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Jeff Popick, Chameleon Cellars

A 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 great wine.

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 piece.

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 Uncle Sam.

Jeff’s 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 wouldn’t) 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 for the
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 wasn’t why they chose the
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 don’t want Sangiovese” and Jeff said, “We’ll give them what they want. We’ll 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 we’ll 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 our tour.

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 magazine’s Top 10 Zinfandels for the year! That kind of Kudos would make any Chameleon smile.

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