Joseph Phelps was running one of the largest construction companies in the U.S., Hensel Phelps Construction Company, when he won the bid to build Souverain Winery (now Rutherford Hill) located a few miles outside of St. Helena. Enamored with the beautiful Napa Valley and contemplating a career change, in 1973 Joe bought a 600-acre former cattle ranch, and began planting vineyards and construction of a winery. The first harvest in 1973 yielded Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Johannisberg Riesling bottlings, all custom crushed at nearby wineries. The Joseph Phelps winery was completed in 1974 in time for harvest, crushing grapes for the first Insignia and the first Syrah bottlings. It was a period of unparalleled activity, creativity, ingenuity, entrepreneurship and risk-taking. It put Joe Phelps and his Joseph Phelps Vineyards on the map of top Napa Valley wine producers.
Four decades later, the flagship wine, Insignia, is recognized as one of the world’s great wines. Thirty-three of thirty-nine vintages have been rated 90 or more points by various wine publications, including three perfect 100 point scores for the 1991, 1997 and 2002 vintages from Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate in Mr. Parker’s Historical Tasting of Insignia report, published November 2013. Additionally, the 2002 vintage of Insignia was also awarded “Wine of the Year” by Wine Spectator magazine in 2005.
Over the years, the goal of becoming 100% estate grown resulted in carefully planned acquisitions of prime vineyards in the Napa Valley. Today, the Phelps estate consists of the Home Ranch outside of St. Helena, Banca Dorada in Rutherford, Backus Vineyard in Oakville, Las Rocas and Barboza vineyards in Stags Leap, Yountville Vineyard in Oak Knoll, Suscol Vineyard in South Napa and beginning with the 2011 growing season, Larry Hyde & Sons Vineyard in Carneros.
Estate-grown wines include Insignia, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon Backus Vineyard (the single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville) and Eisrébe, a dessert wine made from the Scheurebe grape. Additionally, estate-grown Syrah was produced from the Larry Hyde & Sons Vineyard beginning with the 2012 vintage.
Joe Phelps had a life-long love affair with the wines of Burgundy and a desire to craft wines in that style. Originally Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were sourced from St. Helena, later from Yountville and then from Carneros. Through the years, however, Joe continued to search for the ideal spot to grow both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. His search ended when the perfect combination of climate, soil and location was found in Freestone, located in the Sonoma Coast AVA, a mere six miles from the Pacific Ocean. In 1999, Phelps began developing 100 acres of vineyards just outside of Freestone. In 2005, construction began on a new winery which was completed in time for the 2007 harvest. Today, 80 acres of Pinot Noir and 20 acres of Chardonnay produce remarkable estate-grown wines bearing the Joseph Phelps name.
"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. He also wasn’t content to just stay at home in Napa, but branched out with cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards on the Sonoma Coast. Joe Phelps was a leader, and one of the greats of the wine world." -Robert Parker
winery image: Bruce Damonte