The Passing of a Wine Master

 Photo: Joseph Phelps Vineyards

Photo: Joseph Phelps Vineyards

Though Joseph Phelps retired in 2005 from the day to day operation of the winery that bears his name (his son Bill runs the property today), he seemed to still be a significant presence: after all, it's his name on the label of the hundreds of thousands of bottles sold by the Joseph Phelps Winery. With that sense of visibility in print, if not in person, it came as a shock to many to learn that Phelps died on April 15 at the age of 87.

Phelps was much more than a name on a label. He made his money in the construction industry so when he built his winery in the 1970s many neighbors might have confused him with the many stockbrokers, investors and car dealers who had made a fortune somewhere and thought how grand it would be to dabble in the wine business. Most of those dilettantes went out of business fairly quickly and those that managed to shed the image of a pretender became part of the fabric of wine country.

Phelps, though, was so serious from the outset, so personally as well as financially invested in his property that he seemed never to be saddled with the outsider image. I think that was in large part because he became part of Napa Valley much earlier than anyone realized. His construction company built the Souverain Winery (now called Rutherford Hill) in the 1960s, and Phelps fell in love with the area. He started working then on engineering a life change, and the result quickly became his own winery. Land prices were still (relatively) reasonable in Napa in the 1960s (they started going crazy in the late '70s with the aforementioned dilettantes) and it was entirely feasible for a thoughtful and wealthy man with a purpose to create something new. In 1973 he bought a cattle ranch off Silverado Trail to create Joseph Phelps Vineyards, and never looked back.

 Joseph phelps' iconic backus vineyard, source of some of the wineries best cabernet sauvignon  photo: Joseph Phelps vineyards

Joseph phelps' iconic backus vineyard, source of some of the wineries best cabernet sauvignon  photo: Joseph Phelps vineyards

When I met Joseph Phelps for the first time I was a very young wine writer with a lot to learn. One of my first lessons was that Phelps had a vision and it was in large part driven by his taste, not by the marketplace. He liked wines that were big and fleshy without being ponderous and he had a fascination with riesling (as did I). I spent some time with his first winemaker Walter Schug and only met Phelps in passing on that first visit. I met him again on a subsequent visit a few years later when he was passionately advocating Rhône Valley grapes. It is a seldom remembered fact that Phelps was the first vintner to bottle a varietally labeled syrah, an extraordinary milestone viewed from a scant 40 years later. One has to remember that in the late 1960s, and well into the 1970s, there was a belief among many that Napa was so perfect for wine, one could grow anything there. It has only been since the 1980s that wineries really keyed in to the "site specificity" of many grapes, something Europe had a thousand years to work out by trial and error. Napa figured it out in a single generation.

That generation spans the start of Phelps venture in 1973, so it is understandable that, looking back over Phelps' wines there are some changes in the portfolio. In 1974, just one year after establishing his venture, Phelps really put his winery on the map. It's easy to forget, but in 1974 there were no proprietary, branded wines in Napa - nearly everything carried a varietal name and little else. Phelps was a revolutionary for suggesting that he would make a wine that might shift in its blend from year to year but would be consistent primarily in philosophy and name. His name for it was, and is, Insignia. This was the creation of an entirely new approach to winemaking and a new benchmark of quality.

Phelps' Insignia quickly spawned a host of similar proprietary blends some of which have lasted and others that failed in short order. Insignia lives on as one of the great red wines of Napa Valley, having risen to prominence under Schug's successor, winemaker Craig Williams, and even more under the stewardship of the late Tom Shelton, who was the CEO of the winery for many years. Both Shelton and Williams left the winery in 2008 in a controversial management upheaval that brought Phelps and his family a great deal of negative publicity (and a whopping lawsuit that was decided firmly against the Phelps winery). Since then, Joseph Phelps Vineyards has lost some of its once shining image as well as its reputation as an innovator.

Under Williams, one of California's greatest winemakers, Phelps carved out a reputation not only for making classic cabernet sauvignon-based wines, but also for an entire series of Rhône varietals. Much of that reputation faded after 2008 and it has been a slow climb back to respectability for the Phelps family. It is important to note, however, that while the reputation suffered, there was never a serious dip in the quality of the wines themselves. With the consistency of quality wines continuing to come from the winery, the Phelps legacy has regained a good deal of its once storied luster. The passing of Joseph Phelps may mark another milestone on the winery's return to grace.

I've written several times in the past about the Joseph Phelps Winery and about winemaker Craig Williams. If you would like to read more, please click to see my article in The Wine News on the dazzling group of California winemakers who first came to prominence in the mid-1970s and reshaped the industry, California's Influential Winemakers. Some very interesting hair styles are included alongside tasting notes on great wines!