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Icons & Innovators: Joseph Phelps Vineyards: Revolutionary Reds

Our archetypal image of a radical is often at odds with reality, as early American history demonstrates: Revolution on this continent was fueled, initially, not by ideals heated to a fevered pitch in the murky cauldron of the proletariat, but largely on the tidy acreage and in the orderly minds of farmers, some of whom, by chance, had studied the gentlemanly subject of political philosophy, not to mention the less gentlemanly arts of law. This American motif of farmer-turned-professional-turned-radical repeats itself in our century with far less consequence to the course of human events—though with tremendous significance to the quenching of human thirst—in the person of Joseph Phelps, who in the early 1970s quietly revolutionized the making of American wine. (Click image to enlarge)


Born and raised on a farm, Phelps studied engineering in college and, after serving for three years as a naval officer during the Korean War, joined his father’s construction company, Hensel Phelps, in Greeley, Colo. Throughout his early career as a contractor, the young Phelps pursued his passion as a wine collector and even experimented with making wine. His status changed abruptly from amateur to professional in the early 1970s, when the family firm was hired to build the Souverain Winery in Napa Valley. Taken with the natural beauty of the landscape, its climate and soils, Phelps purchased a parcel of land east of the Silverado Trail that would become Joseph Phelps Vineyards. His company would soon gain renown for its outstanding Cabernet Sauvignons, although in the beginning, the predominant color palette of the property was not red but white, as popular tastes at the time ran toward Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Phelps, however, was an admirer of Rhône wines, and in a radical departure from the norm, he became the first vintner in the country to cultivate Syrah, which he introduced with the 1974 vintage.



The Backus single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (second from left) captures the essence

of Napa’s Oakville appellation, while Ovation Chardonnay (left) and Fogdog Pinot Noir (right) express the styles of Carneros and the Sonoma Coast, respectively. Photograph by Cordero Studios/www.corderostudios.com (Click image to enlarge) 

That same year, Phelps made another momentous decision—one that would change the way Napa Valley thought about red wine: He decided to emulate the Bordelais by making a proprietary red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, the composition of which would change from vintage to vintage according to the quality and character of the component wines. What is now a standard practice spurred controversy at the time, particularly since the wine-buying public expected, for the then-steep price of $12 per bottle, to know which varietal it was drinking.


Under the tutelage of winemaker Walter Schug and Craig Williams—who joined Joseph Phelps Vineyards in 1976 as assistant winemaker after graduating from the University of California, Davis with a degree in fermentation science—this wine, named Insignia, has become the standard-bearer for an entire category of California red wines. Yet Insignia is not only this country’s oldest Bordeaux-style blend, it is also one of its most consistently outstanding. Even in challenging years, such as 1998 and 2000, the wine exhibits the same power and uncommon richness of character found in such classic vintages as 1987, 1994, and 1997.

In 1995, Phelps appointed Tom Shelton president and CEO of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. Shelton and Craig Williams (now senior vice president and director of winemaking) have upheld Phelps’ passion for quality and innovation, both as stewards of the estate and as wine revolutionaries in their own right. Over the past decade, Williams and Shelton have shifted the production of the Napa-based properties to emphasize red Bordeaux varietals, while at the same time expanding the brand’s reach to Sonoma County with the acquisitions of Quail Hill Ranch and Freestone Flat, where they have planted 100 acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the latter of which has just been released as Fogdog 2004 (see “Fantastic Four,” page 220). Recently, Shelton and Williams discussed with Robb Report the unique characteristics that define Joseph Phelps Vineyards and their approach to winemaking in a constantly evolving marketplace.

RR: What defines Joseph Phelps Vineyards? 

Tom Shelton: The company has evolved in a direction that’s been fairly consistent over the last 20 years. And the essence of that evolution is really discovering what we do best given the specific nature of the place we’re working with and its regional characteristics. Our company has been anything but static. Craig is constantly adapting his winemaking technique, if not style, to the given vintages. So we have a great canvas in our vineyards, but we also have a great artist. And it’s a combination of those two things that creates the style of Joseph Phelps wines.Craig Williams: I think Joe [Joseph Phelps] is a builder—he’s still got a hard hat from his former company [Hensel Phelps Construction], which he sold to his employees back in ’83.  And I think he’s always valued that [personal quality] in the winegrowing arena. Thirty years ago, this market was one that embraced making wine from disparate sources as well as disparate varieties. Joe’s genius was to look at the region and embrace ‘regionality’ and the idea of being a ‘winegrower.’ There were maybe 30 wineries here when he came to the valley; some of them had vineyards, but most of them did not. They bought grapes from growers. But Joe’s vision as a pioneer was to be innovative, not only with such things as Syrah and Insignia, but in evolving the wines into ‘place wines’ that are reference points for the valley and the American wine industry. [Insignia] is greater than the sum of its parts: This defines not only the wine in terms of the blend, but also the team aspect of the company. We’re like Insignia—greater than the sum of our parts. And all of our energy is focused on developing the region and the site of our vineyards.

RR: Do you think it is fair to say that more winemakers are producing wines that express their ‘regionality,’ rather than catering to consumer tastes?

TS: We’re no longer in a position where we can easily chase the market. If the market turns to Merlot, as it did a few years back, we’re not really in a position to go out and change our whole direction. We’ve decided essentially that we’re going to let the place, the region where we’ve settled, dictate the opportunities. Craig has to interpret what those opportunities are from the grape-growing and production perspectives. And on the marketing side, I’m trying to take the message to the marketplace that these are authentic wines, and we hope that the marketplace will come along with us. The fact that we’ve been successful I think validates what the team’s doing on the production side and the vineyard side.


