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Joseph Phelps

Last Thursday, April 15, Joseph Phelps, founder of Joseph Phelps Vineyards in the Napa Valley, died at his home in St. Helena. He was 87. In an esteemed sophomore class of Napa Valley winery founders, including Gil Nickel, Warren Winiarski, Charlie Wagner, Justin Meyer, and Dennis Cakebread, Joe Phelps stands out as one of the most innovative and influential, vastly improving the social landscape of the Valley as his ideas indelibly altered California wine.

Joseph Phelps was born in 1927 in Maysville, Missouri, and raised in Greeley, Colorado. After his honorable discharge from the Army, he joined his family’s construction business, which became one of the country’s largest and most prominent, builder of airport terminals and hotel complexes, as well as the Bay Area’s Rapid Transit system (or BART). The work had Phelps consorting with bankers and financiers, including one Adolf “Bud” Mueller, a vice president of Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco. In 1966 Mueller poured a Côte-Rôtie for Phelps, who was impressed, all the more when he learned that Bordeaux châteaux occasionally employed syrah to bolster enfeebled clarets. “Syrah,” he said, “must be something worth looking at.”

Eventually Hensel Phelps construction got into the business of building wineries in the Napa Valley. By 1973, Phelps had founded his own project on Taplin Road in St. Helena, joining a long list of wineries founded in the early seventies, including Cakebread, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Franciscan, Diamond Creek and Silver Oak. Early on the Phelps winery was known for its white wines, but in his second vintage Phelps positioned his winery to make two game-changing debuts—the first varietally labeled syrah in California, and a Bordeaux-inspired cabernet-based blend he called Insignia (the name came to him one morning while shaving, as the wine aged in barrels before release). It was the first proprietary blend in the modern era, preceding Dominus, Opus One and Rubicon, a wine that revolutionized the approach to winemaking in the Napa Valley.

On the strength of Insignia the Phelps winery became one of Napa’s great red wine powerhouses, not only for the proprietary red but for the powerfully built single-vineyard cabernets from Backus and Eisele. (The winery has garnered 12 Winery of the Year honors from this magazine.)

The Rhône project, meanwhile, remained one of the most dedicated and fruitful of its kind in the US. From the release of that first syrah in 1977, Phelps and his team orchestrated one of California’s most comprehensive Rhône varietal programs, which eventually took on the name Vin du Mistral. In addition to syrah, Phelps’s Vin du Mistral program included Rhône-inspired red and white blends, marsanne and viognier bottlings, a grenache-based dry rosé that was among the first of its kind in California, and Rhône-inspired dessert wines.

It was never an easy path. After abandoning their first source, a virused vineyard in St. Helena, the viticulture team moved their syrah plantings southward in pursuit of cool-climate flavors (“the pepper,” as Phelps typically referred to it, a character in syrah that appealed to him); the learning curve was as slow as vineyard development would allow. But the Vin du Mistral bottlings became as esteemed in their category as the winery’s cabernets.

The dedication to the Rhône program attracted an A-list group of winemaking and administrative talent, including Walter Schug, Craig Williams, John Buechsenstein, Markus Bokisch, Ehren Jordan, Bruce Neyers and Sarah Gott. As the movement heated up the winery was more comfortable out of the “Rhône Ranger” spotlight (“We let other people do the whooping and the hollering,” says Phelps) but their commitment remained vital for more than thirty years, until the winery’s Sonoma Coast project, Freestone, took precedence.

In his later years Phelps was as well known for his more philanthropic, non-oenological exploits—some essential to the growth of the valley. Phelps, Jack Davies, Chuck Carpy and others established the Wine Service Cooperative, a critical storage and shipping facility that gave fledgling wineries an affordable storage option. With his engineering expertise, Phelps was instrumental in its design and construction.

He became a leader in aiding the thousands of temporary workers that vineyards employ throughout the season, and especially at harvest; in 2000, through the auspices of the Napa Valley Vintners association, he donated land for the River Ranch Farmworker Housing Center, to provide safe and affordable housing for harvest workers.

As I researched the American Rhône movement for a forthcoming book, I had the pleasure of long interviews with Mr. Phelps, and in our last meeting I asked him what his legacy might look like with respect to the Rhône movement. “Well, we worked at it the longest,” he began, with characteristic understatement. “It probably brought us the most frustration, and possibly the biggest rewards. But I’ll never look back on my decisions to undertake these varieties, the syrah and the viognier and the grenache. And they will go on and on.”

This is a W&S web exclusive feature.
photo of Joseph Phelps courtesy of Joseph Phelps Vineyards