Joseph Phelps was a pioneering figure in the history of California wine. A successful builder in Colorado in the 1950s and 60s who became passionate about wine, he came to San Francisco to open a branch of his construction business and was one of the first to sense the potential of Napa Valley. In 1973 he founded Joseph Phelps Vineyards near St. Helena.
California wine was regarded very differently back then (the famed Paris tasting of 1976 was still three years in the future), but Phelps was a visionary. He made two very important contributions to winemaking in the Golden State. The first was the introduction of Rhône grape varieties—or re-introduction, as those varieties had been popular in the 19th century. Phelps was the first to make a Syrah, and eventually became a full-blown Rhône Ranger with the creation of his Vin du Mistral label.
The second was the creation of a proprietary red wine blend, something which went contrary to conventional practice. Since the 1960s, Robert Mondavi had been waging a campaign against the generic jug wines labelled Chablis or Burgundy that were common at the time. Mondavi believed strongly in varietal wines, and he felt that Napa Cabernet and Chardonnay could compare successfully with Bordeaux or real white Burgundy.
In 1978 Phelps released his first vintage of Insignia, the 1974, labelled as a red table wine. It remained the first proprietary blend until Opus One appeared ten years later. Although it has contained between 50% and 90% Cabernet over the years, Phelps’ original concept was that the wine could be anything—a white wine, a Syrah—that represented the best grapes he could get his hands on in any given vintage. It so happened that 1974 was a blockbuster year for Cabernet in Napa, and that set the tone.
The Joseph Phelps winery today is a very different operation than it was 40 years ago. The Rhône varieties are gone, and there’s even Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. Cabernet dominates the top end of the lineup, and pride of place still goes to Insignia.
The 2016 Insignia ($300) is a blend of 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot, 3% Malbec and 3% Cabernet Franc from estate-grown Napa vineyards; it comes in at 14.5% alcohol and displays the opaque, purple-black color we’ve come to expect. The wine was aged in 100% new French oak and the wood tends to dominate the nose, mingling with aromas of fresh herbs and ripe, dark berries. The herbal component hits your palate first, followed by mouthwatering acidity and sharp, peppery accents. The mid palate reveals bramble, forest floor and black raspberry jam, with notes of mocha and tobacco unfolding on the long finish. Powerful and full-bodied, with a complex tannin structure, it will probably need a decade to show its best.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. Friend of the Devil, his first novel, was released in 2016; his second novel, The American Crusade, a political thriller set during the invasion of Iraq, is now available on Amazon.