No. 1. From construction to cabernet:
In the 1960's, Joseph Phelps was living in Colorado, running a large construction company and accumulating top wines from around the world in his cellar – including first-growth Bordeauxs for $7 a bottle. He thought he would try his hand at winemaking and had Californian grapes flown to his home in Denver, where he put them through a hand crank crusher and vinified them in his basement.
When his company was contracted to build the Souverain Hill winery (now Rutherford Hill) near St. Helena, Phelps contemplated a career change. Soon thereafter, in 1973, he bought a 600-acre cattle ranch in Spring Valley and began planting vineyards. He completed the winery the following year.
No. 2. Riesling – in the Napa Valley?
Bill Phelps, Joe’s son who runs the winery today, says that his dad did not often get things wrong. But when he saw 30 wineries in Napa in the early seventies, Joe said: “We’d better get in quick – there are already 30 wineries and there can’t be room for many more!”
Even if the logic proved faulty, buying in at that time was prescient. Phelps planted riesling in the early days because it could get to market quickly, helping cash flow. He also bought red grapes, and in 1974 he bottled the first varietal syrah in California.
No. 3. A close shave:
Phelps also bought some cabernet from the Stelzner ranch for a Bordeaux-style wine. Bill says that his father wanted to make it a special cuvée but didn’t want to call it “reserve." Because there were no rules on what “reserve” meant, Joe figured anyone could replicate it.
He decided they needed a proprietary name. This was the perfect solution since it allowed for flexibility on sourcing (not tied to one vineyard) and on the blend (could change with grape availability), yet prohibited competitors from using the name.
“We had a family contest but, in the end, my dad thought of the name while shaving,” Bill recalls. No focus group was needed, no committees, no online polls: when Joe went to the office that morning, he announced that the wine would be called “Insignia.”
Insignia was first aged in large, oak, upright vats. There was a gradual shift to aging in oak barriques and since the early 1990's, Phelps has aged the wine for 24 months in 100 percent new French barrels.
Production of Insignia hovers at between 12,000 and 15,000 cases a year, with the wine being made exclusively from estate-grown fruit.
No. 4. Stock market bellwether:
“You could do an overlay of our wine club with the Dow [Jones]," says Bill Phelps. "In late 2008, wine club membership fell 25 percent but now is at an all-time high."
No. 5. Going once, going twice:
Milton Eisele developed a 35-acre cabernet sauvignon vineyard southeast of Calistoga in the 1960's, which became one of the most celebrated in the Napa Valley. Starting in the 1970's, Ridge, Conn Creek, and Joseph Phelps all made vineyard-designated wines from Eisele, with Phelps eventually buying all the grapes.
Joe Phelps took a pass on buying the vineyard once in 1989 when the Eiseles put it up for sale, and again in 1990 when the purchaser, a junk bond trader, relisted it. Because he was on good terms with the new owners, Bart and Daphne Araujo, Phelps was allowed to make a last vintage from the vineyard in 1991 – a vintage that produced some standout wines from the region.
Today, Bill Phelps says: “If we could acquire another vineyard that would complement our existing ones, I would love to do that."
No. 6. Blend it like Beckham:
The most popular tasting at the Napa winery is the Insignia blending seminar. Twice a week, visitors get to learn about blending by tasting Insignia, then mixing shots of cabernet sauvignon, malbec and merlot in a separate glass to replicate the winery’s flagship blend. It’s clear that people love to play winemaker for the day – even if they are paying for the privilege.
No. 7. Syrah, syrah:
In the early days, Joe Phelps cast his net wide looking for syrah. But he eventually found some plantings only a mile away at Christian Brothers winery, which had a six-acre vineyard. Their vine stock came from France by way of the UC Davis Oakville experimental vineyard, which brought it over in 1935. Phelps bought some of the fruit from Christian Brothers and took some cuttings to plant his own estate syrah. He was the first to bottle a varietal syrah, with the 1974 vintage (released in 1977).
Phelps has made syrah every vintage since. Today, production is a modest 600–900 cases, with all from fruit sourced from two (non-estate) vineyards.
No. 8. In pursuit of pinot:
Joe Phelps loves Burgundy – he has a house in the region, in fact. Although his winery had developed a reputation for cabernet blends, it also made a pinot noir and a chardonnay from carneros. But in the late '90s, Phelps went in search of cooler sites for the Burgundian varieties. The Phelps team headed towards the Sonoma Coast to the relatively un-winey (at that time) area around Freestone.
They selected a site, planted 100 acres (80 of which are pinot noir), and built a winery – all in 1999. Although Damian Parker is the director of winemaking at both sites, the wines are radically different, with the pinot noir delicately reflecting the cooler climate. The wine has caught on through the Joseph Phelps mailing list as well as with distributors, with the Freestone pinots giving them a stylistically different calling card to play.
No. 9. Philanthropic work:
Labor doesn’t frequently come up in the discussion of expensive wine, but it’s essential. The Napa Valley (and other areas) relies on migrant workers during the growing season and there’s often a shortage of housing. Phelps donated five acres on the River Ranch for the construction of farm-worker housing in 2003; located in a cluster of buildings just off the Silverado Trail, the facility sleeps 60. It was funded by the Napa Valley Vintners and a state agency, and is now owned and operated by the Napa Valley Housing Authority.
No. 10. What to drink now:
Steve Lieder, wine educator at Chelsea Wine Vault in Manhattan, views the Joseph Phelps Vineyards Freestone Pinot Noir as an essential one to stock. “The combination of earthiness and fruit make it typical of the foggy Sonoma Coast,” he says.
“We’ve had every vintage since '08 and each one has been outstanding,” Lieder adds.
And his favorite Insignia? “We just had a staff tasting with the 2006 and 2008," says Lieder, reporting that he can't find a supplier for the 2007. "The 2008 is extraordinary and we all were enthralled.”
Here is a selection of some Joseph Phelps wines and their prices on Wine-Searcher (US$, ex-tax, per 750-ml bottle):