Napa Valley Joseph Phelps
“Joseph Phelps was one of the great visionaries of Napa Valley. His legacy is one of extraordinary quality. He was one of the first to see the merit in blending, which his legendary Insignia, which first debuted in 1974, has proven year after year. It remains one of the world’s finest Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated blends.”
- Robert M. Parker, Jr.
“Not a grape on the property. Lots of nice-looking cattle.” The first impression of the now famous Phelps Home Ranch vineyards in Napa valley, as uttered by Joseph Phelps himself in the 1970s. Today, the Phelps family own vineyards the length and breadth of Napa, as well as on the Pacific Coast in Sonoma; cool pastures new for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Joseph Phelps went onto purchase the afore-mentioned 600 acre cattle ranch in 1973. Having grown his father's Construction business to cover multiple states, and having recently built the Souverain winery, Joe, as he was known, decided to diversify from the building business. A keen wine enthusiast since college, he had dabbled with making his own wine by flying grapes in from Napa overnight to his Colorado home. A trip to Italy in the early 70s further convinced him to take the plunge.
Phelps and winemaker Walter Schug planted 100 acres straight off, with everything from Californian staples such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel to Gewürztraminer and Riesling. The winery was completed in time for the harvest in 1974 – no mean feat in itself – combined with the fact that in the same year he produced Napa’s first varietally-labelled Syrah, modelled on his love of Côte Rotie and Hermitage wines, and created what was to become his most important legacy; his flagship wine Insignia, a Bordeaux-style proprietary blend.
Insignia, “the finest from each vintage”
In 1974 Joe decided to make a separate cuvee each year that would represent the best wine that could be made from each vintage. The idea to blend the finest parcels of the same vintage into one bottling was completely new to Napa in the early 70s and was quickly adopted by other Napa Valley producers. Through the years it became apparently clear that Cabernet Sauvignon was going to be the dominant grape in the blend, so from 1977 onwards it was decided that Insignia would always be a red Bordeaux-style blend.
Since 2004, Insignia has been 100% estate grown, a blend of the best wine from the Phelps vineyards that stretch from St. Helena in the north to the Oak Knoll District and South Napa Valley in the south. Estate production ensures complete control from grape to bottle. “Produced without regard to quantity and with only one goal in mind – to make the best wine possible each vintage – Insignia continues the pioneering legacy founded by our father and grandfather over forty years ago.”
It had long been a dream of Phelps’ to make premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in California to stand alongside his Bordeaux style blends. Although he had some success in Napa, he was convinced there were better results to be had. Bill Phelps, Joe’s son, who became president of the winery in 2008, encouraged his father to look into acquiring land on the Sonoma coast. In the mid-1990s there were few vineyards in the area; most of the land was given over either to pasture, cattle or forestry, but they settled on a site near Freestone. It was a sharp learning curve, having to deal with steep slopes, morning fog and relatively untested grape growing soils and areas. It took five years to produce the first harvest, with clone changes and big adjustments to canopy management, trellising and pruning along the way. Today, these Freestone Vineyard bottlings are limited-production wines, sourced from two or three blocks in each vineyard, and are deep, pure and elegant.
You will find Joseph Phelps’ Freestone Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on our list, as well as their Cabernet Sauvignon. The Freestone Chardonnay and Pinot Noir aim for the elegance of Burgundy whilst also staying true to their Californian roots. Their Chardonnay has rich hazelnut and marzipan notes with beautiful freshness and the Pinot Noir hints of roses alongside tarry, spiced red and black fruits.
The Insignia we offer en primeur every year. Sign up for our emails or keep an eye on our offers page to stay up to date.
The Phelps website can be found here: https://www.josephphelps.com/