Donn Chappellet, the founder of Pritchard Hill’s Chappellet Winery and a respected leader in the Napa Valley wine community, died on Sunday, May 22.
Guided by Donn and Molly Chappellet for almost 50 years, Chappellet is “recognized as one of the world’s great family-owned and operated wineries,” the company said in a press release. In addition to founding the second post-Prohibition winery in the Napa Valley, Donn was also one of the early pioneers of high-elevation hillside planting. As such, he influenced generations of vintners, and helped to redraw the winegrowing map of Napa Valley.
In 1954, Donn cofounded Los Angeles-based Interstate United Corporation, a food service business that distributed the first vending machines to make fresh coffee from grounds. Interstate United grew to 8,000 employees and earned a listing on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1966, Donn sold his shares in Interstate United, and turned toward his passion for wine.
An avid collector of First Growth Bordeaux, Donn believed that Napa Valley had the potential to produce wines equal to those of France.
With the belief that better wines could be made from hillside fruit, Donn and Molly founded Chappellet on the rocky slopes of Pritchard Hill. Donn applied a hands-on approach, the company says, driving tractors in the vineyard, tending the vines, helping to build Chappellet’s pyramid-shaped winery, and contributing to the blending process.
Donn was also active in the early Napa Valley wine community as a founding member of the Wine Services Co-op, and one of the first 18 members of the Napa Valley Vintners Association.
In the decades that followed, Chappellet became known for its Cabernet Sauvignons, and the terroir of Pritchard Hill became well-known. Today, Chappellet’s neighbors include such wineries as David Arthur, Bryant Family, Colgin and Continuum. Chappellet has been an incubator for some of California’s greatest winemakers,the company says, including Philip Togni, Joe Cafaro, Tony Soter, Helen Turley, Mia Klein, Cathy Corison, and Phillip Corallo-Titus, who has been Chappellet’s winemaker since 1990.
While many of the early Napa Valley wineries changed hands or became large-production brands, Donn remained focused on staying true to Chappellet’s original winemaking values. This commitment to making exceptional limited-production wines earned Chappellet comparisons to the First Growths with notable wine critic James Laube comparing Chappellet to Château Haut Brion and Hugh Johnson drawing parallels to Château Latour.
ommenting on Chappellet’s first vintage, Robert Parker once wrote, “Old timers have long known that one of the most compelling, riveting, world-class Cabernet Sauvignons ever made in California was Chappellet’s 1969.” This assessment is echoed by other journalists; Jon Bonné wrote that the 1969 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon is “now widely considered one of the best Cabernets that California ever produced.” Antonio Galloni gave the 1969 100 points in Vinous, calling it, “one of the greatest wines I have ever tasted.”
Recent vintages have received similar accolades, the company reports. From 2007 to 2009, Chappellet was the only California winery to rank in the top 30 of Wine Spectator’s illustrious Top 100 list, and was the only winery in the world with a Cabernet on the list each year. The 2012 Chappellet Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon earned 99+ points from Wine Advocate, with Robert Parker writing that it was “Pushing perfection in Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Donn’s vision was to make Chappellet a family-owned winery for generations to come. All six of his children have been actively involved in the business. In 2013, he named son Cyril Chappellet as chairman. Donn remained actively engaged in helping to guide the second and third generations of Chappellets in their stewardship of the winery until his passing.
Donn passed away peacefully at his home on Pritchard Hill surrounded by his family. He is survived by his wife, Molly Chappellet, his sister, Sybil Chappellet, Molly and Donn’s six children: Lygia, Cyril, Carissa, Jon-Mark, Alexa and Dominic, their eleven grandchildren and one greatgrandchild. Details on a celebration of life for Donn will be shared at a later date.