By Paul Vigna
Maybe no image epitomizes winery matriarch Molly Chappellet more than the image of her walking out of her home and into the vineyard, a visit she enjoyed making from the time she and her husband Donn settled on the slopes of California’s Pritchard Hill.
“I don’t feel that I’m alive if I haven’t been out in the vineyard,” she says. “I was so fortunate because the home that we lived in … I could walk out of my door and a few steps away was the vineyard.” There, she would “see what the temperature is, see how the plants are doing, how the vines are doing. The vineyard has opened a lot of doors for me in every way but especially for my love of growing things.”
The irony is that Chappellet was raised amid a different network of roots in Beverly Hills, studying art at the Chouinard School of Art, UCLA and Scripps College, working as a docent when the Los Angeles Museum of Art opened.
She met Donn, who had farmed as a teen, and ultimately they chose a career path that took them out of L.A. with their five children (one on the way) and into what was then an undeveloped Napa Valley.
Molly has spent more than 50 years there, raising a family and growing a winery while building her own niche as a skilled designer, landscape gardener, photographer, cook and entertainer, She is the author of five books, including A Vineyard Garden, a James Beard Award-winning book that lays out her ideas for entertaining, gardening and life.
All of that, in addition to what her friend Glenn James calls her “selfless giving to the community,” contributed to her nomination as one of Wine Industry Network’s most inspiring people for 2021.
To see what’s outside her window now is so contrary to the landscape that met their gaze in the late 1960s, true pioneers on a rugged terrain. While a new vineyard was there, there were no trees to provide shade from the western sun, no shortcuts to purchase produce that were in short supply in nearby St.Helena.
“This is ridiculous,” she recalls them saying. “Of course we should be growing everything that we eat, we have this land.”
Gardens and vines, they were always the same to her, she adds. “It was part of nature, it was growing, it was right here, and that we’re responsible for it because we’re taking care of it.”
That philosophy proved a springboard to much of what she accomplished in her career: the books, the showpiece gardens, the entertaining, the TV appearances, the newspaper and magazine articles, the winemaker dinners she held at home and around the country.
James calls her the “consummate hostess and cook, welcoming wine industry professionals or friends for lunch on the patio with its dramatic and unforgettable views of the vineyards and winery building below and then on to a lake as a backdrop.”
Her interests spilled into the Napa wine community at large, particularly with the founding of what’s now called Auction Napa Valley, which she would twice chair and often contribute to from a visual perspective. There were the vines that she turned into picnic baskets to viticulturally inspired art installations for the event, all raising millions for local charities.
That eye for impact, Carissa says, is her mom “seeing things that others don’t” and thinking big. One example was Molly asking to gather the piles of metal stakes and wire being ripped out of old vineyards and bringing them to the auction as a display. The placements were so stunning that the auctioneer spontaneously auctioned one of the 60-foot-tall bundles of rusted scrap metal,” Carissa says, adding that the winning bidder would only purchase it if Molly would supervise the installation at their winery.
In the 1970s, Molly was hired to create the look and feel of the New York Barrel Auction when it moved to California. She used vegetables to create centerpieces. “You have to know Molly to know that that doesn’t mean a bunch of carrots are on the table, think big, and then think bigger,” Carissa says. “Mom went to the produce market and spoke with the farmers and got her pick of the produce,” yielding, for example, on one table a mound of maybe 30 cauliflowers on top of a deep purple cloth and with lighting, of course. Being a photographer, mom is always aware of the light.”
But it wasn’t as much the scale of the visual Molly was creating but its source, she says, using the art “to make people more aware of the process and of the reliance on nature.”
The children now help run the winery their parents founded; all six are shareholders and, as Molly says, “participate in helping guide what’s being done here.”
Indeed, with all she has done for the wine community, Carissa says, “probably her biggest impact on the wine industry is the success of our winery. Mom’s lifelong dedication to our success has indeed put our winery and Pritchard Hill on the map. Maybe equal to that is her dedication to our land that is not planted to vineyards. I think that’s something that goes largely unrecognized.”
Adds the letter that nominated her: “While many of the legendary Napa Valley wineries of the 1960s and 1970s have been sold or have become large-production brands, Molly was dedicated herself to keeping the winery family run by guiding a generational transition at Chappellet.”
In addition to her children, the family includes 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Donn died in 2016.
She’s enjoying her leisure time now, dabbling with filling a journal while still making the regular trips to the vineyard.
“I said this to Donn one morning, and he didn’t quite understand because he wasn’t the gardener I was. I’d say, I can hardly wait to wake up in the morning and run outside and see what the plants are doing. … It’s a subtle change, like life, you don’t know it until it’s already happened, kind of. You don’t see those buds until long after they have started to swell.”
Continue Reading: Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2021