Chappellet: The Vision, The Family, The Wines

“Brilliant wines have emerged from this showcase estate high on Pritchard Hill, which is producing some of the most exciting Cabernets coming out of Napa.”

-Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate

The drive up to Pritchard Hill from the valley floor is breathtaking. As you wend your way up the mountain road, surrounded by towering pine trees on one side, and Lake Hennessey on the other, you arrive at a special place: Chappellet Winery on Pritchard Hill.

Pritchard Hill produces some of the most exciting wines in Napa Valley; serious, complex, elegant, fun, and simply yummy. The wines reflect the terroir of the micro-climates where the grapes are grown. The name “Pritchard Hill” is trademarked, with the Chappellet property located between the AVAs of Howell Mountain, Oakville, Rutherford, Stag’s Leap District, and Chiles Valley. Geography, elevation, and geology are special, the terroir having evolved over millions of years, as described by geologist Ben Schupack:

Chappellet winery sits on a distinct and elongated Cretaceous geologic unit bound between Tertiary volcanic lava flows to the south (3-9 million years old) and Cretaceous/Jurassic marine rocks to the north (66-140 million years old).

Figure by Ben Schupack. Geologic map adapted from California Department of Conservation.

Chapellet has been producing highly acclaimed wines from this diverse terroir since its initial 1968 release. 

Fifty-five years in the making, this family winery is committed to quality while respecting and preserving the ecology and earth from where great grapes and wine is grown.

The Chappellet Family

Making great wine involves more than just grapes, terroir, and an accomplished winemaker.  You need these components, blended with great people, their commitment, passion, dedication, and vision; THAT is the story of the Chappellet family. 

Donn and Molly Chappellet had a vision to grow grapes to make wines that could be compared to the finest wines of Bordeaux. A businessperson and entrepreneur, after selling his business, Donn consulted with Andre Tschelistcheff, identifying the “dirt” of Pritchard Hill as an ideal growing area to raise and nurture exceptional grapes, to be able to produce the high-quality wine that Donn and Molly had envisioned.

Donn and Molly instilled much more than a love for wine in their children. They implanted a culture of family, looking forward, being active, caring, involved in the community, and protecting the environment, especially this special piece of land so that generations in the future could enjoy and reap the same benefits and satisfaction.

The Chappellet family were and are forward thinkers, you could even say Donn and Molly were visionaries.

It’s a rarity when all the children of a founding wine family are intricately involved in the business in one way or another. However, this passion and commitment is true of the entire second-generation Chappellet family.

Cyril, growing up, (from the age of 10) worked both in the vineyards and winery. After completing his education at both Cal Poly and Pepperdine University, he entered the corporate world, returning to “the family business” in 1988. Cyril became immersed in every aspect of Chappellet, and in 2012 was elected Chairman of the Board. Aside from his duties as CEO and Board Chairman, Cyril participates in the daily winery operations. Cyril also is an artist, “turning bowls,” crafting wooden bowls from trees around the property. He also loves horseback riding and is well-known for his culinary skills as a BBQ and pizza master!

Dominic, like his brother, grew up playing, and working in the vineyards and winery. Growing up “around” wine, Dominic became intricately involved with the winery and attending wine dinners, developing a sensitive wine palate. Today, serving as COO, Dominic oversees day-to-day operations, but also is on the road often with his wife Amy, as a direct ambassador for the brand. Dominic also has an uncanny eye for aesthetics, “tweaking” things in the winery to look and function better, and constantly is improving the tasting spaces, making them more functional, intimate, and aesthetically pleasing. On my visit, that is one thing I noticed and mentioned, how the various tasting areas were laid out in the winery-giving a sense of privacy while being surrounded by the “feel” of the space.

Carissa, following a career as a legal mediator, is the Director of Legal Affairs for Chappellet. Along with Cyril and Dominic, she helps run the day-to-day operation of the winery. Carissa is an accomplished artist (her Dragon labels are featured on Chappellet’s Malbec), author, and photographer. She also oversees the board’s Environmental Committee. Personal interests include a love for bluegrass music, playing the mandolin, outdoor activities, hiking, bodysurfing, and a passion for cycling, (she cycled around the world in the year 2000). However, one of her most important focuses is mentoring what is now “Gen 3,” so that Chappellet will seamlessly continue with the same zeal, passion, and commitment of the first two generations.

