Photo Clairborne Frank
Perhaps no image better embodies the winemaking matriarch Molly Chappelle than that of her departure for the vineyard, a visit she has enjoyed since she and her husband, Donn, settled on the slopes of Pritchard Hill in California.
I don’t feel alive if I haven’t been to the vineyard, she says. I was very lucky, because the house we lived in at ……. I could walk through my door and there was a winery around the corner. She could see the temperature, the condition of the plants, the condition of the vines. The vineyard has opened many doors for me in every way, but especially for my love of culture.
Ironically, Chappelle grew up with diverse roots in Beverly Hills, studied art at the Chouinard School of Art, UCLA and Scripps College, and worked as an assistant professor at the opening of the Los Angeles Museum of Art.
She met Donn, who was a farmer as a teenager, and they eventually chose a career that took them from Los Angeles with five kids (one on the way) to the then-undeveloped Napa Valley.
Molly spent more than 50 years raising a family and building a winery. She has carved out her own niche as an accomplished designer, landscape artist, photographer, chef and entertainer. She is the author of five books, including The Vineyard Garden, a James Beard Award winning book describing her ideas for fun, gardening and living.
Vineyard chapel and views of Lake Hennessy
All of this, along with what her friend Glenn James calls her selfless gift to the community, contributed to her being nominated as one of the Wine Industry Network’s Most Inspiring Personalities for 2021.
Seeing what’s outside their window now is in stark contrast to the landscape they encountered in the late 1960s, when they were true cross-country pioneers. There was a new vineyard, but no trees to provide shade from the western sun, and no shortcuts to bring in the missing produce from nearby St. Louis.
It’s ridiculous, remember? They said. Of course, we have to farm what we eat, we have this country.
Gardens and vineyards, they have always been the same for her, she adds. It was part of nature, it grew, it was there, and we are responsible for it because we care.
Photo : Bob McClenahan
This philosophy has been the springboard for much of what she has accomplished in her career: Books, gardens, entertainment events, television appearances, newspaper and magazine articles, and winemaker dinners she has hosted at home and around the country.
James calls her the hostess and accomplished chef, welcoming wine professionals or friends for lunch on the terrace with spectacular and unforgettable views of the vineyards and winery building below and the lake in the background.
Her interests extended to the entire Napa wine community, including the creation of what is now the Napa Valley of Auction, which she chaired twice and often contributed to visually. There were vines she turned into picnic baskets to create culturally inspired art installations, all of which raised millions of dollars for local charities.
Carissa says her mother sees what other people don’t and sees big. For example, Molly asked for stacks of metal poles and wire torn from old vineyards to be auctioned off as exhibits. The placement was so impressive that the auctioneer spontaneously auctioned off one of the 60-foot bundles of rusty scrap metal, Carissa says, adding that the winner would only buy it if Molly viewed the installation in her wine cellar.
In the 1970s, Molly was hired to create the look of a barrel auction in New York when she moved to California. She used vegetables to make centrifuges. You should know that Molly knows that it doesn’t mean a bunch of carrots on the table, it means thinking big, says Carissa. Mom went to the food market, talked to the farmers and harvested the crop. For example, she placed a pile of about 30 cabbage flowers on a table on a dark purple fabric and, of course, backlit. Since my mom is a photographer, she always pays attention to the light.
But it’s not so much the scale of the visual work Molly has created that matters, but the source, she says. She uses art to make people aware of the process and their dependence on nature.
The children now help run the winery their parents founded; all six are shareholders and, as Molly says, involved in managing what is done here.
In fact, given all she has done for the wine community, Carissa says: Their greatest impact on the wine industry is probably the success of our winery. Mama’s lifelong commitment to our success has really put our vineyard and Pritchard Hill on the map. Perhaps it comes down to their devotion to our land, which is not planted with vines. I think it’s something that’s still largely unrecognizable.
Attach the letter in which she was mentioned: While many legendary Napa Valley vineyards were sold or became major production brands in the 1960s and 1970s, Molly dedicated herself to preserving the family of vineyards and guiding the transition from generation to generation at Chappellet.
In addition to the children, the family has 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Donn passed away in 2016.
Today she uses her free time to fill in her diary and visit the vineyard regularly.
I said that to Donn one morning and he didn’t quite get it because he wasn’t the gardener I was. I would say I can’t wait to wake up in the morning and run outside to see what the plants are doing…. It’s a subtle change, like in life, you don’t know until it happens, so to speak. You won’t see these buds until they start to swell.
More information can be found here: The most inspiring wine people of 2021.