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A Conversation with Cyril Chappellet: Life, Legacy and the Art of Making Good Wine

Sometimes time stops and you wish for just another hour to capture the many stories that you know are passing you by because you just don’t have enough time.  That happens a lot, but there are a couple of times that stick out to me in the almost six years that I’ve been writing this blog.  The first was in 2011 when I had the chance to sit down with Sparky Marquis from Mollydooker when he told me stories that he admitted he had never shared with the media about his family and his winery.  The second happened this month when I sat down with Cyril Chappellet, the Chairman of the Board of Chappellet Vineyards.  As with many great storytellers (and I hate to admit it), I think I ended up learning more about myself than I did about Cyril and his story.

We met at John Tesar’s Knife Restaurant, where I learned about the long friendship between Cyril and John that began when he decided to feature Chappellet Wines at the Sun Valley Wine Auction.  Cyril told me the pairings were unexpected and amazing. 

This brought us into a long discussion of wine and how it fosters great relationships because the wine passion is shared by so many people.  Wine brings about conversation, wine brings about sharing experiences and wine brings about stories that never would have happened without that one glass.

Cyril talked about how his parents set the tone of the winery and its mission.  His father, Donn Chappellet, who was instrumental in pioneering high-elevation vineyard planting, he describes as an introvert.  Prior to the winery, Donn co-founded Interstate United Corporation, a food service business that distributed the first vending machines to make coffee from grounds, and became a publicly-traded company.  Donn first traveled to Napa with his wife, Molly, from Los Angeles and decided to start a new life there with the winery as the center of the family business. 

He described his mother, Molly, as the extrovert – an artist, a published author, a mom of six and the aesthetic “czarina” of all things Pritchard Hill, the site of the winery.   From his description, she moves 1,000 miles a minute, knows every inch of vineyard topography and is currently masterminding a number of projects from writing the book for the winery’s 50-year anniversary, which debuts in 2017.

They chose Pritchard Hill where they fell in love with the view and had the notion that the God Bacchus would be generous to the hills.  This was further validated by Andre Tchelistcheff, one of the valley’s early wine pioneers.  The love affair with Cabernet Sauvignon was born, which had led to the second generation of family members dedicated to growing the best grapes, sustaining the land and continuing the legacy started by their parents.  I was also struck by the extended family of long-time employees, Winemaker Phillip Carallo-Titus and Vineyard Manager Dave Pirio, who have solid relationships with growers in the business and have secured legendary grapes from some of the best names in the industry based on those relationships.  In fact, Phillip was instrumental in Cyril’s decision to acquire Sonoma-Loeb.  In 1973, Ambassador John Loeb Jr began growing grapes and hired Titus to also make the wines.  After two centuries, the Ambassador approached the Chappellet family and they jumped at the opportunity to buy the property thanks to Titus’ amazing work with some of Sonoma county’s top growers including the Dutton and Sangiacomo families.

We then tasted through the wines which many are attributed to many family members by name.  Before I go into the details, I want to comment on the unique view of collaboration within Chappellet and how forward thinking it is.  Cyril told me about how a close knit group of winemakers work together to double blind taste wines that can cost three times the price of the Chappellet wines.  Cyril believes that understanding the nuances of the regions, wines, terroir and flavor profile makes their wines better. 

2013 Signature Chenin Blanc – Cyril referred to this as “mom’s wine.”  It includes her signature, label and bottle choice.  It was very crisp and delicious – with notes of peach, orange blossom, lemongrass, floral notes and minerality.

2013 Chappellet Napa Valley Chardonnay —  sourced by grapes outside of the family vineyard, this Old World style wine had notes of lemon, tropical fruits with spice, caramel and orange blossom.  This was a great Chardonnay.

2013 Sonoma-Loeb Envoy Chardonnay – this was more of a traditional California chardonnay with butterscotch, nectarine, almond and cinnamon. 

2013 Sonoma-Loeb Russian River Pinot Noir – this was an awesome iteration of a Russian River Valley Pinot at a fraction of the price – especially for the quality of the block that it originates.  It had notes of black cherry, earth, chocolate and spice.