Alexa, for decades, was directly involved in sales, marketing, and PR for the winery. Today, she is still involved as an active member of the board of directors and also hosts special wine events. Additionally, being an avid equestrian, it is not unusual, when visiting the property, to see her riding one of her horses through the vineyards.

Lygia, currently an active board member, is a well-established artist with an international reputation. Her works are in private collections and galleries in the United States and Europe. You will find many of her artistic creations on Chappellet’s Artist Series bottles. Two of Lygia’s children are already involved in winery work in various areas.

Chappellet is a winery that stands out from the rest, with superior wines, passion, and an enduring vision for future generations. It is a model for success on many levels.

Wine Created with Passion

Since its inaugural 1968 vintage, Chappellet has produced high-quality, sought-after, wines. When you have a family that is so committed, with team members (not ‘employees’) having the same passion and love for the property and family (such as vineyard Director Dave Pirio, who has been with Chappellet for forty years, and Enrique, who oversees the vineyard crew, having been with Chappellet over fifty years), the result is excellence.

Of course, once the vines have produced their fruit, it takes a passionate, and extra special winemaking team to produce the final product. 

Philip Corallo-Titus, VP of Winemaking, has been with Chappellet since 1990. His reputation in the industry is legendary, (Philip also oversees winemaking at Titus Vineyards, his family winery). Associate winemaker Ry Richards has been working with Philip at Chappellet for seventeen years and they are quite a dynamic duo.

Consistently receiving high honors and ratings from the industry’s most respected sources, Chappellet’s Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon received the “holy grail” rating of 100 points for the following vintages:

  • 2012 (Wine Advocate)
  • 2015 (Jeb Dunnuck)
  • 2016 (Wine Advocate & Jeb Dunnuck)
  • and the 2019 received 99 points (Wine Advocate)

Known for their Cabernet Sauvignon, Chappellet also produces several other varietals, including Malbec (with the Dragon label), Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc.

On the varieties produced that are not estate grown, Chappellet sources from high-quality, elite vineyards.

One wine of note is Chappellet’s Chenin Blanc, the only estate white wine. There is a story here, as this was Molly’s favorite wine. Because of the terroir, slope, slant, position, and micro-climates on Pritchard Hill, there is an area where Chenin Blanc grows magnificently. What is of further note is that there are 3-1/2 acres planted. In all of Napa, there are only about 10 acres grown of this varietal.

Setting High Standards

The Judgement of Paris (1976) may have put Napa on the map as a serious wine region, and one to watch and emulate, yet Chappellet has been a trendsetter and innovator well before that world-shattering event, always with an eye on tomorrow, with innovations and practices such as:

  • Molly Chappellet’s vision for Chappellet is experienced through seeing the design and architecture of the property. Molly designed the vineyard and surrounding flora, engaging artist Ed Moses to help create her winery vision. The look of an ancient pyramid blends with the surroundings and has been described as “the most remarkable wine cathedral of the modern world.”
  • Architecturally, the winery “melds into the mountain,” it is one with the surrounding landscape. It was Molly’s creativity, and art background giving her the idea to fuse vineyards, gardens, and the splendor of Pritchard Hill as one natural, artistic space that is simply timeless. Molly’s vision created a property that is a living, functional, ecologically efficient endeavor, the definition of beauty and nature.
  • The barre chai (French for wine storeroom), built in 2012, has a solar roof, producing enough power to not only run the entire winery but to overproduce, with the excess power production going back into the grid.
  • Chappellet was one of the first Certified organic vineyards in Napa
  • Chappellet is the second oldest winery in Napa that was built since probation ended

Overall, the family, the winery, and the people of Chappellet have a commitment to life and beauty, nurturing what the land gives them, and safeguarding it for future generations.

Chappellet has created a culture that stands as a model, setting a high bar for others to follow. 

When you visit Chappellet Vineyards, you will sip in the vision of Donn and Molly Chappellet, their children, the past, present, and future: From Generation to Generation.

Don Sonderling is a freelance writer covering California’s Wine Country lifestyle, and culture. He and his wife are constantly sipping their way from Santa Barbara to Napa, focusing on Paso Robles and the Central Coast, where they have explored for about 25 years. Don has earned his WSET2 (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) certification, has completed the Bourgogne Masterclass through the Napa Valley Wine Academy, and is a member of the LA. Wine Writers.

Focusing on the people and unique experiences to be had, Don’s goal is to have people read about California’s amazing wine country adventures, seeing it through his eyes, and say: “I want to go there, try that, meet them,” and enrich the lives of others as his has been, by exploring California’s wine roads.