Joe Phelps

Joseph Phelps Vineyards founder Joe Phelps at his desk in 1974

The Builder

Before Joe Phelps became a vintner in the early 1970s, he’d built a successful career as a construction engineer. In fact, even before graduating from Colorado State University Joe had amassed quite a bit of work experience: as a newspaper carrier, print shop owner, filling station attendant, fishing lure purveyor, surveyor, and estimator. However it was in construction that Joe first made his mark, building the company his father had founded, Hensel Phelps Construction Company, into one of the largest and most successful construction companies in the U.S. in little more than a decade. He continued to lead Hensel Phelps Construction Company well after he established Joseph Phelps Vineyards and hired the firm to build his winery in Napa Valley. Though he sold the firm to its employees in 1986, he always credited his years there for a good deal of the success he found in the wine business. It taught him the lesson that would stay with him, and that he practiced, throughout his life: that success should be shared, and can only come with a team of motivated people working towards the same goal.

Bruce Neyers, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, 1975-1992 “I look at Joe as the quintessential leader. He had a knack for making people want to please him. It wasn’t done by pressure, it was done by opportunity. Joe would present an opportunity that was a challenge, and people would find a way to rise to it.”

Bob Holmes, Wine Service Co-Op “He built big buildings all over the U.S. But I think if he was here today he’d say he was most fond of building people. He beamed when he saw somebody grow.”

Ashley Hepworth, Winemaker, Joseph Phelps Napa Valley “Joe never said to push further. We just did it, because we all followed his lead. We did it subconsciously, because that’s the kind of guy he was.”

Elizabeth Neuman, Joe’s Granddaughter “My grandfather didn’t waste words - ‘state your business’ was one of his favorite phrases. But he took great pleasure in giving people opportunity. He set the stage for people to succeed.”

Laurie Phelps Anderson, Joe’s Daughter “My dad never settled. If he sent you on an errand and you came back and said that you couldn’t complete it, he’d just look at you and say ‘Excuse me?’ He wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Black and white portrait of Joe Phelps

The Namesake

When Joe Phelps established Joseph Phelps Vineyards, the fearless vision and gumption with which he’d built his construction company was now focused on the wine industry. He left no stone unturned, learning everything he could about grape growing and winemaking, mostly through trial and error, but also through early associations with people like Joe Heitz, Jack Davies, Louis Martini and Robert Mondavi. He surrounded himself with experts, experimented constantly and applied what he’d learned through traveling, reading and collecting to producing wines that could be counted among the finest in the world. In the early days, dividing his time between the winery and Hensel Phelps Construction Company, Joe worked tirelessly, routinely putting in fourteen-hour days. After he sold Hensel Phelps Construction Company to focus solely on Joseph Phelps Vineyards, he was often the first one to arrive at the winery and the last one to leave. But Joe also liked to enjoy himself, and to share his love of wine, food, and life with his family and the many friends he made in Napa Valley. He cooked and entertained often and liberally opened bottles from his private wine collection. At the helm of Joseph Phelps Vineyards for over 30 years, Joe worked with other Napa Valley vintners on a host of issues and initiatives, generously offering his time and wise counsel. Joe quietly gave back, sharing his success with organizations and people who still feel the influence of his many gifts to this day.

Robert Mondavi, Founder, Robert Mondavi Winery “At that time we were purists, we were making Cabernet, Pinot Noir. He (Joe) came up in 1974 with his Insignia…what we called Meritage; he was the forerunner of that. He was the forerunner of coming in with Syrah, the real Syrah, from the Rhone. And people realized that here’s someone who has a vision; he helped stimulate us to go in the same direction.”

Joseph E. Heitz, Founder, Heitz Wine Cellars ”I’d sometimes worry about Joe Phelps. I’d see him plant a beautiful looking vineyard and about five years later he’d pull the damn thing out and plant something else. The grapes didn’t suit him. He was actively seeking excellence.”

Anthony Dias Blue, Wine Writer “I had a sense there was something going on at Joseph Phelps. A lot of people just stopped at Cabernet and Chardonnay but Phelps was constantly experimenting, pushing the envelope, trying to make things better. And obviously one of the great benchmarks of that whole period was the introduction of Insignia.”

Leslie Phelps, Joe’s Daughter “My dad was passionate, determined, brilliant, and his memory was amazing. He was a true entrepreneur.”

Lynn Phelps Finch, Joe’s Daughter “When dad started out, he did his own marketing.  I remember driving with him and mom around Colorado with a case of wine in the trunk.  Mom and I would sit in the car outside of places like Boulder Liquor Mart and Applejack in Denver while he took a couple of bottles in to taste with the owners.”

Joe Phelps holding one of his grandchildren in a blanket


Joe Phelps stepped down as Chairman of Joseph Phelps Vineyards in 2005, and though he no longer oversaw the winery’s day-to-day operations he remained actively involved in a role he referred to as “Chief Observer.” Soon thereafter, with daughters Leslie, Laurie, and Lynn on the Board of Directors and his son, Bill, running the winery, Joe was able to step back and pursue the interests and hobbies that had always engaged him. He traveled to his favorite places, dividing his time between Napa Valley, Hawaii and France. He plunged headlong into learning French. He studied Italian culture and cuisine. He cooked and entertained. And he spent time with his eight grandchildren, instilling in them la dolce vita that defined his life. They called him ‘Seppi.’

Elizabeth Neuman, Joe’s Granddaughter “Seppi taught us to have respect for tradition, but he also knew that you have to grow to survive. Our family’s task now is to find a way to honor his legacy and keep moving forward. That’s what he would want.”

Will Phelps, Joe’s Grandson “Whatever Seppi did he did it all the way. He enjoyed tennis, and since there were no courts in Greeley he built half a dozen courts for the city and played obsessively for years. He had an interest in cooking, so he befriended Alice Waters and learned to cook from her. He wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the ingredients he could find in Napa Valley, so he took matters into his own hands and purchased the Oakville Grocery. He became interested in flying, so he became a pilot and bought a plane at the age of 60. He was interested in biking, and very quickly began riding from St. Helena to the Pacific Ocean and back in the same day. It was perfectly fitting that he approached the wine business in the same manner.”

The Book

Joseph Phelps Book

The Best We Can Be: The Life and Wisdom of Joseph Phelps, serves as the culmination of a journey of nearly four years embarked upon by the late Joe Phelps and his children Leslie, Bill, Laurie and Lynn. Together with Napa Valley author and publisher, Paul Chutkow, Joe Phelps set about telling the story of his life in order to teach and inspire others. Learn More