Before news of vintner Dan Chapel’s award as Oregon Winery of the Year for 2021 was released, Cardwell Hill Cellars provided validation.
Chapel and his wife, Nancy, earned the trophy for Best Chardonnay and a double gold medal for their 2019 The Bard Chard at the McMinnville Wine Classic, a Willamette Valley competition judged by a panel of wine buyers, sommeliers and journalists recruited from across the country.
That wasn’t all. There was also a double gold — a unanimous vote for gold — placed on the Cardwell Hill 2016 Pommard Block Pinot Noir, as well as gold medals for the 2016 Reserve Pinot Noir and 2016 Monet Block Pinot Noir.
Such a showing came as no surprise considering Chapel earned a trio of Platinum awards last fall at the 21st annual Platinum Judging for Wine Press Northwest. It boosted his career total of Platinums to 12, with nine of those coming in the past five years. And each came off the Chapel estate, helping to elevate the status of the fledgling Heart of the Willamette Wineries Association — a largely overlooked pocket of underrated producers along the foothills of the Coastal Range west of Salem, Corvallis and Junction City.
“I have dual degrees in chemical engineering and chemistry from the University of Michigan, so some of the winemaking came naturally to me, but I never really worked with a food product before,” he said. “And this was the first time that I’d ever farmed.”
Dan spent 42 years as a petrochemical engineer for Fluor Corp., based in Southern California, and he remembers exactly where he was when Nancy prompted him to pursue his interest in growing and producing Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Although they found the future home of Cardwell Hill in 1998, Dan had just earned his promotion to become Fluor’s senior vice president of technology.
“Then in 1999, we went hiking in five areas of Switzerland and the Swiss vineyards were farmed in such a beautiful way,” Dan recalls. “We kept seeing them, and I asked Nancy, ‘How about if we go back and look at that property near Corvallis?’ ”
That 20-acre parcel, known as Monet Vineyard, had been abandoned for about a decade. Ironically, those vines, established in 1984, included the Swiss clone of Pinot Noir known as Wädenswil. Their plantings also feature Pommard and Dijon clones 115 and 777.
Pinot Gris and Chardonnay play minor but obviously not insignificant roles, and the Chapels’ investment near the town of Philomath in the shadow of Marys Peak — at 4,097 feet the highest in the Coastal Range — seems to have been a prescient one.
“We’re only about 40 miles from the ocean, and ours is a cooler site, which I think helps us a great deal to develop Burgundy-type wines,” Dan says.
These are not tiny lots the Chapels dote on. Rather, their award-winners emerge from programs that range from 10 to 15 barrels in size. And Cardwell Hill’s size might come as a surprise because Dan and Nancy produce on average about 7,000 cases per year. That’s more than several of Wine Press Northwest’s recent Oregon Winery to the Year recipients.
“We’ve got 40 acres planted now, and I feel very lucky to have this,” he said. “I love this land, and Nancy and I are happy to be here.”
They’ve also used their brand to honor the legacy of Byron Cardwell, an early settler in the region, whom President Abraham Lincoln appointed to serve as a tax collector. Winemaking consultants early on included Jim Kakacek, formerly of Van Duzer Vineyards near Salem, and the Chapels also count viticulturist Dai Crisp of Lumos Wine Co., as both neighbor and friend.
There also have been investments in the vineyard and personnel.
“My right-hand man, David Ramirez, has been with us since 2001, and we have a permanent crew,” Chapel said. “They get benefits and work year-round. I’m not a hire-and-fire guy. I like to have consistent employees.”
There’s little doubt that Chapel ranks among the most educated winemakers in the Pacific Northwest. He also received a business certificate from UCLA and a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Southern California. Had it not been for the pandemic, last year the University of Michigan would have held the 60th class reunion for Dan and his fellow Go Blue graduates.
“Several times Cardwell wine has been featured at the Engineering School Homecoming alumni banquet,” he said.
The Chapels still reside part-time in Orange County, where they actively market their wines, which remained nicely priced even after earning a spot on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in 2006.
“I like repeat customers,” he said. “I’m not trying to make a killing. I’m just trying to get a fair price for my wines.”
Beyond the life of vignerons, Dan and Nancy are avid readers who enjoy revisiting their stamp collection. They acquired many of them first-hand.
“We like to travel,” he said. “We’ve been in about 96 countries, and a lot of that travel was on business.”
In the Willamette Valley, the Chapels particularly admire the sparkling wines of Argyle and the Pinot Noir from Beaux Frères. In fact, Cardwell Hill uses barrels purchased from the cellar of those famous brothers-in-law — winemaker Michael Etzel and acclaimed critic Robert Parker.
“Nancy said that I needed an active retirement,” Dan says. “Well, here I am. We’ve poured our blood, sweat and tears into this, and it’s been a delight. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We want to have fun and make really good wine.”
Judging by competition results, Cardwell Hill Cellars is making some of the Northwest’s best wine.
Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.
Cardwell Hill Cellars
24241 Cardwell Hill Drive, Philomath, OR 97370