2013 Chappellet Signature Cabernet Sauvignon – this is the flagship wine and the wine that put the family on the map showing the beautiful fruit and bounty for the Hillside vineyards.  This was a fantastic, elegant and a wine made for aging, yet drinkable today.  Big notes of chocolate, cassis, spice, mocha, spice, blackberry and sandalwood.  The quality and price ratio of as this wine as compared to those sold for three times the cost on the same hill is amazing. 

Recently a marketing consultant gave the winery the sage advice that they are charging too little.  Cyril didn’t jump to raise prices.  He talked about over delivering on quality and the legacy that he wants to leave to the next generation – turn over a better business; and the coolest thing, turn over the land in better shape than he found it meaning sustainability, farming and improving the quality of the vineyard operation.  And of course, the wines – they need to continue to be worthy of the Chappellet legacy.

We ended on the subject of passion – loving what you do and doing what you love. I’m at a turning point in my life and Cyril’s advice to me about taking that next jump and not settling was exactly what I needed to hear to solidify my choice.  More to come on that…

Dallas Wine Chick Celebrates 1,460 Days, 250 Posts and 1,000s of Bottles of Wine

It’s hard to believe it has been 1,460 days since Dallas Wine Chick made its debut.  Since then, I’ve met countless wine lovers across the world, tasted thousands of bottles of wine (some good, some bad), attended three Wine Bloggers Conferences (#wbc10, #wbc11 and #wbc12), participated in many Twitter tastings, met hundreds of wine makers and had the time of my life following my passion.

Since I’m waxing nostalgic here, I thought I’d put together what started out originally as my top 5 favorites posts.  But with more than 250 to choose from, I ended up with 10.  So bear with me as I group them into subjects.

I started the blog back in 2010 for two reasons.  One, because I worked for one of the world’s largest agencies as an executive and I knew I needed to get involved in social media before I became a dinosaur.  I signed up for Twitter and after about three months, I figured out the only folks that followed me worked for me.  Fail.  So, I just decided to talk less about marketing and more about wine.  For some reason, @winebratsf followed me back and took me under her wing as a new blogger and became a lifelong friend.  The second was my friend, Bruce Felps, who encouraged me to start writing about wine for a local publication where he served as the editor.  He died about two years ago  and I miss his friendship every day.

I had lots of adventures along the way.  My favorites include the annual Wine Bloggers Conference (adult summer wine camp) in 2010 where I hung out in a man cave,  in 2011 I might as well have attended Comic Con and 2012 where I almost went to jail.

There was my first ‘a ha’ wine moment and when I made an absolute fool out of myself in Napa Valley several years before starting the blog Learn from my behavior.

I met some of the wine industry’s most illustrious and visionary winemakers like Sparky Marquis and Georges Duboeuf. And then there were the light hearted times with Don Henley and the time I got to work with my good friend and movie critic, Christy Lemire, on our own contrast of celebrity wines

Along the way, I was named one of the top 100 wine bloggers, started contributing to Culture Map and met some really special bloggers, readers and wine lovers.  So on the anniversary of this anniversary, I thank you, raise my glass to you and want to let you know how much I appreciate you.  Cheers! 

Brown Bagging: A Blind Tasting Experience

 Brown Bag Group

Before the holidays, a group of Dallas-based wine folks gathered together for our first brown bag tasting event.  We tried ten wines in an informal format at Campania Pizza in Uptown, who was generous enough to waive the corkage fee. 

The parameters were wide open – a red wine in the neighborhood of $20-25 a bottle.  I was really intrigued to see what the group would bring as it was a varied group of wine lovers – some formally trained and some self taught – all interested in continuing their journey with wine. 

