When Molly Chappellet raised her six children, she taught them exactly how to respond to her requests: “The answer’s yes, what’s the question?” They’re now adults—and running the family business—and the tables have turned. “I have to retrain myself,” Chappellet told Fortunein an interview. “I had never envisioned taking orders from my children!”
But such is the fate of Chappellet, co-founder of the renowned Chappellet Winery in Napa. She and her husband Donn have been living on their vineyard, raising their family, and making acclaimed wines for 48 years. And while Chappellet jokes about the challenges of a family business, she is clearly pleased to have built a company (and lifestyle) that keeps most of her children nearby. Three of the Chappellet children work full-time at the vineyard—and all are shareholders and on the winery’s board. “They all worked in the vineyard when they were young,” Chappellet says. “This is part of their life and they’ve never been able to shake it.”
The Chappellets founded their winery on Pritchard Hill in 1967. It was the second to be built in post-Prohibition Napa Valley, only a year after Robert Mondavi opened the first. “When we moved here, the most revealing part of the move was our association with competitors,” Chappellet says. “People would extend their hand and say, ‘What can we do to help you?’”
The Chappellets’ first wine, she says, was a prime example of this camaraderie. Without the help of Mondavi, Joe Heitz (of Heitz Cellar), and Jack Davies (of Schramsberg Vineyards), their first vintage would likely not have been made. “One said, ‘Oh, well I could crush your grapes for you,’” Chappellet remembers. “And the next one would say, ‘Well, I could bottle them, we just got a new bottling facility.’” The finished bottles were then stored in Schramberg’s famous caves. But while that community still exists, she says, not all of the 400+ winemakers in Napa are part of it. “Very often now the wineries are owned by large corporations who really don’t have a lot of connection with the land or the people tending it.”
For Chappellet Winery, however, the land is an essential part of success. Donn chose Pritchard Hill for its sloping terrain and gravelly soil. Farming is tougher on that sort of land, but the payoff makes it worthwhile. “The grapes are smaller than the grapes grown in the valley floor, where they have rich, deep soils,” Chappellet says. “Our grapes are very intense in flavor and complex, and we think, make beautiful wines.” Experts agree with that assessment. In 1969, the Chappellets put out their landmark Cabernet Sauvignon. “Unbelievably rich, powerful and muscular,” wine critic Robert Parker wrote in Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide, 6th Edition in 2002. “One of the classics.”
While her husband provides the wine expertise, Chappellet does not undersell her own role. “I think sometimes women don’t value their contribution in a business,” she says. “But as I get a little older, I think women do play a very special part, bringing a side to the business that somehow our male components are not really aware of.” Chappellet is largely responsible for the winery’s uniquely artistic direction. In the early years, her arts education (she calls Scripps College, her all-women alma mater, “heaven”) came through in the beautifully decorated dinners she hosted for family and friends. Her talents spread by word of mouth and she was soon asked to design an opening event for Domaine Chandon, a Napa maker of sparkling wines. “I filled the entire room with bubbles,” Chappellet recalls, “and so from then on I was invited to design events.” Her now-famous dinner parties have included guests like Clint Eastwood and Martha Stewart.
Chappellet is also a renowned landscape artist and gardener, as well as a James Beard Award winning author. She readily admits that her life is a blessed one: “Living right in the middle of a vineyard, surrounded by forests, every day is a surprise and a thrill and a joy. I can hardly wait to get up each morning.”