Joseph Phelps first planted its original Spring Valley vineyards—now famous for Cabernet Sauvignon—with sweet white varieties, such as Riesling. (Click image to enlarge)

CW: Someone recently asked me whether Syrah doesn’t do well in Napa. And it does well, I know. But I don’t think it does as well as Cabernet. The consumer and wine critics have validated that our [Cabernet Sauvignons] have world-class attributes that can’t be found anywhere else. So why make Syrah here when there isn’t enough of this great wine to go around for the world demand? Napa Valley itself is about one-eighth the size of Bordeaux. But what it produces is very consequential and very important and very desirable. Why go chase something else that might be good but not be great? It was that appreciation that led us to say, “Well, if we want to make Chardonnay, then let’s find the site that will give us an opportunity to make something along the lines of our Cabernet in Napa Valley.” And that led us to Sonoma. We’ve been more disciplined and more specialized.


Today, we are essentially 90 percent Bordeaux varieties—we weren’t that 10 years ago, even when we were doing great things with Insignia. Insignia is the blend of not only just one estate vineyard, but estate vineyards in Napa Valley that leverage these microclimates and different soil types in a very profound way. Here, we’ve got this really unique combination of solar radiation, geology, rainfall, and this diurnal temperature—unbelievably hot days and cool nights that create a ramping up in the grape of a tremendous concentration of color and quality tannins that are not really found elsewhere in the world, in my opinion. And we have tapped into that.

RR: How has your approach changed since Joseph Phelps Vineyards was established?

TS: We probably learned the hard way that our best opportunity in the industry is with the luxury, premium category. We don’t have the efficiencies in production and in cost to compete with the quality of wines being produced in the lower-price ranges. We’ve been in those categories in the past. Part of our success as a company has been letting go of some of these categories that we thought looked like opportunities 10 or 15 years ago. I’m not saying that we ended up in the luxury market by default, because that would be incorrect. All of us have a passion for great wine, so we’re naturally inclined to move in that direction. But, if you look at the business environment, I don’t think we really had a choice. It was either move in that direction and succeed or be swallowed up and fail somewhere else. I think we’ve managed those waters very well. And I guess, if you look to the future, if we are to continue to succeed as an independent company, we’re going to have to continue to navigate some pretty rough waters. We are competing with—dare I say it?—hobbyists. We find ourselves competing against entities where the profit motive may be secondary to other motives. We’re operating a serious company here—it’s not a hobby. Yet we expect our wines to compete at the highest level of quality. (Click image to enlarge)

RR: Joseph Phelps has played a significant part in establishing the Napa Valley’s reputation for producing great Cabernet Sauvignon. Is the introduction of your Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, Fogdog, an indication that you believe the same potential exists in California for Pinot Noir?

TS: It’s hard for us to get our arms around what California Pinot is right now, because, even among the same producers, I find strong differences in style, year in and year out. I think what defines quality has been somewhat elusive. We’re working on it very diligently with our [Sonoma] property now.RR: What’s the yardstick for success? How will you know that you’ve found a successful approach for that particular grape?

TS: [Laughs] It’s kind of like the definition of pornography: I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it. Craig probably has a much more scientific answer than that. I like wines with more fragrance, perhaps lighter body than what we see in California. We tend to get these really weighty Pinot Noirs that get big scores, which always puzzles me because I don’t find them very pleasing, to be honest with you. But we think [Pinot has] got fantastic potential. We’re finding climates where you can work with it, and there again, we’ve got to let the sites deliver. We have to have a better reference of what constitutes quality in Pinot Noir, and we’re getting there—we’re getting there, definitely.

RR: What is the future for Joseph Phelps? What would you like to see in the next 50 years?

TS: Increasing specialization and continuing to advance in the vineyard and in the winemaking processes. The fine-tuning of the Insignia brand and the Joseph Phelps Cabernet, in particular, are the things that we’re going to be working very hard on. And our growth is going to come through new ideas—not necessarily new ideas in Napa Valley, but new ideas in other places, like Freestone, out on the Sonoma Coast, where we’re taking a similar approach to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I’m fond of saying that we are growing our company by getting it small: In terms of overall production, we’re actually decreasing the size of our winery, but we’re increasing the sales. The market is supporting and validating our choices so far.

CW: That’s why we need to stay true to regionality, because if we don’t, we lose the exacting attributes in the wine. American consumers are appreciating the regionality of wine, and we want to finesse—or raise the bar on—that regionality, not only with what we’re doing in Napa, but also now in Sonoma. That’s going to be the effort certainly for the next 50 years for the Phelps family.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards


Fantastic Four

A quartet of recently released masterpieces from Joseph Phelps Vineyards.

Insignia 2003

This wine forms the foundation of Joseph Phelps Vineyards’ reputation for great Cabernet Sauvignon, though the blend also includes 10 percent Petit Verdot and 3 percent each of Merlot and Malbec. The 2003 vintage has a powerfully developed structure beneath sensuous blackberry, plum, licorice, and smoky oak. ($165) (Click image to enlarge)

Backus Napa Valley Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2003

Produced from 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from the Backus Vineyard, this deep-purple red wine has rich blackberry, cocoa, and earth aromas, while it coats the palate in a fabric of sweet, dense black currant and silky tannins. ($200)

Fogdog Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2004

The name for this Pinot Noir derives from the term that describes bright patches of light that break through the fog along the Sonoma Coast, where the wine is grown. Unfined and unfiltered, this deliciously bright red abounds with sweet cherry and strawberry made more piquant by notes of clove and ginger, as well as earthy mushroom. ($35)

Ovation Chardonnay Los Carneros 2004

The estate’s flagship Chardonnay, this cool-climate white exhibits a richly articulated medley of honeydew, orange peel, and peach, accented by sweet caramel toffee, hazelnut, and bracing mineral notes. ($50) 

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