this has a rich mid-palate, very good acidity, and an appealing creamy texture. Beautiful varietal character and excellent persistence. Enjoy now or over the next 2-3 years, perhaps longer. Outstanding
Chappellet Chardonnay “El Novillero Vineyard” 2017 Grower Collection (Carneros) – Aromas of baked apples, hazelnut and Meyer lemon. Medium-full with excellent ripeness, good acidity and well-integrated oak. Lovely texture, beautiful complexity and notable persistence. This is quite impressive now, and will improve and offer great pleasure for another 5-7 years. Outstanding
Chappellet Chardonnay “Calesa Vineyard” 2017 Grower Collection (Petaluma Gap) – Aromas of vanilla, baked apples and crocus. Medium-full with very good concentration; ample wood notes. Very good complexity. 5-7 years. Excellent
Chappellet Pinot Noir “Dutton Ranch” 2017 Grower Collection – Red plum, berry and carnation aromas. Medium-full, this is quite ripe, while there is excellent persistence and very good acidity. Another 2-3 years in the bottle should offer greater finesse and detail. Peak in 7-10 years. Excellent
Donn Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (Napa Valley) – Aromas of cassis, black currant and purple iris. Excellent depth of fruit, harmonious mouthfeel, elegantly styled tannins, good acidity and perfectly integrated wood notes. Very stylish and well made! Peak in 10- 12 years, but will probably drink well for another 5-7 years after that. Superb