More than thirty years ago, Molly and Donn Chappellet moved their family from Beverly Hills, California, to the Napa Valley, with dreams of creating a successful wine business. Their destination was Pritchard Hill, a sprawling, rocky landscape whose gravelly soil would prove a challenging, but ultimately very rewarding, home for their vineyard. Today, the Chappellet family discusses the cultivation and harvesting of more than a hundred acres of grapes and the production of world-class wine.
A tour of the vineyard begins with a walk between the rows of grapevines on the "purple road," a dirt path that has been stained by the squashing of countless grapes underfoot. As Molly and vineyard manager David Pirio explain, this particular variety, Vitis vinifera, was brought to the United States from Europe in the late-nineteenth century, and is excellent for making wine because of its ideal balance of sugars and acids. The grapes ripen in approximately six weeks on the vine, and as harvest time approaches, David and his employees sample the fruit each day by taking a few grapes into their laboratory and testing the sugar levels. But even with modern technology, harvesting is not an exact science, so the workers also have to rely on an old-fashioned method -- tasting -- to decide when the grapes should be picked. When they are ready, the grapes -- as many as thirty tons a day in peak season -- are cut from the vines by hand, dropped by bunches into bins, and taken to be pressed. Since pressing must happen as soon as the grapes are picked, the harvest is often referred to as "the crush."
Jon-Mark Chappellet, director of marketing at the vineyard, explains that after the manual work of harvesting is done, machinery takes over. A giant pressing machine, which can crush eight tons of grapes at once, extracts the juice in the gentlest way possible, thus avoiding the collection of tannins and bitter compounds that can spoil the wine's taste. The machine is calibrated differently to suit each type of grape; chardonnay, for example, has different requirements than cabernet. After the juice is extracted, it is ready for fermentation.
Inside the winery, expert enologist Phillip Corallo-Titus explains that the grape juice is first chilled in a large tank to allow any solids to settle out, then the clarified juice is moved to barrels made of aged oak for fermentation. At this stage, the juice is very sweet; added yeast will convert the sugar to alcohol. During fermentation, the juice is tested periodically until dryness, or the absence of residual sugar, is reached. After this occurs, the aging process allows the wine to mature, any remaining solids to settle out, and the wine to take on some of the woody flavor of the barrels themselves. A chardonnay might age in the barrel for about eight months before bottling; while a cabernet ages for at least three years.