Napa Valley’s Joseph Phelps Vineyards was established in 1973, at the cusp of a second ‘Golden Era’ of winemaking (the first being post-Prohibition). It was an era when the whole of California caught its big break on the world stage thanks to the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting.
Unlike many of those 1970s pioneering estates – Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Heitz and others – Joseph Phelps remains family-owned to this day. It is a winery carved from the vision and determination of Joe Phelps, an entrepreneur who found himself in the perfect place at the perfect time.
Many of Phelps’ contemporaries back then – such as Bob Travers of Mayacamas and Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars – created seminal estates of their own. While in recent vintages they, like so many others in Napa Valley today, have transitioned to a more slick, modern style for their wines, Phelps is content to let vintage conditions shine through, avoiding an overly homogenous style.
The inaugural 1973 vintage was a ‘custom crush’ of sorts, with the wines fermented and aged at nearby wineries while Phelps’ own winery was under construction. It was completed just in time for the legendary 1974 vintage, which would see the release of two ‘firsts’ in California: a varietally labelled Syrah (a generally unknown grape in California at the time) and what would unintentionally become California’s first Bordeaux blend – a wine named Insignia.
Even though today it is renowned as one of California’s best Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends, Insignia was not originally meant to be defined by any one varietal, only to be the best wine possible in any given vintage. Phelps even thought it could be a white wine if the year dictated it. It ended up Cabernet-dominant almost by accident, and countless others have gone on to emulate it.