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Obituary: Donn Chappellet

Donn Chappellet, pioneering Pritchard Hill vintner and founder of Chappellet Vineyards, passed away on Sunday 22 May, aged 84.

An admirer of the wines of Bordeaux, Donn Chappellet quit a successful career in business in 1966, moving from Los Angeles to the Napa Valley. There, following the advice of celebrated émigré-winemaker André Tchelistcheff, Chappellet purchased and planted vineyards on the high-elevation slopes of Pritchard Hill.

Chappellet’s project was ambitious. His winery was only the second to be established in Napa Valley in the aftermath of Prohibition (the Robert Mondavi Winery had opened its doors two years earlier). Planting new acreage required arduous work, clearing the land of boulders, scrub and forest. Rural Napa was also a very different environment to raise a family than bustling Beverley Hills.

But the effort was soon rewarded. Working with a series of talented winemakers, including Philip Togni and Cathy Corison, the indomitable Chappellet quickly established a reputation for producing intense, concentrated and ageworthy Cabernet Sauvignon in a style that Hugh Johnson has likened to Château Latour.

Indeed, in the forty-nine years since Chappellet Vineyards’ foundation, Pritchard Hill has become one of Napa Valley’s most feted and pricy neighbourhoods, home to the likes of Colgin Cellars, Continuum Estate and Ovid—though only the Chappellets can use the copyrighted designation Pritchard Hill on their label.

Chappellet’s family were involved in Chappellet Vineyards from the beginning: Donn’s wife Molly continues to contribute an artistic sensibility and notable horticultural flair, and his six children have all been involved with the winery. Since 2013, his son Cyril has served as the company’s chairman.

As Chapellet Vineyards celebrates its fiftieth anniversary next year, Donn Chappellet’s absence will be keenly felt, but his remarkable legacy will be very much present.

Updated 27/05/16

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