Running horribly late, with a car nearly out of gas, MC Ice and I ventured from Chateau Montelena in Calistoga into the heart of the Vaca mountains on the east side of Napa Valley to our next adventure on our wine country whirlwind trip late last fall.
After 10 minutes of climbing and climbing (and the car slowly puttering and lurching forward) we got out of traditional Napa territory and happened upon a gorgeous reservoir. Through switchback after switchback we crept, noticing a striking resemblance to the road to Yosemite or some other cool National Park. Just when we were at the unfortunate juncture of lost and seriously in trouble on the gas front, we saw the sign for Pritchard Hill and for Chappellet.
We arrived to a secluded, breathtaking property nestled at the top of the hill, to none other than Molly Chappellet getting into her car. The Chappellets were having a family party that day and invited me to come tour in spite of it. Ms. Chappellet was leaving to go up the hill to her home. I apologized profusely for being late but said I wanted to at least peek my head in. She was so kind and encouraged us to go up to the tasting room, since a few others were still there. She told us that we could taste a few wines while they cleaned up from the day.
This beautiful property was made all the prettier by the unbelievable hospitality and great welcome we received by people who had worked a full day on a Saturday and still had smiles to give. I hate being "that person" who shows up late and then demands attention so I asked if I could just try one or two of the wines. Instead, Katie (you rock, BTW!) gave us the full-on tour of the picturesque property. This place has style and grace.
A quick history check -- in 1967, Molly and Donn Chappellet bought the property on Pritchard Hill to both live and work in this out-of-the-way paradise. They raised their 6 children here at 1200 feet, and had the distinctions of being some of the first to plant only at high elevation (a risk, since mountains have more volatile weather) and to be the second winery established after Prohibition (after Robert Mondavi. Yes, there was a huge lag between 1933 and 1967, but people were concentrating on drinking booze instead of wine).
Even though they are a mid-sized operation, making 35,000 cases a year (420K bottles), this place is truly a family establishment. Still run by the Chappellet family, you can see Molly and Donn's residence from the Winery and catch a glimpse of Molly's gardens, for which she is famous and on which she has published several books. A few of the kids live nearby and most are involved in the business.
There's something to be said for living on the property -- I'm guessing it makes you not want to mess it up with chemical treatments and fertilizers. And being secluded, you probably want to find resourceful ways of saving on the electric bill too. The Chappellet's have definitely made choices that would indicate a dedication to the land.
90% of their vineyards are certified organic and they have a huge solar farm that powers their whole winery. They use runoff captured in their reservoir for irrigation, have a robust recycling program, and only 16% of their property is planted to vine. And you get the distinct impression that, unlike a lot of other wineries, this isn't done for show or PR purposes, it's done because the Chappellets think it's the right thing to do. It's a source of pride for them, but not because it's great for business. I liked the genuine vibe I got from them -- so different from so many others further west in the Valley.
So, honestly, all this is a very nice story, but if the wines sucked, I would have hoped that I had run out of gas and never made it... Thankfully, that's not the case. Famous for making extremely powerful and delicious Cabernet, this place didn't disappoint at all.
Here's the lineup:
Smell: Peach and lemons abounded. It was simple but very bright and light smelling. I was bracing for the cilia singe from the high alcohol, but it wasn't there -- good sign!
Taste: A total surprise. I usually think of Chenin Blanc as having a wooly, wax lips quality, but this was more like peaches, dried apricots, and green grapes. It was pretty acidic and light and fresh. A lot of Chenin Blanc (like from some Vouvray in the Loire Valley of France) tends to be off-dry or lightly sweet but this was bone dry with no sugar. The soft feeling sensation from the alcohol counterbalanced the acid and slight bitterness, so the wine felt kind of lush.
Smell: The wine smelled like a garden. It was full of roses and violets. On a second sniff it was more like plums and blueberries. I didn't get any spice or earth from the aroma at all, different for a Merlot.
Taste: Wow, the nose completely misled me. This wine was very fruity! It was all black cherry, blueberry, plum, and blackberry. It had some great mouth-drying tannin to balance the fruit and decent acid to make it less heavy, but I can't say there was any noticeable flavor besides fresh, ripe, juicy fruit here and an excellent texture to make it sing.
Drink or Sink: Drink. This wine wasn't really my style, since I like some of the other non-fruit flavors in my wine, but it is such a classic Napa style that I love it for that. What a great representation of what fruit, grown in the proper place and picked at the right time, can do.
The Chappellets have been making this since the very beginning and it really shows off their style and what Cabernet can do when grown at an elevation.
Color: This was a dark, black plum color. It had a crimson rim. I expected TONS of flavor from the look of this opaque wine with super thick legs from the almost 15% alcohol.
Smell: Fruity and full! Black currant, blackberry, mulberry, and violets were all over this. It was so fragrant! There was a mellow espresso and cinnamon smell too. This smells like what I think a Napa Cab should smell like.
Taste: Whoa. This is a meal, it's so big! The wine was like blueberries, black currants, and juicy, ripe black raspberries. It tasted like coffee and had a little bit of an earthy, almost sulfur note to it. Not bad, just kind of earthy. The tannins on this wine were massively mouth-drying. I was chewing them long after the swallow.
Drink or Sink: Drink. This is a GREAT, classic California Cab. Finally! A winery that isn't trying to be something it's not. Napa has a distinct style -- fruity, lush, full, and unabashed. Too many wineries these days (fortunately none that I visited while in Napa a few months back) are trying to alter their styles to make less fruity wines. Although I don't believe in letting the grapes get overly ripe, I think a lot of wineries, in an effort to cater to trends, are not getting enough flavor from their grapes. They should take a lesson from Chappellet and stay true to what Napa can provide...fruit, tannin, and ripeness.
Wine #4: 2008 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon (Blend: 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16%
Petit Verdot, 8% Malbec, 14.9% Alcohol)
Price: $135 (Their showpiece wine, and in high demand)
Color: Similar to the Signature Cabernet in color -- it was almost purple and the wine stained the glass when I swirled it.
Smell: It also smelled like the Signature Cabernet but even more like plums and violets. The wine had a cedar and vanilla thing going on and it smelled like cocoa powder. That said, the overwhelming notes in the glass were fruit, fruit, and more fruit!
Taste: Even more than the Signature, this wine was all fruit, oak, and tannin. If the Signature wine went to the gym, you'd have the Pritchard Hill Cab. It's a fruit bomb with blackberry and cola flavors (it tasted a little like Dr. Pepper, but good). The winemaker used 100% new French oak barrels, so the oak notes kind of clobber your palate -- I tasted a ton of vanilla, cloves, caramel, and burnt espresso. The wine had big tannin too, but because it seemed sweeter than the Signature, the tannins seemed to be less harsh.
Drink or Sink: Drink. Another typical example of Napa Cabernet. It was a great wine. This is a Napa Cab lover's wine. My only question: is it really worth $86 more than the Signature. It's better, but maybe only $30 so, not $86.
Thank you so much to Katie and the folks at Chappellet for their outstanding hospitality. I loved the property, the people, and the fact that these are true Napa wines. If you're a Napa Cab lover, look no further than this gorgeous, eco-friendly place.