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May 14, 2021updated 07 Jun 2023 3:40pm

Chappellet: heavenly music on Pritchard Hill

By Hugh Johnson

It was probably Jack Davies at Schramsberg who told me there was something exciting going on on the other side of the valley. I had already fallen in love with Schramsberg, an improbable white mansion high in the redwoods and madness above St Helena. Its rock-cut caves were full of the best sparkling wines yet seen in California. The east side of the valley was quite different, said Jack: dry grassland with ancient oaks. It was virtually unexplored country for vines, but a young family from Los Angeles had moved with an old ranch house on Pritchard Hill and was planting its steep slopes with Cabernet. In those days I was researching for my first World Atlas of Wine, my car full of maps and notes and my mind with the excitement of discovering Napa and Sonoma. Also with excitement at the beauty of these half-tamed wilds.

My first drive up from St Helena is still fresh in my memory; snaking east from the Silverado Trail past Lake Hennessy, turning right on a road marked by big boulders, then climbing, climbing through meadows of brown grass and scattered trees: oak, madrone, and mesquite, pines and big leaf maple, an airy canopy peopled with quick-darting birds. It was a long climb, enough to make me wonder if I was on the right road, before I suddenly saw the familiar fresh green pattern of vines, long rows describing a steep amphitheater. The road went on, no habitations in sight, until there among trees was a long low house the color of weathered redwood.

I have known and loved that house and its family now for 50 years. I met the tall slow-speaking Donn and his beautiful wife Molly; they told me their story, of success in an urban business leaving them thirsting for the country, of a life-long fascination with wine, of excitement hearing about Robert Mondavi’s epoch-making launch in the valley below with ambitions to match the world’s best wines. Château Latour, Donn told me, was his benchmark, an uncompromising Cabernet deserving 20 years of patience and rewarding it with a perfume and savor nothing else could match. And I tasted Donn’s first vintage, his 1969. I couldn’t be skeptical after that.

Expressing a uniquely beautiful place Family-owned and -run wineries were once the rule in the Napa Valley. There are fewer left today, and as far as I know none with their original philosophy, on their original land, with the participation of an entire family—except the Chappellets, and their friends the Trefethens in their historic barn in Napa. At the start they built a winery building like no other that emerges from deep woodland, a rust-red pyramid that conceals high sites of oak-scented barrels and rings with its unique concert-hall acoustic. From the steep amphitheater above come grapes, Cabernets and Merlots, with a singular resonance, dry-farmed soil-toned reds that can, at their peak, remind me of the greatest of all Bordeaux, the château where for 15 years I was a director, Château Latour. Latour is not for novices; we are not talking of plummy fruit. Napa can do that easily: Pritchard Hill wines are for grownups. Donn planted Riesling at one point and Chardonnay, but this is essentially a red-wine hill, with the exception of a white Molly adopted and I particularly love. No one else around here gives Chenin Blanc a serious purpose like Chappellet’s, the essential wineyness of Chardonnay without the oak and with a freshness of its own.

The Chappellets are all involved to some extent in the family business, and each brings, among other things, the creative talent that seems to be in their blood. At one time Molly gardened and designed the most stylish parties in the Bay area. One I shall never forget celebrated my birthday in those very Schramsberg caves where I first heard their name; a surprise party like no other. The party tradition is very much alive up Pritchard Hill, in a high-perched meadow surveying the valley, the lake, and Mount St Helena, in the vines, among titanic boulders liberated from the earth, under spreading secular oaks …. to heavenly music.

It all centers round the determination to make an enduring wine that expresses a uniquely beautiful place. Terroir never had a more powerful expression.

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