(Just another) Afternoon on Pritchard Hill

Two Saturdays ago Laurie and I were able to participate in the second annual (at least we hope it will be annual!) “Afternoon on Pritchard Hill,” which was put on by five of the wineries located in this often-overlooked sub-region of the Napa Valley.

The lawn at Chappellet

Pritchard Hill, which is located on the east side of the Napa Valley up in the hills above St. Helena, is a tremendous piece of property studded with oak trees and possessing marvelous views of both Lake Hennessey and the Napa Valley floor. It is also home to a number of high-end wineries who have moved rocks and earth in order to plant vines over the years, which now produce some really amazing fruit. A couple of these wineries–like Colgin and Bryant Family–have achieved true cult status, so they haven’t felt the need to do a whole lot of marketing outreach. However, the wise owners of Chappellet, Continuum, David Arthur, Montagna and Ovid (I listed them alphabetically so as not to play favorites!) made the decision last summer to put together one large group event for their wine club customers that would help showcase all their properties. While many owners would reject the idea of exposing their own customers to a competitor’s wines, these five wineries have embraced the concept of leveraging their collective terroir and using the group event to further promote ALL their wines among a group of true wine loyalists. At least, that’s how I view the event after talking to a number of other attendees. And I believe it works.

Molly’s beautiful table settings

Last year’s event was held at David Arthur and Continuum; you can read my post about it here. This year, Chappellet took the lead for the first 2/3 of the day, and Ovid hosted us for the balance. Like last year, we all met down at the reservoir below Lake Hennessey, and we were bused up the hill (and I do mean “up the hill”) to Chappellet. Each bus had a staff member from one of the wineries who explained the set-up for the day, pointed out features of the Pritchard Hill area, and answered any questions. Although each of the approximately 100 attendees had been invited by a specific winery (only 20 per winery), at no time were we separated into groups based on which wine club we belonged to. This was a great touch, as we were able to sit wherever we wanted, make new friends, and really enjoy the day without it feeling like a sales pitch was coming. (Of course, we were already paying to attend the event, so the lack of pressure was appropriate.)

The menu, prepared by Cindy Pawlcyn’s team

Upon arriving at Chappellet we disembarked at their amazing grassy picnic area overlooking Lake Hennessey and were handed a glass of sparkling breakfast wine (the only non-Pritchard Hill wine of the day) and mingled with other guests while enjoying appetizers and some live guitar music. Each winery had a few people present, including the respective owners and winemakers, and the limited number of attendees meant we had ample time to talk to everyone. Laurie and I immediately noticed that we recognized many people from last year’s event, so we were able to re-establish connections with a few folks. Almost everyone was from outside the Napa Valley, so clearly people felt compelled to make a special trip to wine country for this soiree.

The chefs at work

Molly and Donn Chappellet made the rounds and tried to say hello to each of the guests. Molly really is the Grande Dame of Pritchard Hill, and she can tell great stories about how so many wineries decided to develop their parcels high up on this terrain. There was just a great article in the Wine Enthusiast about Pritchard Hill, which recounts a lot of the history. You can read it here. Molly is also quite an artist and gardener, and has authored many books. And she has passed her skills on to her kids, who also can do much more than just make great wine.

When it was time to be seated, we were joined at our table by Lygia Chappellet, one of the offspring who

The cheese course, including Lygia’s goat cheese (lower right)

all play a role in the running of the family business. Lygia divides her time between the Napa Valley and Big Sur, where she raises goats and makes cheese. Her goat cheese “situation” (her description) was served as part of the cheese course. More the consistency of a Burrata cheese, it was delicious.

Lunch was prepared by Cindy Pawlcyn, the queen of Napa Valley cooking (she has three restaurants throughout the valley) and her staff set up shop in a corner of the lawn and made amazing family-style food appear on our tables. We enjoyed the Chappellet Chenin

Chenin Blanc, one of my faves

Blanc with our salads; it’s a feat that they can produce this

The salad course

delicate white wine on the rocky terrain of Pritchard Hill. Once the main part of lunch came out, we were treated to a procession of carafes containing barrel samples of the 2011 Cabernets from each of the five wineries. Each owner and/or winemaker stood up and spoke a bit about the difficulties of the growing season last year and described how they managed to make what they feel will be great wines (in lower volumes). While obviously still very young and developing, each of the wines displayed great character, and you could start to taste some similarities in the wines owing to their Pritchard Hill commonality.

A barrel sample being poured with lunch

After enjoying the view, the company, the food and the wine, we were all asked to re-board the buses for a bit of a cross-country expedition up and over Pritchard Hill, to the Ovid winery. The intent of the trek was to really give us a view of the terrain and the soil and the other elements that make this particular mountaintop so unique. I am sure the bus company was not happy with the wear and tear this put on their tires, as we were in stagecoach country at one point. But the journey was worth it, as I believe we all did develop a better feeling for the land. We soon arrived at Ovid and disembarked.

View of the Valley from Ovid

This was my first time at this property, and the view immediately took my breath away. The beautiful winery building, which is both modern and rustic at the same time, is perched in a way to give a gorgeous view of the Napa Valley floor below. Beautiful sitting areas and firepits dotted the outdoor public areas, and the indoor area would

Nice greeting of all the guests inside

be a great place to spend an afternoon sipping wine on a cold winter’s day. Outside, on the crushpad area, each winery poured samples of their current release (2009) red wines. The exception to this was David Arthur, who has already sold out of the 2009 Elevation 1147 Cabernet due to a score of 99 in Wine Enthusiast, so they poured the 2010. Poor David. A variety of desserts and savories were

Cindy’s cookbook, which she personalized

also served, music was played, and we enjoyed the balance of the afternoon. One final surprise for all was that Cindy Pawlcyn was present and she gave us each a signed, personalized copy of her latest cookbook to take home.

At 4pm we said our goodbyes and took the first bus back down the hill, even though others stayed to drink and enjoy the amazing afternoon views across the valley. We heard many folks make parting comments along the lines of “Hope to see you again next year!,” so clearly the event was another success.

Kudos go out to the folks at Chappellet, including Carrie Mullen, and the other winery teams for putting on such a first-class event. While there are many events in the Napa Valley on any given weekend, this is clearly one of the very best we have attended.

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