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Sometimes a Great Notion—The Wines of Chappellet

By Karen MacNeil
May 11, 2017

I think about wine tastings the way I think about men. Some are pleasant. Some take work. Some you’ll never forget.

Earlier this year, a 50th Anniversary tasting of the wines of Chappellet—going back to the legendary 1969– was more than an experience I’ll never forget. It was visceral. It was as if, by drinking in those 48 year-old molecules of wine, time itself had finally surrendered. Time had been captured a half century of summers ago. And now it was revealed.

Fifty years is a long time by anyone’s standards. But sitting in the Chappellet cellar that day, it felt very long for the Napa Valley.

What I think of as Napa Valley’s “Second Golden Age” happened in the early 1970s with families like the Shafers, Cakebreads, Duncans (Silver Oak) and Novaks (Spottswoode). But a few prescient families had already come and begun wineries several years earlier—notably the Chappellets, the Trefethens, the Heitzs, and the Davies (Schramsberg). Whether they knew it or not, each family was about to alter the path of Napa Valley history.

It’s hard to imagine what Pritchard Hill in the wild mountainous flanks above the valley was like in 1967 when Molly and (the late) Donn Chappellet arrived with five of their soon-to-be six children in tow. (Pritchard Hill still feels light years away from Highway 29).  I imagine that the scent of the dry California forest—an aroma I call chaparral—was vivid. It’s an aroma that shows up in lots of Chappellet cabernets. (Chappellet/ chapparal?)

But there are other signatures as well—a savoriness (something like roasted meat juices); a certain underlying spiciness; a dark primordial character that makes them instantly recognizable even among other wines from Pritchard Hill. As they age, the cabernets often take on an attractive saline minerality, as if someone moved the mountains into the sea.

As for the wines, the 1969 (100 points in my book) was exquisite. André Tchelistcheff once told me that old cabernet—if great—should smell seductive, like (in his words) “a young woman’s arm after she has removed her long leather opera gloves.” Somehow that idea came to mind. Apparently, when the wine was released, Donn and Molly priced it at the unheard of price of $8.25 a bottle. Fellow vintner Joe Heitz complained, though Heitz himself had broken the $7 price ceiling with his 1966 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard.

For me, the other astonishing wines were 1987 (you felt like it was drinking you, not the other way around); 1997 (a Gothic cathedral of structure); and 1999 (long swaths of richness).

After those old wines, the wines from the 2000s to the present seemed somewhat tight and unyielding. There is no substitute for time, after all. But, with Chappellet, there’s clearly a genie within.