Brown Bag Shots

Here was the line-up and my reactions:

  • Cooper L’inizio – 2008 (Washington).  After hosting Neal Cooper on his first Dallas visit last year and being impressed with Washington State wine at the Wine Bloggers Conference 2010, I thought I’d bring something that the rest of the tasters couldn’t get in Texas.  Note that I did break the rules a bit and bring a bottle that is now estimated to sell around $40 in very limited quantities.  Definitely in my top three wines.
  • Inwood Estates 2008 Cornelius (Texas) I admit it – I continue to struggle with the price point and payoff of this wine.  @jftxwine brought it as the zinger of the night and I tasted concrete and something sweet that didn’t work for me especially at $40.
  • Petalos Bierzo 09 (Spain).  I tasted blueberry, spice and a hint of floral, which may have been lavender.
  • La Vierge,” Cahors 07 (France), smoky, dark cherry, flinty, meaty and earthy.  This wine is referred to as the “French Malbec”
  • Mollydooker The Boxer (Australia) – After having the ability to spend some time with Sparky and Mum late last year, talking about these guys is like talking about family.  I tasted big berry, licorice, oak and cedar.
  • Bodini Malbec – 2010 (Argentina).  Berry, meaty, licorice abound in this juicy Malbec.
  • Toasted Head Cabernet Sauvignon 09 (California).  Cherry, cassis, coffee and some spice.
  • Haven’s Meritage 09 Rutherford (California).  Blueberries, vanilla, spice and a big juicy red.  Definitely in my top three wines.
  • Domaine Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage Blanc 09 (France).  Raspberry, cardamom, smoky with a little pepper.  On my top three list.
  • Pagos del Moncejo Garnacha 08 (Spain).  Cedar, spice, vanilla and cherry.

Brown Bag Havens

We had a great time, ate some really good pizza and enjoyed diverse wines from around the world.  Our next brown bag tasting is in early February and we’ll taste Pinot Noirs.  I just happen to have another surprise in store.

Mollydooker: The Story Behind the Story

When I received the invitation to attend a Mollydooker tasting, blending and dinner exercise with Sparky Marquis, I was a little star-struck.  As a marketing person by day, I have long admired the winery’s efforts to connect with other “Mollydookers”, or left-handed people, and build a brand that was unique, fun and appealing.  Krissy Miller, marketing guru at Mollydooker, and I have communicated for a long-time on Twitter and I was excited to meet the voice behind the social media effort for the wine label, so I asked her to meet aside from the tasting.  We made a plan for lunch and the request was Mexican food.  I offered to pick her up and she told me there’d be some others folks attending and they’d meet me at Gloria’s.  Naively, I didn’t ask who else would be coming and assumed it would be a larger team of PR and marketing folks from Mollydooker and maybe a few folks from the Texas distributor. 


I was wrong.  When I arrived at the restaurant I noticed a team of three people in branded Mollydooker shirts bearing bottles of their top labels.  As I got closer, I realized that aside from Krissy, none other than Sparky Marquis, co-owner and winemaker (along with his wife Sarah) and his mum, Janet were joining us.   I was immediately greeted with a left-handed shake by the team. 

We began our lunch by tasting the 2010 Enchanted Path, Carnival of Love and the Velvet Glove.  I am a huge fan of the Velvet Glove which is harder to find since a forklift dropped a crate of it containing 462 cases in July of this year.  Mollydooker lost one third of its inventory — almost all of its U.S. allocation — of this almost $200 a bottle wine.  But instead of “crying over spilled wine” and the profits lost, they approached it as an opportunity and five days later called the local TV stations and newspaper to see if anyone had an interest in the $1 million loss of wine.  The story immediately went global.  In a note of irony and a bit of luck, the insurance company had upgraded Mollydooker’s insurance status six days prior to the accident because of the care they took in storing their wine in three separate tracks vs. one.  And judging from the comments Sparky made during the lunch, I think it may become harder to obtain the remaining Velvet Glove inventory as Sparky Marquis himself has expressed a commitment to drink as much of this wine as he can.  

Sparky, who is known for his time at Fox Creek, Henry’s Drive, Parson’s Flat and Marquis Phillips, began to tell me their story with fun interjections from Janet.  I had assumed Mollydooker was backed with big marketing dollars and lots of money however the true story is that Mollydooker was almost a story of failure, but that changed due to the perseverance of just four people and a miracle or three thrown into the mix.

