The Napa Valley lost another of its pioneers this past weekend with the passing of Donn Chappellet, founder of Chappellet Winery on Pritchard Hill. He was 84 years old.
He and wife, Molly, founded the winery in 1967, around the same time Robert Mondavi Winery was founded in Oakville. Having worked in the food-service business, and being a longtime collector of first-growth Bordeaux, Chappellet is credited with driving vintners to plant on high-elevation hillsides. He and his family, which would eventually include six children, drove the tractors, pruned the vines, built the winery and blended the wines themselves.
“Dad was a visionary, a pioneer and a strong, quiet leader here in the Napa Valley wine community,” said Cyril Chappellet, Donn’s son and chairman of the winery. “Together, he and my mom, Molly, built Chappellet into one of the world’s great family-owned and operated wineries. As pioneers of high-elevation hillside planting, they influenced generations of vintners, and helped to redraw the winegrowing map of Napa Valley, earning its steep mountain slopes acclaim as some of the finest vineyard land in the world.”
Throughout the years, winemakers such as Philip Togni, Joe Cafaro, Tony Soter, Helen Turley, Mia Klein and Cathy Corison, would pass through its doors, each earning great admiration and recognition for the winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chenin Blanc.
“Donn was the ideal boss; he was trusting and supportive,” said Corison. “I’ll be forever grateful for his taking a chance, way back in 1980, on this scrawny 20-something enologist, who didn’t fit most of the conventional molds, to make his eponymous wines. A soft-spoken, gentle giant, he was a man of vision who was key in helping the Napa Valley take its rightful place on the world stage.”
Phillip Corallo-Titus has been the Chappellet winemaker since 1990. The family also owns Sonoma-Loeb in Sonoma County, whose wines are also made by Corallo-Titus.
“Far more than just being a great businessperson and leader, my dad was also a wonderful man,” said Cyril Chappellet. “Not only was he incredibly kind and thoughtful, he was our rock, our mentor and an inspiration, not just to my 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. He believed strongly that the best was still yet to come for Chappellet. Now it is our turn to honor that dream and his wonderful legacy.”
Donn Chappellet 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 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Details on a celebration of life will be shared at a later date.