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  • In Memoriam ~ Joseph Phelps

    JOSEPH PHELPS

    November 12, 1927—April 15, 2015

                Joseph Phelps, an extraordinary and visionary leader in the worlds of construction, wine, and philanthropy, passed away on April 15, 2015 at the age of 87.  He died at his home in St. Helena, California surrounded by his loving family.

                Joe Phelps was born to Nita and Hensel Phelps on the family farm in Maysville, Missouri, on November 12, 1927.  He was the youngest of four children.  The family moved to Greeley, Colorado in 1936.  To support his family, Hensel turned from farming to building construction in 1937, thus founding a firm that today is one of the pre-eminent construction companies in the United States. 

                Very early on, Joe showed signs of a remarkable entrepreneurial spirit.  While still a boy, he earned money delivering newspapers and started a fly-tying business.  He graduated from Colorado State University in 1951 with a degree in Construction Management.  He served as a Lieutenant in the United States Navy during the Korean conflict.

                In 1954, following his discharge from the Navy, Joe returned to Greeley and joined his father in the family construction business.  Under Joe’s leadership, Hensel Phelps Construction Company grew and prospered at a rapid rate.  Within a few years, Hensel Phelps became the largest construction firm in Colorado, and began to expand throughout the United States.  Joe established a program of employee stock ownership at Hensel Phelps that became a powerful engine for the company’s growth and success—a philosophy that endures today.  He received stalwart support from countless others in this endeavor, none more notable than Bob Tointon, his business partner and close friend for the past 50 years.

                Joe became fascinated with wine at an early age, and began collecting wines from around the world while in Greeley.  He established an office of Hensel Phelps in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1966, and soon thereafter began to explore the wine country of Napa Valley and Sonoma County.  His interests in construction and wine converged, and soon he was involved in winery construction projects in Napa and Sonoma Counties.

                He sensed the limitless potential of the Napa Valley to grow the world’s finest wines, and in 1973 decided to found his own wine business, to be known as Joseph Phelps Vineyards.  In so doing, Joe became a leader in a remarkable group of entrepreneurs who launched a new era of excellence in California wine.  He purchased a cattle ranch located on Taplin Road, just off the Silverado Trail, in March of 1973.  Together with his first winemaker, Walter Schug, he immediately embarked on an ambitious plan to plant dozens of acres of vineyards, and commenced construction of a classic winery on the property.  The first wines from Joseph Phelps were produced in 1973.  Because the winery building was not completed until 1974, the first wines were produced at Heitz Wine Cellars and Souverain Winery (now Rutherford Hill).

                The wines enjoyed early critical and commercial success.  With the 1974 vintage, Joe created two landmark wines which brought greatness to the winery:   the 1974 Napa Valley Syrah, and 1974 Insignia.  Having found a little-known planting of the original Syrah grape, Joe made the first varietally-labeled Syrah in the state of California.

                The 1974 Insignia marked the creation, somewhat by chance, of an entirely new category of California wine:  the proprietary Bordeaux-style blend.  Joe wanted to craft a cuvee that represented the best wine he could produce in any given vintage, irrespective of variety—a wine to be known by its own unique name, rather than by the varietal name.  He thought of the name “Insignia” one morning while shaving.  The 1974 Insignia was released in 1978 to resounding acclaim.  Insignia has been produced in each year since, and is annually considered a benchmark for the finest that Napa Valley can produce. 

                With Hensel Phelps Construction and Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Joe created two companies that reached the pinnacle of success in two completely different industries.  However, his interests and activities ranged well beyond these two fields.  Intensely interested in the converging worlds of wine and food, he purchased the Oakville Grocery Company and was involved in operating it for many years.  He became a private airplane pilot at the age of 60 and earned his instrument rating soon thereafter—two achievements of which he was very proud.

                As his personal success grew, he sought to give back to the communities that had nurtured him, through countless philanthropic initiatives.  Some of the organizations closest to his heart were St. Helena Hospital, the St. Helena Women’s Center, the Land Trust of Napa County, and Colorado State University.  In 2001 he donated land from his home ranch to Napa County for the creation of the River Ranch Farmworker Housing Center. 

                With his first wife, Barbara Ann Phelps, Joe raised a family of four children, all of whom were at his side at his passing:  Leslie Phelps, William Phelps (Andrea), Laurie Anderson (Todd) and Lynn Finch (Richard).  He was proud grandfather to eight grandchildren, and, most recently,  great-grandfather to two great-granddaughters. 

                A celebration of life event will be held in honor of Joseph Phelps on Wednesday, May 13, 2015 at 11:00 a.m. on the grounds of Joseph Phelps Vineyards, 200 Taplin Road, St. Helena, CA. On-site parking will be available with overflow parking at the River Ranch Farmworker Housing Center on Silverado Trail.

                In lieu of flowers, donations to honor Joseph Phelps may be made to the St. Helena Hospital Foundation or Colorado State University Foundation in support of the Phelps Internship Placement Program.

     

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