I became acquainted with the Chappellet family and its wines in the mid-1970s and immediately liked both.
In 1967, Donn and Molly Chappellet sold their coffee vending machine business and moved from Los Angeles to Pritchard Hill on the eastern slopes of Napa Valley, 1,200 feet above the valley floor. Their winery was only the second to be built in Napa since the end of Prohibition, and the first on Pritchard Hill.
I traveled up the steep road to Chappellet’s breathtaking view of the valley. Around their winery, Molly Chappellet tended herb, vegetable and flower gardens from which she blossomed as an author of books about landscape design.
Donn Chappellet told me he wanted to create a Chateau Latour-styled wine in Napa Valley. And I thought he did. Like that great Bordeaux wine, the Chappellet cabernet sauvignons of the 1970s and 1980s had a mineral and gravel taste behind the blackberry-flavored fruit. Both wines required years of aging to reveal the complex aromas and flavors built on a steely backbone of tannins. It’s been more than a decade, but I can still taste the 1978’s richness and balance that poured from my last bottle. Fortunately, I still have a bottle of the delicious 1986.
During a 20-year span from 1979 to 1999, I always had five to eight vintages of Chappellet’s cabernet sauvignon on my wine list at Le Delice and Sonoma Grill restaurants. At each, I hosted dinners for Cyril Chappellet with restaurant patrons, who quickly became Chappellet aficionados.
In the 1990s, Chappellet’s cabernet sauvignons changed. They became opaque, the new oak aromas and flavors more prominent, the fruit flavor raisiny, the alcohol level higher. In short, the wines reflected the preferences of certain wine critics who gave 90-plus points for that ostentatious style.
With this memory of Chappellet in mind, a few weeks ago I opened a bottle of the 2008 Chappellet Signature Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. The bottle’s label has the signature of Donn Chappellet, and in the winery’s early years was considered its reserve wine.
Its dark red color and aromas of cedar, black olives, cola and balsamic and 14.9 percent alcohol are markers of today’s Napa wines. The wine’s full body and blackberry flavor are the essence of Chappellet’s cabernet sauvignon. And plush tannins allow you to drink it much sooner than the Chappellet cabernet sauvignons of yesteryear. There’s nothing defective about this wine; it’s the style I’m lamenting. Without a doubt, there is a market for the 2008 Chappellet Signature Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. But it’s one crowded with replicas from wine regions around the world.
In recent years, I’ve visited Chateau Latour and tasted the great 2005 and 2009 wines, and earlier this year drank the incredible 2000. While they are richer than the wines of 25 years ago, Chateau Latour remains anchored to its historical style. I wish Chappellet would return to its moorings.
The 2008 Chappellet Signature Cabernet Sauvignon retails for approximately $49.