fireman, a weather-channel host wannabe, and the heir to half of the
Brown-Forman wine and spirits empire, may seem an unlikely threesome
to start a winery, but they did, and in 1995 Chameleon Cellars debuted.
By day, they all blend into the world with the rest of us non-winemaking
civilians. By night, they come out to pursue their passion -- making
Jeffrey Popick, the head winemaker and general manager, met us at
Moss Creek winery where Chameleon sublets
space to make their wine. It is 10 miles outside of Napa on a windy
road that demands good tires and some Dramamine to make it in one
Jeff has a warm smile and delightfully dry humor that took me a while
to understand -- perhaps it was the Dramamine. He introduced himself
as coming from a long line of winemakers in Baltimore MD -- my first
taste of his sense of humor. There are no long family winemaking lineages
in Baltimore. I scratched it out on my note pad. He actually comes
from a military family and he is the only Black Grape
in the family who decided to make his life on the land and not alongside
Jeffs family probably saw this coming from miles away. His weather
man antics began in high school when he first started offering
free weather reports to anyone who would (or wouldnt) listen.
Against a wave of incredible derision and a few thrown tomatoes,
he happily told all of his schoolyard colleagues about upcoming wind
events and impending thunderstorms -- until the school principal asked
Jeff to stop.
Well, if his destiny was not to be a weather man on his all time favorite
network, The Weather Channel, then he wanted to be a winemaker. A
good excuse to listen to endless weather reports for the sake of the
vines? Very likely. He does, however, write the weather column
St. Helena Star. His attention to detail with the vines and his obvious
confident spirit certainly help make his wines incredibly flavorful.
His philosophy is to have all characteristics of a wine in balance
--the fruit, the alcohol, the oak, and the tannin all must create
an integrated experience. Chameleon wines must fit well with a wide
variety of foods. This can be a wonderful analogy to the name chameleon,
but Jeff admits, although it fits well -- it wasnt why they
name of the brand.
He, Rick Stetler and Owsley Brown were getting ready for their 1st
vintage in the fall of 1995 which was going to be a Sangiovese --
a fairly rare wine being made at the time when they were brainstorming
for the perfect name. Rick and Owsley pondered, What are we
going to do if the people dont want Sangiovese and Jeff
said, Well give them what they want. Well be chameleons.
They loved it. Chameleon Cellars was born. Rick, the fireman, also
pointed out that although chameleons adapt in color to their environment,
they are one of the most UN-adaptable creatures in nature. They have
a very narrow scope of weather, temperature and environment to survive
-- much like great wine grapes themselves.
Speaking of grapes... we heard the grapes calling our names and went
out to try the 02 Zinfandel in tank. It was unbelievably wonderful
and only days old! A little time in oak barrels and this wine will
be delightful. Jeff has high hopes for it and well be waiting
until 2005 when we can finally get some in bottle. We also tasted
two 02 Syrahs and a Carignane (a French blending grape that
is occasionally bottled as its own varietal here in California) on
The Chameleons are standing on their own in style but blend well amongst
the top-ranking Zins in California. The 00 got 92 points from
Wine & Spirits and is one of the magazines Top 10 Zinfandels
for the year! That kind of Kudos would make any Chameleon smile.