Mollydooker was founded with an investment of $1,000 in 2005.  In March of 2006, Sparky and Sarah realized money was running low and let their grape growers know they could only afford to pay $200 a ton for grapes.  They encouraged their suppliers to sell to someone who could afford to pay but every last grape grower who could afford to stay did.  As Janet put it, “they had more faith in us than we had in ourselves.”

They were nearing the wine blending and bottling stage and received a call from their financial and legal advisors requesting a meeting.  Mollydooker was down to its last $17 and the advisors were worried they would be in default based upon the payments still due.  Because Sparky and Sarah believed in paying their invoices on time they realized they had about two weeks for a miracle.  A couple of days late that miracle arrived.  A gentleman, who  Sparky had impressed at a local networking luncheon a few weeks prior,  came to the winery and asked him if there was anything that he needed.  Sparky proudly said everything was fine.  The businessman asked the question again and said he was leaving for China for a month and wanted to make sure Mollydooker was around when he returned.  At that point, Sparky broke down and told him the truth. Without asking for a business plan, the businessman asked what Mollydooker needed to survive the month.  A check was written on the spot for $300K.  The blending continued during the month and the label was named a few days later after a brainstorm between Sparky, Sarah, mum and his father.   

Sparky and Sarah knew they would run out of money again soon, so they tried to think about the one avenue where they could get out publicity about their wines in the biggest way.  Enter Robert Parker.  Sarah was sure that Robert was also “a Mollydooker” (or left hander) from a prior meeting.  The team analyzed several photos, but couldn’t be sure.   Robert usually doesn’t take random appointments and is booked for months ahead so after much debate they sent him an overnight package of wine on a wing and a prayer.  Surprisingly, Parker bit and Sarah was right about him actually being left-handed.  He gave them two dates in a two month period to come visit him.  They chose the first one on June 10 as they knew they’d run out of cash by the second.  Maxing out their credit cards, they booked two flights to Baltimore.  Upon arriving in the States and knowing this was their last shot, they were disheartened to hear that Parker had suffered an injury, was hospitalized and might not be able to make the tasting.  But miracles happened again and Parker rallied.  He literally hobbled to the Oregon Grill on that date refusing to take his pain medicine, so he could properly taste the wine.

He invited them to stay for lunch after the tasting and suggested that the Mollydooker Violinist would be perfect with soft shell crab.  He ordered some and Sarah immediately ate it like you would eat traditional crab. Parker first stared, asked her what she was doing and then taught her the etiquette of eating soft shell crab.  At the end of the lunch he made an offhand comment that he’d try, but couldn’t guarantee, to fit them in his Best Value Wine Guide as it had been delayed for ten days at the printers.

Sparky and Sarah had no idea had no idea what the Best Value Wine Issue even was or how quickly their lives would change.  On July 1, they received a phone call at 3 a.m.  The Mollydooker Boxer was rated the best value wine in the world under $20.  The Mollydooker Two Left Feet, named in honor of Sparky’s inability to dance, was named second best value.  The Mollydooker Maitre’ D was named fourth best value and the Violinist was named the top white.  The winery sold out of its existing inventory in America in 19 days.  But they still had no money, only purchase orders, and had to convince the bank to lend them the money to get the shipments to their customers.  With this success, they immediately paid back the angel investor, growers, and creditors and gave the staff bonuses and raises.

A little while later, Parker reviewed Mollydooker’s two new wines, The Carnival of Love and Enchanted Path, and gave them 99 and 96 point reviews.  A wine that no one had ever tasted sold out in five days and by September they were cash flow positive.  When a year later a vineyard that met their requirements came up for sale, they jumped at the chance and acquired the label’s first real asset and that became the home of Mollydooker.

Is it a charmed life, miracles or luck?  I’ve heard that you make your own luck and I am a big believer in karma.  When hard working, talented, generous, hospitable, charitable and kind people set out on a path — especially with an infectious enthusiasm — I’d like to think the world wants them to succeed.  When I asked about their success, Sparky answered that he doesn’t think about things that way, the family is just having the time of their lives and doing what they love.  The simple premise behind making Mollydooker wines is to take the time to do things right and the results will follow.  Sparky wants the wines to taste two times more expensive than the list price to give his customers a value and make the wines accessible.  And, the founders believe in miracles and know those miracles became the pathway to their success.


