It’s that time of the year for summer vacations, and as we wind down to the end of the summer, all of us desperately try to squeeze those last days left into some productive local road trips. Today these seem pretty painless with dual zone AC, Bluetooth, DVD players, and all the other 21st century tech goodies. But for those who remember back just a little, this involved squeezing everyone and their luggage into the family station wagon (what we drove before they invented SUVs) and heading out for what seemed an endless trip to your destination. What a nightmare at times; counting telephone poles, tracking out-of-state license plates, or sticking our hands out the window and pumping them up and down to get the big trucks to honk their air horns. This had to have been pretty close to what the Chappellet family went through back in 1967 has they headed north from their old home in southern California to an obscure point in the foothills of Napa’s hill country.
The central eastern section of Napa valley is somewhat off the beaten path as you head due east on Oakville Cross road. It’s almost like you’re leaving the civilized world, very similar to going past Loop 410 in 1967, heading towards Boerne. As you leave the valley floor the land rises quickly as you head towards the eastern mountains that form the valley…the Vaca Mountains. It was there that Donn and Molly discovered the new home for their growing family on Pritchard Hill. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
Does anyone remember where you could get a cup of coffee before Starbucks and Keurig? You either used something called a percolator, or you went to a coffee shop. Getting a cup of fresh brewed coffee at work or anyplace else…it wasn’t going to happen. Donn Chappellet changed all this in a ground breaking move by creating Interstate United Corporation, a food service company that distributed the first vending machines to make fresh brewed coffee from grounds. All this in the early 1950s. By the late 60s, Donn decided to finish out on the top end of his company’s growth curve, sold his shares, and set a new course to try a new venture that would include his love of wine and art.
While pursuing this new direction, he made several trips to wine-growing regions in the state, and felt he had come home as he discovered the Napa valley. Here was a place far removed from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles… a place to raise his growing family and try a new way of making a living…making world class wines. In almost any endeavor, “It’s a wise man who knows his limitations”. With that in mind, Donn worked to establish a new network of advisors, who could help him with his knowledge of farming and the art of winemaking. The list of those who advised at the beginning is most impressive…Joe Heitz, the Sebastiani family, Louis Martini, and even Robert Mondavi. The crowning touch was sitting down for sessions with the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff. Donn and Molly had been inspired by the ancient Latin saying that “Bacchus loves the hills”, a classic nod to the Roman god of wine favoring grapes that were grown in the hillsides of Italy. Mr. Tchelistcheff, who at that point in time had accumulated a vast personal knowledge of the valley, counseled them to look for a hillside site for their new winery. As he put it, “All the grapes I get come from the valley floor. If I could get hillside fruit, I would”. Shortly after that they discovered Pritchard Hill, and purchased the initial 320 acres (now a little over 600 acres). Then they began the process of converting the abandoned existing vines from the turn of the century to primarily Cabernet Sauvignon with 65 acres, but also small lots of Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Merlot, Malbec, and even Chenin Blanc. Today they farm 102 planted acres, with 34 distinct vineyard lots. Their vision then, as it is now, was to produce wine in the style of a first-growth Bordeaux. Using hillside fruit from higher elevations (800-1900 feet above sea level) was a gamble. But their debut Cabernet, released in 1969, was a huge hit, with many critics comparing it to the great vintages from Chateau Latour. All this, years ahead of the famed Judgment of Paris in 1976. And so at the very beginning, all that networking paid big dividends for that first vintage, with Andre helping Donn with the wine making, crush being done at Robert Mondavi’s new winery, and the barrels stored at Heitz until the new winery for Chappellet was completed. Over the years many young winemakers learned their craft there on Pritchard Hill, among them Joe Cafaro, Tony Soter, Cathy Corison, Helen Turley, Phil Togni, and since 1990 Phillip Corallo-Titus (himself an interesting story).These are now an elite group of the most celebrated winemakers and wineries in California.
Over the next 47 years Donn and Molly raised their 6 children, continued to fine tune their property, and embraced their new country lifestyle. There was something magical about waking up, looking out their window and seeing the valley floor covered in the morning fog, while their higher altitude vines were soaking up the morning sun. And at the end of the day, time to reflect on what was accomplished that day, and maybe a small smile to consider what the land is worth now (raw, unplanted land going for over $250,000 an acre) versus $1000 an acre back when they started. Their vision of mountain fruit derived Cabernets has been more than vindicated. No longer the sole vineyard in the region, they have been joined by some very prestigious neighbors. And although it will probably never be officially acknowledged as a recognized AVA (American Viticultural Area), some very high end wineries have discovered the magic of the “Hill”, among them Bryant, Colgin, David Arthur, Continuum by Tim Mondavi, Ovid, Villa del Lago by Del Dotto , and two newer properties…Brand and Montagna. The fruit is consistently rich, with very concentrated fruit. The red volcanic soil lends a dusty, loamy earth character to the grapes, and the scarcity of water stresses the vines to produce deeply colored juice…as one winemaker puts it…”It’s like Oakville on a mountain”. And now the second generation of the Chappellet family, the 6 children who grew up in the vineyards, continues to fine tune their little bit of wine heaven. Only 16% of the total acreage is planted to vine, harmoniously blend the land to their specific vineyard sites. Environmentally responsible, long before it was fashionable; they continue to innovate, adding solar power, and organic certification to their stewardship of the land. And as a winery, they continue to re-invent themselves. What started as partnerships based on a handshake, has evolved to become new distinct offering under the Chappellet umbrella as The Cervantes and Sonoma-Loeb labels have given the family an opportunity to expand to some of the prime growing areas in Sonoma and the North coast and explore other varietals, including Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
And the winemaker for all these incredible wines is Phillip-Corallo-Titus…remember, I promised an interesting story. He has been the wine maker at Chappellet for almost a quarter century, and even apprenticed as an assistant winemaker back in 1981, after graduating from UC Davis with multiple majors. His parents, Ruth and Lee, had a long standing love affair with the valley, and in 1968 acquired almost 50 acres of land and began to raise and sell grapes. The quality of fruit was soon evident, and they sold their fruit to Charles Krug, Beaulieu, Pine Ridge, and others. Their 4 sons grew up in the vineyards, and over the years, two sons, Phillip and Eric, helped to take a more hands-on approach. Phillip moving onto school to learn the art of winemaking and Eric learning the art of growing the best grapes possible. It was a unique partnership between the earlier generation that worked the land and planted it, and the current generation that farms it today. Over the years, Phillip worked at a number of wineries, including Quail Ridge, Stratford, and Cartlidge&Brown, before returning to Chappellet in 1990. It was a very busy time for this young winemaker, overseeing the production of the family’s wines and at the same time, doing consulting for former Ambassador John Loeb’s Sonoma project and his debut release. And somehow, in midst of all these projects, he found the time to lovingly craft a wine that was very close to his heart. He had the distinct pleasure of utilizing the grapes his brother had so loving tended over the years, and creating the first release of his families grapes…Titus Vineyards. One guess where these wines were produced…that right, there at Chappellet. It’s hard for me not to love stories like this…family histories intertwined is such a beautiful way over generations of loving the vine, and staying true to the land. I guess that’s why I really have a passion for family owned wineries. I’m thoroughly convinced this is why they taste so good in the glass. Let me help you find a bottle of any of these wines, and find an occasion to share it with your own family.