In the late 1960’s, 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 the 600-acre Connolly cattle ranch in Spring Valley, and began planting vineyards and construction of a winery. The first harvest in 1973 yielded Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Johannisburg 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-one of thirty-seven 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 in November 2013. 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 Spring Valley 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 in 2012.
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.
winery image: Bruce Damonte