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Chappellet Founder Donn Chappellet Dies at 84

Submitted By: Miriam Pitt, May 23, 2016
Pritchard Hill Pioneer and Chappellet Founder Donn Chappellet Dies at 84

St. Helena, Calif. – Donn Chappellet, the founder of Pritchard Hill’s® renowned 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. 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 quickly 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. There, they dedicated their family to creating world-class wines equal in stature to the great wines in his cellar. To achieve this goal, Donn applied a hands-on approach, driving tractors in the vineyard, tending the vines, helping to build Chappellet’s iconic 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 renowned for its Cabernet Sauvignons, and the terroir of Pritchard Hill became famous. Where Donn led, others followed, and 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, 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. Commenting 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 underscoring Chappellet’s reputation for making some of the world’s most structured and age worthy Cabernets. 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.

“Dad was the kindest, most thoughtful person,” says Cyril Chappellet. “He was our rock, our mentor, and an inspiration, not just to our entire family, but to so many others as well. He was also humble beyond belief. Despite everything he accomplished, he never took the credit. He always preferred to give others the stage. Along with my mom, my dad created the foundation that our family has been building on for the past 50 years. He believed that the best was still yet to come for Chappellet. Now it is our turn to honor that dream, and his wonderful legacy.”

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.