There are a number of iconic “cult” Cabernets and Bordeaux blends in the Napa Valley that at one time or another in their life every wine lover must taste - Opus One, Quintessa, Franciscan’s Magnificat, Beaulieu Vineyards’ Georges de Latour, Shafer’s Hillside Select, Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate’s Cabernet Sauvignon… the list goes on. But among those at the top of the list is without a doubt Joseph Phelps’ Insignia. Not only do they produce one of the finest Meritage blends in the valley, their estate is also one of the most beautiful as you can sample their wines while enjoying absolutely stunning views of their vineyards.
If you ever visit Rutherford Hill Winery and then visit Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Winery you will notice a striking resemblance in the style of architecture. This is because both were designed by architect John Marsh David and built by Joseph Phelps.
Back in the late 1960’s Joseph Phelps was running a construction company when he won the bid to build Souverain Winery (now Rutherford Hill) which overlooks the Napa Valley from above the east side of St. Helena. It was at that time that he fell in love with the beauty of the valley and decided to go into the wine business.
In 1973 Joseph bought the 600-acre Connolly cattle ranch in Spring Valley and began planting vineyards. A year later the winery was completed and the first vintage of Syrah was made, the first grapes were crushed at the new facility and the first Insignia was produced from sourced grapes. However, the goal was to eventually produce all of his wines from 100% estate grown grapes. So, over the years, the winery acquired vineyards including the Spring Valley Home Ranch outside of St. Helena, Banca Dorada in Rutherford, Las Rocas and Barboza vineyards in Stags Leap, Yountville Vineyard in Oak Knoll, Suscol Vineyard in South Napa, Backus Vineyard in Oakville and Larry Hyde and Sons Vineyard in Carneros.
Originally Chardonnay was sourced from St. Helena, later from Yountville and then from Los Carneros. Then in 1999 they began developing 100 acres of vineyards five miles from the Pacific Ocean in Freestone, located in the Sonoma Coast AVA. Today, 80 acres of Pinot Noir and 20 acres of Chardonnay provide for their estate-grown Burgundian wines.
In 2005, construction began on a new winery which was completed in time for the 2007 harvest. Beginning with the 2009 vintage, their estate-grown wines included Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon Backus Vineyard (the single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville) and their flagship wine - Insignia. They also began producing a dessert wine called Eisrébe and a Syrah is from the Larry Hyde and Sons Vineyard in Carneros.
The Winemaking Team
Joseph Phelps Vineyards utilizes a team to produce their wines.
Winemaker Damian Parker serves as the Director of Winemaking of both Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Freestone Vineyards. His wine career began in 1977 as a harvest job at Chateau Souverain in Geyserville. He worked there for four years and then came to Joseph Phelps in the summer of 1981 as a bottling line supervisor. Nine years later he became the cellar master and in 1997 was promoted to Vice President in charge of production and in 2008 was named Director of Winemaking.
Winemaker Ashley Hepworth joined in 1999 as a harvest intern and stayed on to become a laboratory technician and enologist. In 2004 she was named Associate Winemaker and in October of 2008 was promoted to Winemaker. Ashley attended Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado where she earned a B.S. in Biology and a minor in Chemistry. In 2006 she earned a Winemaking Certificate from the Viticulture and Enology Department at the U.C. Davis.
Assistant Winemaker and Justin Ennis came to Joseph Phelps in 2007 after working nine years as cellarmaster for William Selyem Winery in Healdsburg, as well as harvest supervisor and cellarmaster for wineries in New Zealand and Argentina. Just has taken numerous extension classes at U.C. Davis focusing on all aspects of viticulture and winemaking.
Assistant Winemaker Kelly Fields Kelly has a B.A. degree in Microbiology from U.C. San Diego. In May 2005 she joined Joseph Phelps as Laboratory Technician/Quality Control Specialist. In 2007 she was promoted to Enologist and in 2011 she was promoted to Assistant Winemaker.
