The Chappellet Way: Talking About a Shared Vision

May 8, 2008

Wineries hoping to keep their business in the family can’t start planning too soon, says Carissa Chappellet. Communication is crucial. “Once you start having the discussions, you’ve only begun,” she explained, and “when you think you’ve talked it out, even in the abstract, you’re only at the stage when you’re starting.”

Chappellet grew up in Napa at the winery and has been overseeing her family’s long-term plans for Chappellet Vineyards, a 30,000-case winery in Napa's Pritchard Hill area, in the foothills east of St. Helena and overlooking Lake Hennessy.

Founded by her parents, Donn and Molly Chappellet, in 1967, the business planning now involves her parents, an aunt and her siblings, a total of nine who are most closely tied to the business; then there are spouses and their children.

It’s been a complex but beneficial process, she says, where she and family members have worked to define their goals and set forth a vision. Her parents are in their 70s and in good health. But they’re interested in having Chappellet remain a family-owned winery.

Once the Chappellets started discussions “we realized we had common ground,” said Carissa, who is 48, an attorney and in charge of the winery’s legal affairs. “Everyone wanted this [vineyard and winery] to continue in our family.”

The juggling act includes defining roles, what the business is about and how it runs, and making allowances for deaths, divorces and buyouts. For example, one family member could be a brother, a son, head of sales and marketing and a part owner. The winery’s goals—Chappellet intends for now to maintain its present status as a Napa Valley winery at about the current production volume—and vision are things that evolve with time, said Chappellet, something the winery typically revisits at its annual meeting.

Communication among family members is perhaps the most vital tool for success, she said, as is learning to have the winery speak with one voice.

So is assessing expectations. Do family members expect to have a job with the winery? Are they entitled to special privileges when it comes to job opportunities? Do they expect dividends? And what kinds of financial gains?

One thing the Chappellets have done, Carissa said, is offer younger family members intern opportunities to learn about how the business operates.

It’s also important to back away from business. “A family business can be all consuming,” she said, and there are many times during family get-togethers when it’s tempting to talk business. Carissa said she and her family have learned to agree there are times when talk about the business is off limits. “We’ll say, OK, we’re not going to talk about work and just have some fun.”

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