Revisiting the 1969 Chappellet Napa Valley Cabernet

One wine helped launch the winery, and the career of the winemaker
Jul 10, 2012

It had been decades since I tried the 1969 Chappellet Napa Valley Cabernet. The last bottle I tasted had expired. Not this time around.

The other day, over lunch at their winery, Donn and Molly Chappellet uncorked their 1969, their first commercial wine, for a taste of history. It captured the wine in all its glory.

Paired alongside the 1999 and 2009 versions from the family's Pritchard Hill vineyard, the '69 looked nearly identical in color to the two younger vintages, still very dark red ruby-garnet, with little if any browning. It had retained its rich core of dark berry, tobacco and cedar and could have easily passed as a timeless Latour.

Phillip Togni oversaw winemaking back then for the Chappellets, making the first few vintages. Many considered the back-to-back 1969 and 1970 Chappellets to be classics, and when you find a great bottle of either, the evidence is compelling. Togni departed in the early 1970s and now runs his eponymous winery on Spring Mountain, where he has enjoyed success with his vineyard.

The Chappellets pioneered modern winemaking on Pritchard Hill, east of St. Helena and overlooking Lake Hennessey. They moved their family from Malibu, in Southern California, to Napa in 1967. Mr. Chappellet, then 36, had become a fan of Bordeaux and figured Napa was their best bet if they wanted to make great Cabernet. "It was the most proven place in California," Chappellet explained. He interviewed winemakers of the era from Napa, getting his best advice from André Tchelistcheff, the legendary winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard. BV's best Cabernet came from the Rutherford vineyards that surrounded the winery. But Tchelistcheff insisted he could make even better wine if he used hillside grapes. "After I heard that, I didn't ask anyone else," said Chappellet, who is now 81.

The Chappellets bought two adjacent parcels of land, 320 acres each. The second acquisition cost $45,000, Chappellet recalled. The property had been planted earlier in the 1960s, a typical field mix of the era, Cabernet, along with Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Napa Gamay. Today the winery still focuses on Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay, from Carneros, along with Chenin Blanc, one of Molly's favorites. The 2006 Chappellet Cabernet (94 points, $42) ranked No. 6 among Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of 2009. Longtime winemaker Philip Corollo-Titus made that one; he has for years provided Chappellet with both stability and a high level of quality and consistency.

The neighborhood has grown up too, inspired, no doubt by Chappellet's early success with Cabernet. Their neighbors now include Bryant, Colgin, Ovid, David Arthur and Continuum. If Chappellet's Pritchard Hill 1969's excellence and staying power are any indication, it is indeed good to be their neighbor.

United States California Napa Red Wines Cabernet Sauvignon

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