Established 1978
Wine Wisdom

Joseph Phelps, The Game Changer

by Ed Schwartz

A major league rookie is asked to pinch hit near the end of the game. He steps up to the plate for the very first time. Here comes the first pitch. The rookie hits a home run, wins the game, and gets the deserved glory.

Joseph Phelps

Joseph Phelps

There’s a fine wine equivalent to such a heady moment. This is exactly what happened to “rookie” Joseph Phelps, a very successful Denver-based contractor. His firm had built Chateau Souverain in 1973. Phelps decided to build his own winery and purchased 600 acres of a cattle ranch right off the Silverado Trail. He hired a great winemaker, Walter Shug, and looked around to purchase excellent grapes while his own vineyards were being planted.

His creativity soon manifested itself in bottling the first California Syrah, a Rhone wine that he favored. Also, at that time, wine lightening struck.

As he recounts in his Oral History for the Bancroft Library, “We had a single tank of truly great cabernet with a small amount of merlot from the Stags Leap District. It was from the 1974 vintage. I knew I wanted a name for this wine that would give us the long-range ability to blend superior selections of Bordeaux grape varieties without regard to the limitations of government regulations as to varietal labeling. This wine would be called ‘a red table wine,’ and the quality would ultimately speak for itself.”

The name “Insignia” came to Phelps while shaving one morning.  The name— defined as a “distinguishing sign”—was to represent the very best lots of wine available from each vintage. In other words, the wine could be markedly different every year.

This concept was unique at that time for a high-end wine. It was unheard-of for an unknown winery to feature a wine with a name other than cabernet, merlot, or any other grape name.

With that decision, Phelps and the winemaking team hit a home run and knocked it out of the park. Today, Joseph Phelps Insignia, now in its 40th manifestation, is considered by many wine writers, including this one, to be the most successful wine in the United States.

Ponder the following elements. At a recent tasting of all the Insignia wines, Robert Parker gave the 1974 Insignia a 99-point score for a 40-year-old wine. While he was at it, he gave three Insignia vintages 100 points and many other Insignia vintages well over 90 points. The closely followed Wine Spectator once voted an Insignia wine the “Top Wine in the World,” and Wine Enthusiast chipped in with a “Winery of the Year” prize. And here is the kicker. Insignia is not made in 500 case lots for $600 a bottle—for instance, over 11,000 cases were made for the 2010 vintage. Producing such high quality, year after year, and with real quantity—that spells real success.

What does it take to make such a wine? Great vineyards, great equipment, and great winemaking, coupled with the will to push ever higher. The continuity of the winemakers at Phelps has been very strong. Shug was followed by the truly outstanding Craig Williams, who remained at Phelps for 32 years. His successor was Damian Parker, who is now celebrating his 31st year at the winery. Ashley Hepworth is currently in charge of the Insignia label only. And Bill Phelps is the president of the winery these days. He continues to add to the great legacy of his father.

Phelps today isn’t just about Insignia. The 2012 sauvignon blanc has wonderful complexity. The 2011 chardonnay, from the winery’s Freestone vineyard in the Sonoma Coast appellation, is vibrant and bracing. Pinot noir from that vineyard will soon be at a high level. The 2010 cabernet sauvignon is a most superior wine, and it sells at about a third of the price of Insignia. Home runs, all.

Ed Schwartz began his career in wine promotion at New York’s “21” Club. As his interest in wine grew, he moved west to be closer to the grapes. Ed has written more than 500 published articles on wine, food, and travel.

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