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…