Chappellet Winery – the summit of Pritchard Hill

The original Pritchard Hill

In name and in place, the Chappellets own the real Pritchard Hill. Charles Pritchard was a real man who in the 1870’s first cultivated this difficult terrain about four miles up the eastern mountains from the Oakville floor. In 1873, he reported about 2,000 vines planted and by 1881 there were 15,000 vines on 15 acres (History of Napa and Lake Counties), about the right density of planting for dry-farmed vines on well-draining and shallow slopes. Pritchard’s farmstead was known in those times as “Pritchard Hill.”    

Pritchard Hill is not in a formal appellation or American Viticultural Area (AVA) such as Oakville or neighboring mountain AVA’s Atlas Peak or Chiles Valley, nor does it need to be. Pritchard Hill is, in the old world tradition before formal appellation systems came to being, a “climat” or “lieu-dit,” a high quality, distinctive vineyard that everyone knows by name. While other wineries on the vast mountain use the name Pritchard Hill as a geographic location, the Chappellets farm the original footprint of the vineyards near the peak of the mountain and have proprietary rights to the name in connection with their wines.      

The soils on the mostly south, south-west facing vineyard slopes are remnants of volcanic ash created millions of years ago. Volcanic activity created a mountain that was originally 14,000 feet above sea level but has over time and through erosion diminished in size to about 2,000 feet, leaving behind well-draining volcanic soils and huge boulders. While the Chappellets use back-hoes to dig out these huge boulders, one can imagine what Charles Pritchard did in the 19th century to cultivate the virgin land. The original terraces he carved out of the steep hillsides to work the vines are yet in place. The upper vineyards at about 1,200 feet are above the fog line and therefore receive great luminosity throughout the day to ripen the thick-skinned cabernet sauvignon.    

The story of the Chappellets begins in the 1960’s, when successful businessman Donn Chappellet and his wife Molly decided to move to the Napa Valley to follow Donn’s desire to make great Bordeaux-style wines and to begin a new life for their young family. In searching for the right property, they sought the advice of legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff who told them that the only place to grow quality grapes for such wines was up in the mountains.  He also advised them that to maintain quality, they needed to keep the production small, about 100 acres.  The Chappellets discovered Pritchard Hill and built the winery in 1967, becoming only the second new winery in the Napa Valley in the 20th century after Robert Mondavi. They planted all five red Bordeaux varieties which remain the core of their production, with long-term winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus crafting world-renowned cabernet sauvignon wines.    

Donn and Molly Chappellet raised six children on Pritchard Hill, three of whom live there today with their young families. According to Carissa Chappellet, it was an idyllic childhood with ‘built-in’ playmates. All six children remain active and committed to the family winery today, providing continuity to a great legacy.    

Because Pritchard Hill is their home and oasis with children always running about, the vineyards have always been farmed naturally and today, all 100 acres of vineyards are certified organic. Molly Chappellet, an accomplished gardener in her own right, always made her own composts and worked with UC Davis as early as the 1970’s regarding the use of beneficial insects as an alternative to chemicals.  David Pirio, Chappellet’s vineyard manager for 37 years, oversees the vineyard operations with great intimacy and long-term, forward planning.  Chappellet Winery follows sustainable practices by nature and by philosophy, using only captured rainwater for irrigation, recycling materials and running on 100% solar power.    

Chappellet is one of Napa Valley’s great families, crafting renowned Bordeaux-style wines through nurturing of a great climat and a long-term commitment to their original ideals.    

Chappellet Winery welcomes visitors for a tour and tasting Tuesdays through Sundays by appointment only.  Due to limited road access, they cannot accomodate drop-ins.  From May to October, Chappellet also offers a “back road excursion”  of the property on the Pinzgauer jeep.   Check the website for details of the tours and tastings and to book directly or contact / 1-800-4-WINERY (1-800-494-6379).