Joseph Phelps Vineyards

We heard with much sadness that Joe Phelps passed away at his home in St Helena, surrounded by his family, on 15th April 2015 at the age of 87. Please click here to read more about his extraordinary life and legacy.

1973 was the year in which it all began for Joseph Phelps Vineyards, when Joe Phelps bought a 600 acre cattle ranch in Napa’s Spring Valley and began to plant his first Syrah vines, with the first bottling in 1974. So much has changed since that time, both in terms of winemaking and the styles of wine people drink as well as viticulture and grape varieties. No-one, least of all Joe Phelps himself, could have predicted that forty years on Insignia would be one of the top Napa wines and, indeed, one of the most lauded wines in the world, nor, indeed, how many spectacular wines it would have to compete against to receive such recognition.

Throughout the intervening decades Joseph Phelps Vineyards have continued to evolve, moving their Napa wines away from the original Rhône Ranger styles which brought them their initial success towards the Bordeaux varieties and indeed Insignia follows all the rules for a top Bordeaux Cru Classé, from the blend of grapes to the mix of different coopers to ensure a perfect balance of seasoning. Latterly, the Freestone range from the Sonoma Coast has been fully integrated into the Joseph Phelps empire and these wines show an incredible and increasing degree of Burgundian classicism which make them ever harder to spot in a blind tasting. Indeed, the white wines are handled almost exclusively as a top white Burgundy would be, with minimal bâtonnage and being racked only once prior to bottling.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards now owns and farms over 350 acres of prime Napa Valley terroir. Their vineyard holdings cover some of the leading AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) in the Napa, from the 120 acres planted to vine on their St Helena ranch to vineyards in Rutherford, Stags Leap and Oakville, as well as Yountville and South Napa, all of which are renowned for the quality of their Cabernet Sauvignon. We have visited the Phelps team on a number of occasions and are always impressed by the constant activity and innovation in the winery and vineyards.

In terms of climate and soils, the Napa Valley is something of a patchwork quilt, with complex soil profiles to rival many a traditional old world region, and temperature variations to match. The best Cabernet producing areas are to be found at the cooler Southern end of the valley, where the vineyards are refreshed by cool air being drawn up from the coast by convection. Here, the temperatures can be anything up to 7oC cooler than in the north of the valley and, with their long growing season, the result is consistently ripe, rounded tannins with great depth of flavour.

In 1978 Joseph Phelps released a new wine, Insignia 1974, a blend of the traditional Bordeaux grapes. This was groundbreaking stuff, as up until this point Californian wines had generally been released either as varietals (Merlot, Chardonnay, etc) or as style brands (such as the somewhat erroneous Red Chablis) so it was highly unusual to release a wine which did not immediately declare its style.

“At times, Joseph Phelps Vineyards is so low profile that it hardly stands out, despite its status as a premier Napa Valley producer. This reticence is a reflection of the owner's personality and style: Joe Phelps is shy and introspective, preferring to let his deeds and wines speak for themselves. ...He prefers that his wines win the accolades... He moved to Napa in the early 1970s, and today presides over one of California's greatest wineries, which routinely produces monumental wines.”
                                                                                          James Laube, Wine Spectator

The current vintage available in the UK is 2011. Due to its tiny production, Insignia cannot be bought on-line but please do call us on 01353 721 999 for availability and current pricing.

The Wines - please call 01353 721 999 for pricing and availability

Insignia 2011
82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Petit Verdot, 4% Malbec, 2% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Franc
Dense red black right to the rim, opaque, with a richly spiced, perfumed nose of tarry black-skinned fruits, very classic and deeply attractive, going to a densely fruited palate – mulberry in particular – intense, spiced and opulent with more refined, ripe tannins behind, tarry and restrained with some distant grilled coffee notes on the finish – the only sign of the 100% new French oak used here. Wow! Drink from 2018 to 2027+ Nicola Arcedeckne-Butler MW

Joseph Phelps Insignia 2010 (Robert Parker 95/100)
84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot, 4% Merlot, 2% Malbec
Deep purple black right to the rim, opaque, with an intense nose of spiced black fruits, exotic and rich, creamy yet juicy and mouthwatering. Sweet, dense black fruits on the palate, crunchy and primary with notes of creamed blackcurrants underscored by substantial ripe tannins, layered and powerful yet totally poised, going to a phenomenally tasty, authoritative finish. Despite spending 24 months in new French oak there is little wood apparent on either nose or palate. Spectacular. From 2015 to 2025 ++

Press Comment:

Insignia is one of the highest scoring wines in the world. For a PDF of Robert Parker scores going back to the 1974 vintage please click here

Insignia 2010
The stunning 2010 Insignia, which is now in bottle, was made from 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot and the rest Merlot and Malbec. A gorgeously intense bouquet of lead pencil shavings, spring flowers, black currants, blackberries, and subtle smoke and foresty aromas jumps from the glass of this full-bodied, rich, concentrated wine with soft tannins, a multidimensional mouthfeel, and a long, rich finish displaying well-integrated acidity, tannin, alcohol and wood. This beauty is one of the top Insignias produced over recent years. Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate, 95 points, October 2013.

