Scion of a celebrated winemaking family. Supporter of the Central Coast Wine Classic. Renaissance woman. Meet Carissa Chappellet—and add author to her lengthy list of accomplishments.
By Mark Storer
When Carissa Chappellet sat down to write the story of her home, she turned to mythology, geography, geology, history, winemaking, and art as her guides. The result was a self-published book called #The Dragons of Pritchard Hill#, and the subject, while very much fictional, is based on a real life spent chasing—and catching—dreams.
But that would stand to reason considering her background. One of the six children of Donn and Molly Chappellet of the storied Chappellet Vineyard & Winery in Napa Valley, Carissa is, in addition to her active role in the family business, a licensed attorney, an accomplished artist and musician, a photographer, a cyclist who once pedaled 15,000 miles around the world … and now, an author.
The book is a kind of myth about the home where Chappellet grew up: Pritchard Hill on the eastern slopes of Napa Valley. “I’ve always been a drawer and a painter,” she said, “and dragons were something I always loved to draw.” The story, contrary to the first impression of many who hear of it, is not necessarily a children’s book, though children do like the story, Chappellet said. It traces back through geological time when Pritchard Hill was a 14,000-foot mountain and the dragons came there to live in the caves, plant grapes, and make wine. In the fantasy epic they even create stemware, using their fire breath to blow glass.
But if Chappellet is chasing and living dreams, she’s also helping make them come true for others. She serves on the foundation board for the Central Coast Wine Classic, held in Avila Beach, California each year. The highly regarded charity event was created by Archie McLaren, a world-renowned wine expert and author who met Chappellet in 1999 and fell in love. The couple has been together ever since.
“Our family has been involved with the Wine Classic from the beginning,” said Chappellet. “My sister Alexa was at the very first one, 24 years ago, representing the family.” The Central Coast Wine Classic is one of the premiere wine charity events in the nation and the auction portion sometimes brings in as much as a million dollars, which goes to organizations in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
“We’re very specific about the money we give,” said Chappellet. “It’s not enough just to tell us you’re a [nonprofit organization] and ask for money.” Past recipients, she explains, have included a program that brings drums and percussion instruments to children with autism. “They needed a van to transport equipment and kids, so we bought it.” Other projects include funding a San Luis Obispo group of eight ophthalmologists to travel to third world countries and perform sight-saving surgery, and paying for the San Luis Obispo chapter of Special Olympics to travel and compete outside the county. “When it’s real like that—when we can see what you’re doing for people—we feel like we’ve accomplished something.”
Chappellet and McLaren have homes in Avila Beach and Big Sur, as well as a place on Pritchard Hill. Splitting their time between California’s most beautiful places, up and down the rugged Central Coast, isn’t a cause for sitting on porches and sipping wine all day, though. Chappellet keeps an intense schedule, serving as managing director of legal affairs for the family business; writing; taking photographs, many of which appear in the art auction and in symposiums at the Wine Classic; and, when she gets a few moments, cycling.
Some of those moments came when she told Archie that the Wine Classic symposiums, which went on for four days, were rather confining. “I didn’t know how he’d respond, let alone the patrons,” she said. “But people took to [the idea], so now we do the Central Coast Cycling Classic during the Wine Classic.” Starting in Pismo Beach, the wine and cycling enthusiasts ride 30 miles into the Edna Valley, stopping at three wineries along the way. Leaving no detail unattended, Chappellet helps design the art for the cycling jerseys.
Back on Pritchard Hill, 90 percent of the vineyards are now designated organic and sustainability is at the heart of the business. “My brother Jon-Mark really focuses on sustainability, not just agriculturally but in the community as well,” said Chappellet. Among other renovations, Jon-Mark has overseen the winery’s conversion to 100 percent solar power and an employee produce garden.
Perhaps the Dragons of Pritchard Hill were on to something when they went there to grow grapes. There are now four generations living and working side by side at Chappellet. According to Carissa, the vision for the future is quite clear: “We’re dedicated to keeping it in the family.”
Learn more about Carissa Chappellet on her family’s website at chappellet.com. For details about the Central Coast Wine Classic, visit centralcoastwineclassic.org.
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