On our most recent trip to Napa Valley, we had arranged to go to a variety of vineyards, including one of my favorite vineyards, Chappellet.
For many years I have been a fan of Chappellet’s Cabernet Sauvignon, so I was really excited as we headed from a wonderful lunch at Auberge du Soleil.
Our reservations were made for us by the amazing concierge staff at the Napa River Inn. At first, I should have read my email confirmation, as it indicated that GPS may have a difficult time finding Chappellet. Indeed the email was correct, as I missed the unmarked entrance just past the public boat launch for Lake Hennessey. No worries, one illegal u-turn later and I found the entrance and was starting to head upwards on Pritchard Hill.
As we were driving up and up and up, I noticed some really interesting piles along the way. Later I would learn that Molly Chappellet, a renowned designer in her day, was responsible for the intricate design of what some may have viewed as rubble. In fact, we learned that many of the large stones and boulders came out of the vineyard grounds.
My poor little Nissan car rental was starting to whir as we went further up Pritchard Hill and all I kept on thinking about was The Little Engine That Could, “I think I can. I think I can.” Once we made it to the top, I was immediately taken back by how beautiful it was to be at the top of Pritchard Hill, staring at Napa Valley and Lake Hennessey from a completely different perspective.
As we approached the front entrance to Chappellet, it looked almost like a shrouded entrance to a cave in a jungle, completely obscured by trees and vegetation. It was a spectacular site to see. We then checked in and waited a few minutes for some other guests to arrive. Coincidentally, the last arriving guests had also come from Auberge du Soleil, which I recognized from the restaurant.
Just beyond the front entrance is the indoor part of the vineyard. Here is where Chappellet conducts its tastings, as well as where much of their wine is stored in barrels. As far as he eye could see, I could see wine that was waiting one day for you and me. As we stood in the center of the center of the building and looked up, you could see that the building with its tall ceilings was a modified, three-sided Egyptian pyramid structure. It was at that moment, where I had the “aha” moment. Chappellet’s logo is a “chevron” of three sides and it was explained that their logo is in fact a bird’s eye view of the building we are standing in.
As we would stop and learn more history about Chappellet, our great tour guide, who had only been at the vineyard for about five weeks, would pour us a tasting of a recent Chappellet wine. As harvest season was just beginning, we were able to see some of their wine-making equipment out on their crush pad. I was fascinated by Chappellet’s optical sorter which examines each individual grape based upon the wine-makers specifications, so that only the best grapes ultimately make it into the barrel and eventually into a bottle.
When we went outside, on the 100 or so acres of planted vines (out of over 600 acres total), there were many varietals planted. Originally Chappellet was one of the largest growers in Napa Valley of Chenin Blanc, which they still hold today. We also learned that earlier this year in May, a random ten minute rain storm knocked down the flowers that were attached to the grapes, which are really important to the grape growing process. You see, grapes like the lack of water and rain can impact the grape growing process. Even though 2015 yield of grapes should be spectacular, Chappellet’s yield per acre took a significant hit as a result of this May shower.
One of the factors that makes Chappellet unique as compared to other vineyards I’ve toured and tasted before, is even though yields will be down for the 2015 harvest, which could result in higher pricing due to less availability, the Chappellet’s have had a long-standing commitment to providing exceptional wine, at a reasonable price.
I also loved the fact the Chappellet’s have made a significant investment in sustainable growing, from collecting rain water in their own reservoirs, to solar powered panels. They are completely reliant on their own resources and even though California is in the midst of a severe drought, Chappellet has perfected the practice of sustainability, which is another added quality.
Besides a great tour and same great wine, we learned some very interesting facts about the Chappellets. For example, the patriarch Donn was an inventor and was involved with the patents for making individually ground coffee machines at the workplace. The matriarch Molly, is a designer, author, master gardener and photographer. The sons and daughters, all six of them, are involved in the business in some capacity. Many of the family members also have their own houses on the Chappellet estate.
However, my favorite piece of information about Chappellet that I loved learning about was when the vineyard building was constructed in the late 1960’s, each of the Chappellet children pressed their hand into some wet cement and had their name written beneath it. As the story was told to our group, the youngest son Dominic really didn’t want anything to do with this event (he was one at the time), so instead they were able to get a footprint from him instead of a hand.
For me, when I hear history about a family and how they have worked together for many years, through good times and bad times, it provides a lot of comfort knowing a lot of love and affection has been put into their creations. I know the next time I raise a glass of Chapellet, my toast will be to them that day.