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At Chappellet in Napa Valley, Donn and Mollie Listen to the Grapes

Times Wine Writer

Sometimes the best wine is made by people with hearing acute enough to hear the voices of the grapes.

Almost any wine maker can recite the lesson of silk purses and sow’s ears, yet some, even those carefully trained at the best institutions, still can’t hear what the grapes are saying. Instead of paying attention and learning from the vine, these folks proceed down a merry path to perdition, wondering what went wrong.

At Chappellet, the people are good listeners, and by listening they have created two decades of consistency.

Donn and Mollie Chappellet left the food-vending business in Los Angeles 22 years ago to move to a ledge just below the crest of Pritchard Hill, on the eastern slope overlooking Rutherford in the Napa Valley. The vineyard they acquired was Donn’s pleasure; Mollie saw potential in the soil about 1,500 feet up for her vegetable and herb garden.

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Over the years, wine makers have developed skill with their vineyards that now ramble over 110 hill-and-dale acres. My first contact with these wines was in the late 1970s when Joe Cafaro was wine maker. He listened to the grapes and made great wine.

Passing the Baton

When Cafaro left for places like Keenan and now Sinskey, his replacement, Cathy Corison, picked out of the archives a few of the elements left from the Cafaro regime (and from Philip Togni before Cafaro) and honed them into a style that can only be called demanding.

Stating it succinctly, Chappellet wines have never been very yielding in youth. If anything, they are reticent to the point of taunting: Guess what I am. Guess what I’m going to be. Nyah-nyah, fooled ya.

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Mollie’s garden, gracing more than an acre in an arc around the side of their huge house on the ledge, has in it many messages. We looked at the cauliflowers facing the western sun of a Monday noon. It is late February. Atypically the sun is warm and bright.

Like Cold Weather

“They like a little cold weather, but they shield their eyes from the sun when it gets this warm,” said Mollie, pointing to the leaves that seem to be closing around the cauliflower heart inside for protection. The message was clear: plants do more than just sit there. So pay attention. Learn from them.

“There are no recipes in wine making,” said Cathy Corison a few minutes later. “You have to know your grapes and you have to adapt every year.” Especially when your lowest vineyard is 1,200 feet above the valley floor.

Donn, a tall, burly, bearded man with a sweet smile who rarely comes down off the mountain, loves the wines he grows here, even though he knows his only recognition will come from those who taste the wines years after they are released.

“Our wines have seldom ranked very high early in their life,” he says, taking another sip of his 1985 Chenin Blanc. “Our Chenin Blancs, for instance. People might think we were drinking an ‘old’ wine with this ’85, but the way we make them, this one is just reaching its peak.”

Corison treats Chenin Blanc here as one would Chardonnay. It’s fermented dry, aged in oak barrels, and by the time it is released, its delicate, harmonious flavors emulate the grape of Burgundy so closely that it’s the perfect thing with which to defrock the local wine snob.

The ’85, still available at $7.50 a bottle, has a slight melon and pine forest aroma, and a crispness that matches with so many foods it’s the near-perfect all-purpose wine.

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Balanced Wine

Chappellet Chardonnay is the one wine that I recall fondly from the Cafaro days as having the balanced, lean, austere, Burgundian characteristics that set it apart from so many of the tutti-frutti California-style wines.

The 1986 Chappellet Chardonnay is spicy with an almost peppery element, but its angular acidity helps make it a perfect match for food. Made to age in bottle, this wine should improve for some years.

By way of comparison, Cafaro’s new 1986 Sinskey Chardonnay shows a similar style from a different region. The Sinskey wine, made from grapes grown in the cool Carneros region, is given no skin contact for added, extractive flavor, and the wine does not go through contortions to wrench extraneous flavors.

It is simply fermented in barrels and left there to allow its flavors to marry with the spent yeast cells. Corison uses much the same regime at Chappellet.

Both of these wineries offer Chardonnays that early in life offer high acidity and austere aftertastes, which are unlikely to excite those who prefer the bubble-gummy flavors in Chardonnay that has been injected almost by syringe.

Yet now, with a teensy bit of bottle age, the Sinskey Cafaro ’86 is already showing its mettle, and Corison’s stylishly complex 1986 Chappellet also hints at what it will become.

I treasure in my cellar a couple of bottles left from a case of Chappellet’s ’74 Chardonnay I acquired in 1976. Tasting it again the other evening at a dinner Cafaro and Sinskey tossed to show his ability to handle grapes, I can now see the faint link between Cafaro and his handling of the grapes (and of his education at the hands of Togni before him), and what Corison has moved on to.

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Considering the Reds

Another good example of the Corison deftness is in the Cabernets. My favorite Chappellet Cabernet from the Cafaro era was the ’75, a wine of ample structure and broadly appealing fruit and complexity these days, and for the last few years.

“Oh, but it was hard and austere and pretty hard to like when it was released,” said Donn. “We weren’t sure what it would become.” I have tasted it twice in the last three months. It is magnificent, perhaps the best of all the ’75 California Cabernets produced.

Because of high tannin levels and few pats on the back when the wines were young in the past, Donn and Corison moved on from the 1970s-style wines to a more accessible style, from 1983 onward. Today the wines show better harmony early, yet remain wines clearly to be aged.

The 1980 Cabernet is a throwback to the earlier style. Still commercially available, it retails for $30. I don’t like it. Product of a too-hot vintage year, it is a huge, brooding sort of thing that has a dual personality. On the one hand, it fancies itself as a dinner wine, with pretentions at matching with game. On the other, it is Port praying for Gorgonzola. Not bad, but not my cup of tea.

The 1983, on the other hand, is a lovely expression of the wine maker’s art. From an awkward vintage, Corison crafted this wine to be more engaging and lively, a perfect wine for restaurants since it is so approachable now, but will improve rapidly in the next five years, At $16, it’s a good value.

The two best wines in the line are the latest Cabernets, 1984 and 1985. The former ($18) is a sleeper, with an intriguing blackberry aroma and toasty elements that indicate a very long life. The ’85 ($20) is more refined in some ways, showing a degree of grace and lively fruit that certainly should carry the wine. Both will do well into the next century.

Donn summed up Chappellet:

“There is a certain limited range to what we can do with these grapes,” he said. “There is a limited number of styles of wine we could make. And we can certainly ruin it, but we can only improve on it by about 20%. The other 80% is the grapes.”

But you have to listen.

Wine of the Week: 1986 Gundlach-Bundschu Merlot ($12)--There is a load of cherry, cassis, raspberry and chocolatey fruit in this fairly rich and quite ripe wine. It is still tannic, but a year or two should round out the adolescent edges. A grand wine for the near term while you’re waiting for your Cabernets to develop.


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