Firm, dense and deeply concentrated, this offers a powerful thrust of flavors, with mocha and espresso-laced blackberry, black licorice and cedar notes, revving up on the finish. Pure, driven and persistent, this seems set for a long life. Best to cellar. Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Malbec. Best from 2015 through 2028. - J.L. Wine Spectator, 94 points

Insignia 2009

A gorgeous, totally voluptuous wine, the 2009 Insignia bursts from the glass with exuberant blue and black fruit, grilled herbs, cloves and cassis. In 2009, the Insignia is silky and polished, yet there is considerable underlying tannin that needs time to soften. Layers of fruit flow effortlessly to the huge, structured finish. I imagine the 2009 Insignia will enjoy a broad drinking window. It is striking today, but also clearly has the stuffing to age for many, many years. Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, 95 points

This wine continues a long-standing tradition, showing a mastery of the art of blending. Right out of the bottle, itʼs a soft, smoothly tannic wine thatʼs rich in blackberry jam, black currant, blueberry, raspberry, dark chocolate and spice flavors. -S.H. Dec, 31, 2012 Wine Enthusiast, 96 Points

Insignia 2008

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Insignia [97 points] is a towering, statuesque wine bursting with blackberry jam, tar, spices, leather and licorice. It shows fabulous depth and richness backed up by serious, imposing tannins that suggest it has a long life. Ideally, the 2008 should be purchased by those who can be patient; it is not a wine for those seeking immediate gratification." -Antonio Galloni, Wine Advocate, December 2011

"Insignia Napa Valley 2008, 94 points | $225 | 16,650 cases made | Red
Dense and chewy, this is very tight and closed, but the glimpses of fruit offer tight mineral, crushed rock, graphite, dried currant, cedar and anise. Full-bodied and way too young to drink now, this needs time, but should provide years of rewarding drinking. Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot. Best from 2014 through 2026.—J.L." - Wine Spectator Insider, August 31st 2011

The color is an inky/purple and the wine shows lots of cassis, blueberry, graphite and floral notes, good acidity, stunning concentration and purity, and a long finish. Another great success for Phelps, the 2007 and 2008 Insignias may be the best back-to-back vintages they have produced since 1995 and 1994."
Robert Parker, 23rd December 2010

What a wonderful wine here. The nose shows a fabulous combination of dark fruits, chocolate, spices and caramel. The palate is silky textured with lots of ripe yet beautiful fruit and super silky, tight tannins. This is a balanced wine with all the potential to age for decades. Score: 95". JAMESSUCKLING.COM  June 2011

"Only a handful of Napa Valley’s legendary wines have been around for more than a decade or two, most having been introduced in the 1980s and 1990s, when the success of a few Cabernet Sauvignon–based wines spawned cult followings and inspired a number of parvenu vintners to try their hands at winemaking. Yet the wine that established the regional benchmark for premium Bordeaux-style blends was the brainchild of a newcomer as well. The eponymous founder of Joseph Phelps Vineyards first came to the valley not to plant vineyards but to oversee the construction of a winery for another producer. Smitten with the area, the construction-industry executive in 1973 purchased the 600 acres on Taplin Road that would become his flagship vineyard. The next year he produced Insignia, the first superpremium Napa blend to combine a range of Bordeaux varietals from different vineyards to achieve the finest expression of the vintage. The Joseph Phelps Vineyards 2008 Insignia is a well-balanced composition of 89 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 7 percent Petit Verdot, and 4 percent Merlot. Heady aromas of espresso and freshly grilled bread precede flavors of blackberry, black cherry, mocha, and vanilla cream. ($200)" - Robb Report, February 2012

Insignia 2007

"JOSEPH PHELPS Insignia Napa Valley 2007,  96 points
Firm, intense and concentrated, massive yet well-proportioned, with a dense, focused core of graphite, dried currant, blackberry, black tea, forest floor and blueberry flavors. Full-blown, finishing with rich, layered tannins that beg for cellaring. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. Best from 2013 through 2025. From California.—J.L." Wine Spectator Insider, August 2010

Insignia 2006

"The 2006 Insignia (95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot; 16,000 cases produced) is a superb effort in this vintage. Another 30+ year wine, it boasts a dense plum/purple color as well as abundant notes of licorice, black currants, charcoal, black olives, and graphite. Full-bodied, pure and rich with moderately high tannins, it represents a California version of a Bordeaux from Pauillac or St. Julien. Anticipated maturity: 2014-2045. 95+ points.

“In case you think the aging curves I have described are unrealistically long, I have the Joseph Phelps regular Cabernets from the mid-seventies as well as the Insignias in my cellar, and those wines are still drinking beautifully at 30 years of age. Today's wines are better made.” Robert Parker

"The price of this wine may deter some wine lovers, but we have always found it at the very top of the score sheet when the pencils are laid down.  The proof of the pudding is in the structure, balance and food compatibility, but the details of aroma and flavor are also classic and flawless.  Look for aromas of dark plum, blackberry, baking spices and dark chocolate, leading to concentrated flavors of black fruits and sweet oak with notes of wild herbs, caramel and vanilla.  Superb with steak." Northwest Wines, reviewed by Chuck Hill.

For marketing queries, please contact Laura Taylor on 01353 721 608 or at

To find out more about the winery, please visit

How about the 2010 vintage? See Decanter's news article by clicking here.

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