Director of Vineyard Operations Philippe Pessereau was born in Tours, France. His career in viticulture and oenology began in the Sauternes winegrowing region in France. From 1986-1987 he studied at the École La Tour Blanche and earned a in After completing the 1987 harvest at Château Haut-Brion in Talence, France, he moved to the United States and worked for several wineries. From 1990-1995 he did his undergraduate studies at the College of Marin in In 1995, Philippe graduated from U.C. Davis with a B.S. in Plant Biology and in 1998 completed an M.S. in viticulture. That same year he was hired by Joseph Phelps Vineyards as a viticulturist and in 2003 was promoted to Director of Vineyard Operations.
While visiting I sampled the following wines:
The first wine was the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, St. Helena. This wine was aged for 7 months in 35% new French oak which reveals itself with a softer feel on the mid palate and finish. On the nose this wine exudes aromas of grapefruit, lemon drop and melon rind. On the palate it has a medium body, it is very crisp with medium+ acidity up front but then is soft on the mid palate and back end with additional notes of apricots and lime on medium+ length finish. If you want a Sauvignon Blanc that isn’t razor sharp from beginning to end and you’re not looking for the chalky minerality of a Sancerre, then this wine is for you for $35 per bottle.
The first wine was the 2011 Chardonnay, Freestone Vineyards. This wine was barrel fermented, sur lee for 13 months in 40% new and 60% 2 to 3 old French oak puncheons and barrels. This wine is clear, golden-yellow with aromas of white flowers, tropical fruit, bananas, butter and popcorn with a hint of crème brûlée, hazelnut and oak. On the palate it is rich and creamy with additional notes of crisp green apples, peaches and apricots. It is medium bodied with medium+ acidity and long finish. This wine sells for $55 per bottle.
The second pour was the 2011 Pinot Noir, Freestone Vineyards (59% Pastorale Vineyard and 41% Quarter Moon Vineyard) – Sonoma, Coast. This wine is clear ruby red and on the nose it delivers aromas of tart strawberries, cranberries, cherries and plums with a hint of dried cinnamon stick and spice. On the palate it has refined medium tannins that have a little grip, medium body and medium+ acidity. There are a lot of wines like this on the market in the $35-$45 range, but this one sells for $55 per bottle.
The third wine was the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. This wine is a blend of 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6$ Merlot, and 2% Petit Verdot. It is dark purple at the core to violet at the rim and it stains the glass when swirled. On the nose this wine has medium intensity aromas of black currants, dusty wild blackberries, baker’s chocolate, dried herbs and vanilla bean. On entry this wine is dry and supple but then the tannins kick in with a lot of grip. It has medium body, medium+ acidity and a medium length finish. This wine sells for $65 per bottle.
The fourth wine was the 2009 Insignia, a blend of 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Petit Verdot and 4% Malbec. On the nose this wine exudes aromas of cassis, dark cherries, blueberries, mocha and vanilla. On the palate it is soft on entry but then the refined tannins grip the teeth and gums. It has a medium body, medium+ acidity and a lengthy finish with hints of sweet raisins on the return. It is well balanced and absolutely delicious from beginning to end, yet it also seems a bit youthful and could use more time in the bottle. This wine sells for $200 per bottle.
The final wine was 2011 Eisrebe. This is a very unique dessert wine made in the Eiswein-style from the Scheurebe (pronounced “shoy ray beh”) grape. Most late-harvest, Sauterne-style, or Eiswein-style wines made in California (which are few and far between) are either made from Riesling, a Muscat grape or from Sémillon. Scheurebe is a white wine grape variety that is primarily grown in Germany and Austria where it often is called Sämling 88. It was created by German viticulturalist Dr. Georg Scheu (1879–1949) in 1916, by crossing Silvaner and Riesling. On the nose this wine has luscious aromas of citrus, white flowers, canned peaches and a hint of honey. It is medium bodied and very sweet but not syrupy with very high acidity and a prolonged finish with additional notes of mandarin oranges. This wine sells for $50 per 375 ml bottle.
To see more pictures of Joseph Phelps, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography:
To visit or for more information:
Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Winery
200 Taplin Road
St. Helena, CA 94574