I learned much about the family during my conversations and thought it would be fun to talk about the top things you don’t know about Sparky, Mum and Mollydooker:

  • Never ever try to pay for lunch for Sparky.  During a vacation in the early years of their marriage, Sarah and Sparky took a vacation they could not afford while they were working in Tasmania.  Staying in the wood cutters bungalow and driving their rusted Ford Falcon, they splurged and went to a nice dinner with no alcohol because it was too expensive.  There, they met two couples that bought them a glass of port.  Serendipitously, they kept running into the same couples who asked them to lunch.  At this point they were staying in a youth hostel with cold showers.  When Sparky finally admitted to one of the couples that they couldn’t afford to join them, the man said, “I built my business so I can take people to lunch and pay for it.”  That lesson rang true and became part of Sparky’s creed.   
  • Go-karting is very important and a family enterprise.  Sparky, his daughter and his son all hold titles for their age groups.  Holly, his daughter, holds the 12-year-old record.  Luke, his son, who is 15, has two state titles, is the Australia junior champion and was recently offered one of four professional go-kart racing positions in the country.  Sparky holds the #2 over 40 position and the #2 20-year-old position in the state (don’t ask).  Another fun fact is that Sparky was en route to the track to race the day the broken container news went global.  What usually is a one-hour drive took four because he kept pulling over to do media interviews.
  • The Velvet Glove was the last wine from Mollydooker to have a cork.  As of 2010, the new releases are all screw tops.
  • Each year mum finds a favorite wine and if you are lucky enough to tour with her, she draws the wine from her jug as a part of your tour.  The Gigglepot Cabernet was last year’s favorite and the inventory of 240 cases was severely depleted as they bottled only 142 cases.  Go mum!
  • There is an open invitation every Monday for wine enthusiasts to have lunch with the family.  Four hours is the minimum that you’ll taste, and some folks have stayed for ten.  Mum suggested the best time to see the harvest and all of the activity is March or April.
  • The Mollydooker shake became a marketing tool after a trip to Hawaii.  The number one wine writer in the state was at the same restaurant and watched Sparky shake the bottles.  Her comment to her dining companion was that man knows nothing about wine.  Later, she was introduced and commented, “I hope you aren’t Sparky Marquis”.  The Mollydooker shake was born on the spot.
  • I never have met anyone that could handle spicy food and fresh jalapenos the way that I can.  I have met my match in Sparky.
  • Ninety percent of the wine that Mollydooker makes comes to America and this is the only country where they hold dinners to show appreciation. 

A Night of Mollydooker: Fits Like a Glove!

Those of you who I had the chance to meet at #wbc10 know I am a big fan of Mollydooker’s Velvet Glove wine — especially when it is offered to me free on my birthday. When a three pack of wines arrived on my doorstep courtesy of Mollydooker, I was excited.  That excitement was heightened when their public relations person told me that they shipped the wrong releases and that three more bottles would be arriving. I knew that I needed to share these with a group of folks that would appreciate them, so I enlisted the help of my couple’s wine group.

I did this with a little trepidation. This was Texas/OU weekend and the tasting was going to be at my house. You may ask why this game would have any bearing for me since my husband and I both went to Auburn. Well, the truth is it doesn’t affect me. However, for my husband it is a different story. For the last five years he has adopted this day as “Attend a Party, Act like a College Freshman and Drink Too Much” day. But, I forged on and he didn’t disappoint. (I will give him credit for ordering the food before leaving the house as well comic relief later in the evening.)

MD Bottles

We knew we needed more than the six wines provided, so we decided to go big on almost the entire Mollydooker portfolio. We started with the Mollydooker shake for the younger wines, which is suggested by Mollydooker to get the nitrogen out of the wines and bring out their full potential.

Our starting wine was the 09 Violinist, which is a great white wine. It was full of citrus and tropical fruits, but with the right mixture of acidity to make it a great sipping or food wine. We then moved into three different flights of wines.

