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© 1999 JDM Enterprises
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by Jerry D. Mead

      Family owned wineries are disappearing for any number of reasons. Some get gobbled up by corporate buyers or involved in some kind of merger or consolidation. Others seek capital via going public and end up surrendering their souls to a board of directors.

    Then there's Chappellet, the second new winery built in Napa Valley since Repeal (the first was Robert Mondavi, now one of those publicly owned wineries), more than 30 years ago. It's even more a family winery today than when it was created by Donn & Molly Chappellet in 1967.

    How does an enterprise become "more family oriented"? Simple. You raise your children on the property and end up with six out of eight kids active in the business.

    Chappellet was the first new winery since before Prohibition in 1919, to plant its vineyards exclusively on high elevation hillsides on the eastern side of Napa Valley.

    Perhaps most famous for its "Signature" Cabernets, it is also well known for Chardonnay and produces Merlot, Cabernet Franc and has quite successfully mastered Sangiovese.

    And Chappellet is "the" master when it comes to Chenin Blanc, being the only winery to treat this no longer popular grape with such great respect. In a good year as many as four distinct wine types are made from Chenin.

    The year 1998 was one of those versatile vintages that permitted production of all four styles. The Dry Chenin Blanc is basically a fresh stainless steel fermented style. "Old Vines Cuvee" is 100 percent barrel-fermented, made from the very oldest vines (nearly 40 years old), and, at a fraction of the price, will challenge top Chardonnays. It's one of my secret weapons on restaurant wine lists.

    Chappellet 1998 "Demi-Sec" Chenin Blanc ($14) Limited production. Made from grapes seriously affected by the noble mold Botrytis cinerea (a beneficial mold that raisinizes grapes on the vine). It combines a full 13 percent alcohol with just over 5 percent residual sugar. Flavors are melon and honey and while decidedly sweet it does not cloy. Perfect for an afternoon snack of fruit and biscuits, or perhaps with some creamy cheeses. Rating: 95/86

    Chappellet 1996 "Napa" Cabernet Franc ($24) A new variety in the Chappellet line. The current 320 case production level will increase dramatically in coming years. Cab Franc can frequently be as soft and appealing as Merlot, but this is mountain grown fruit! A nose of violets and blueberries. Boysenberry and more blueberry in taste. Still very youthful and mainly about fruit; not showing much wood or complexity at this point. Definitely a keeper. Sock it away and check back in five years. Rating: 90/84

    Chappellet 1996 "Napa" Merlot ($22) With less than 10 percent Cabernet Franc in the blend, the end result is full bodied and full flavored. The flavors are classic black cherry. With a round, voluptuous mouthfeel the wine is drinkable now, but there's a solid background which says "no worries" if you want to cellar it. Rating: 93/85

    There's a little secret about Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignons you should know. The winery has a release price, which is what they usually sell for in the trade, with some discounters actually selling at prices below suggested retail. But to maintain some older wines in stock, for restaurants and others who wish to acquire them, Chappellet retires each vintage to "Library" status when stocks get down to 100 cases.

    At that point, the price goes up dramatically, and each time a new Cabernet enters the "Library," any remaining older vintages go up in price even more.

    I tell you this because both of the Chappellet Cabernets I'm reviewing today are "Library" selections. But because every wholesaler, and every retailer, in the nation are not necessarily aware when the winery raises the price, and because they may have purchased their inventory at the original price, you can often find these wines in the marketplace for a fraction of what the winery is charging.

    Chappellet 1995 "Napa" Cabernet Sauvignon ($67) Get lucky and you might find this lovely wine for $25 or less. Mountain fruit does it again! Very intense, concentrated, black cherry and boysenberry fruit, with a bit of cassis and bittersweet chocolate. Still a little hard in the finish, but very well balanced, and a few years cellaring will take care of what softening is needed. Rating: 94/84

    Chappellet 1994 "Napa" Cabernet Sauvignon ($100) A really sexy, very complex bouquet, flavors more to the black currant/cassis side, but still with a bit of black cherry and a little huckleberry coming through in the aftertaste. The old iron fist in the velvet glove...very big, but so supple. A truly wonderful red wine for today or ten years from now. Rating: 98/84

    Chappellet 1997 "Moelleux" Chenin Blanc ($40 the half bottle) For dessert wine collectors, this is more like a French Sauternes than a German TBA, because it combines sweetness (nearly 13 percent residual sugar), with intense Botrytis character (the mold that contributes a major honeyed quality) and higher than usual alcohol content at just over 14 percent, which should allow it to age for literally decades...but who wants to wait? Fresh pineapple, other tropical fruits, melon, stone fruit like peaches and apricots...a virtual fruit bowl of flavors. And it comes in a beautiful custom bottle that will wow your guests. One small bottle will easily serve eight. Rating: 100/84


    Chappellet 1996 "Napa" Sangiovese ($22) Only a handful of California producers have mastered this difficult grape and delivered this kind intensity without heavy blending. As big as this Tuscan grape gets. Concentrated black cherry, and little cranberry and plum. Boldly structured for a least five years cellaring, but with round-edged tannins that keep it user-friendly for immediate consumption. Rating: 98/88

    Chappellet wines have good national representation, mostly in restaurants and fine wine shops. To track down local retail outlets: Chappellet Winery (800) 494-6379, or check out the website at:

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