Second Act

Dan Chapel’s journey from engineer to award-winning winemaker

Dan Chapel, M.S. CE ’62, had no shortage of success during his career as an engineer. But life after retirement still requires a lot of cultivation. Leaving a senior position at Fluor, a global engineering company, to get his hands dirty in the soil of his own vineyard wasn’t an overnight decision. The founder of Cardwell Hill Cellars planted the seeds of his second career 17 years ago, tending the soil every step of the way.

“It’s a significant change of pace going from a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange to one that you completely own and are running with your own money,” Chapel said.

From a risky investment in an abandoned Oregon vineyard, Cardwell Hill has bloomed into a thriving mom-and-pop winery. Its dark, rich 2006 Pinot Noir was chosen as one of Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines in 2008, and other awards have followed.

Surprisingly, Chapel finds many similarities between engineering and winemaking.

“There’s a lot of technical people that have started a second career in this business,” Chapel said. “We can take some of our technical background, our project management background, and add new technology in winemaking and farming that we hadn’t worked with before.”

Chapel had plenty of prior experience. The Minnesota native was recruited by Fluor, a Fortune 500 company, right after graduation. Though his job was based in Orange County, California, engineering projects focusing on clean fuels, coal conversion, coal upgrading and synthetic fuels took him around the world for more than four decades.

“I’ve done work on every continent except Antarctica,” Chapel said.

Traveling in France, Belgium and Switzerland, Chapel and his wife, Nancy, sampled many fine wines and caught the “wine bug,” he said. When they returned home, they decided to buy a small vineyard. But properties in California were expensive. Fortunately, their second choice worked out. “We took a liking to Burgundy wines [in Europe], and the Burgundy type happens to be the Oregon type,” Chapel said.

The last place they toured was an abandoned vineyard, 12 miles west of Corvallis, Oregon. Thistles and vines of wild blackberries choked the property.

“It was in a condition as if someone decided at high noon they’d had it with everything, walked off and left it,” Chapel said.

Though they saw potential, their plans stalled for about a year when Chapel was promoted to senior vice president at Fluor. But in 2000, the Chapels reconsidered and bought the 22-acre property. He continued to work at Fluor for four years while they built the business. Since retiring in 2004, Chapel hasn’t looked back.

Today, Cardwell Hill produces 8,000 cases of wine per year. They are stored in a 4,000-square-foot underground cellar beneath the French country home that doubles as the business’s headquarters.

“We literally sleep on our wine,” he said.

He works roughly 70 hours a week — far more time in retirement than he ever imagined, he said. But Chapel’s passion comes from his connection to the soil the beauty around him.

During the summer months, when the vineyard is green and growing, Chapel enjoys sitting down with a glass of wine looking at his surroundings.

“I look at the sky and watch the red-tailed hawks circling above the vineyard looking for food, and enjoy nature’s paradise,” he said. “I look out there and remind myself that our blood, sweat and tears built this up step by step.”