MD Glasses

The first flight was verticals of the 07 and 09 Carnival of Love; the 07 and 09 Blue Eyed Boy and the 08 and 09 The Boxer. My personal preference was for the older wines and the crowd favorite was the 07 Carnival of Love. You could definitely taste the evolution of the wine – big blackberry, liquorce and black pepper. But, the wine had mellowed and you could taste the smoothness of the fruit. I found the 09s to be too young for my taste with the exception of the Blue Eyed Boy, which had big notes of plum, chocolate and mocha. I’d love to put this one in a decanter and see what magic happens. For the others, these were good wines, but I’d buy them and cellar for a few years vs. drinking off the shelf, which is usually my modus operandi for most wines anyway.

The next flight led with an Enchanted Path vertical from 06 and 09. I am enamored with the 06, which was a great year for Mollydooker. Lots of currant, berry and spice, but with a smooth mouth feel. We also tried the 09 Maitre D’ and the 09 Scooter.

MD People

Our final flight ended with a glass of 08 Two Left Feet and the grand finale – the 09 Velvet Glove. Smooth — violet, chocolate and berry with a big finish. Everyone agreed that this was a great wine. The group debated if this was a $175 wine. The folks who like big Australian wines not surprisingly responded with a resounding yes, the folks who love smoother blends gave it a resounding no. But, you know, wine is like art. It’s a matter of taste and I’ll be happy to keep the Velvet Glove all to myself.

Top Things Learned at #wbc10

1. You may have the opportunity to let another blogger who cannot attend live the experience through your eyes. Otherwise known as the what you say can and will be used against you adage Vintage Texas

2. Under any circumstances possible, schedule your birthday to coincide with #wbc11. Trust me on this. From the presents of bottles of birthday wine to a fun surprise birthday party to being poured non-stop Velvet Glove wine from the Molly Dooker folks months before its US debut (thanks  Brian Pasch), it was an amazing time and every one is really nice to you on your birthday. I prefer to refer to #wbc as #mbc (“Melanie’s Birthday Conference”).

3. Get to know your local distributors, wine representatives and others in the industry. Thanks to Greg Kassanoff, CEO from Pioneer Wine Company, I was invited to several special events and had the chance to spend some time with Justin Wylie from J Piano, whose wine club I immediately joined after the tasting.


4. Share a room. As a married person for almost 16 years, I was planning to have my own room until a mutual friend asked if I’d mind sharing with another female blogger who needed accommodations. I ended up with the most fun roommate in Liza and she became my running buddy at all events.

5. Attend the unconference events. In the midst of one of our sessions, a note was sent out on Twitter that an unofficial wine tasting was in process on the back patio. As I slipped out in between the sessions, I found the bottle of Turley that I brought from home paled in comparison with the vintage Bordeaux’s, high end champagne and other cellar selections from other bloggers. 

6. Bring your list of Twitter handles included in the #wbc handbook. It was so much fun to put faces and names with personalities that I’ve come to know and love over the past year and a half.

7. Spit. Thankfully this is a lesson that I didn’t need to learn. If you were to ingest all the wine that is offered to you especially during speed tasting, you would end up curled up in a ball in a corner somewhere. You already need a bionic liver to hold your own here anyway.

8. Open your mind and try to put aside preconceived notions. While I can’t say I left the conference with a differing opinion on rosé, I did try it and know that there is one person on a mission to convince me to change my mind.  Mary, I’m happy to continue trying….

9. Partner with the local experts. I had the opportunity to spend three days with one of Washington’s top wine bloggers Write for Wine and her husband, Dave. They taught me so much about the region, introduced me to some amazing wines and truly rolled out the red carpet.

10. Exercise daily. Just trust me on this. It clears your head, jump starts your metabolism (you desperately need this based on the 6,000 calories that you consume daily with food and wine) and there is not a better way to see your surroundings.  The reactions of your fellow bloggers as they pass you in the exercise room on the way to the conference are priceless.

11. My bonus tip is to buy flair. The ribbons are sassy, fun and help define your personality. Find Thea and know that your money will go to the scholarship fund to send a deserving blogger to #wbc11.

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