“Not a grape on the property. Lots of nice-looking cattle.”
That’s how Joe Phelps – our father, our grandfather – recollected his first encounter with the Napa Valley property that would become the home of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. It was well over 600 acres, more land than he originally intended to develop, but when he saw it, he fell in love. Its oak-studded hills and golden valleys spoke to the Colorado-bred farm boy in him.
Joe had been looking for a place to make a little wine. In his years since the Navy he’d grown his father’s Greeley, Colorado-based construction business into a multi-state powerhouse, expanding to northern California in the mid-1960s to work on bridge and dam projects and the infrastructure for BART. Wine was a fast-growing side interest, something he’d developed a taste for in college. He began collecting, and even did some home winemaking in Greeley using grapes shipped by air overnight from Napa.
In time, Joe’s work in California and his interest in wine merged, leading to connections with growers and winemakers in Napa Valley and a contract to build the Souverain Winery. It wasn’t long before the idea of starting his own winery took hold. A trip to Italy in 1970 clinched it, and Joe began looking for property in Napa Valley.
“When my dad began Joseph Phelps Vineyards in 1973 he did so with a very long term view and long term approach. He knew that in order to create the best wines possible he had to have tremendous dedication, attention to detail and passion.”
– Bill Phelps, Joe’s son
It was March 1, 1973 when Joe took possession of the 600-acre cattle ranch on the east side of St. Helena. He wasted no time, laying out and planting 100 acres of vineyards with the help of Walter Schug, whom he’d hired as winemaker. They planted everything - Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Johannisberg Riesling, Gewurztraminer. The property was a blank slate, and Joe was game to try just about anything.
Joe’s four high school and college-age children would come and go from Colorado as he oversaw the building of the winery, a feat accomplished in time for the 1974 harvest. Designed by architect John Marsh Davis and built by Joe’s firm, Hensel Phelps Construction Company, the redwood building featured a fermentation and aging room, a bottling area, and a few offices. Joe’s son, Bill, worked on the construction crew during a college summer break. His daughter, Leslie, helped with bookkeeping, payroll, and taxes for a couple of years. She recalls there was no tasting room at first; retail sales were handled out of the Dutch door to the reception area.
Over the next four decades Joe ran his namesake winery with vision, an unwavering commitment to quality and a strong taste for innovation. In 1974 he produced California’s first varietally-labeled Syrah, a wine fashioned after the Côte Rotie and Hermitage wines he admired and collected. He was one of the first California vintners to embrace Rhone-style wines, experimenting with Viognier and creating Rhone blends that were most certainly ahead of their time.
Also in 1974 Joe created what is arguably his most important legacy: California’s very first proprietary red Bordeaux-style blend - Insignia. His idea, to blend the finest wine lots of the vintage into one bottling, was revolutionary for its time, though it was a model quickly adopted by other prominent Napa Valley producers. The wine brought recognition not only to Joseph Phelps Vineyards, but ultimately to Napa Valley as a whole.
While many of the early Joseph Phelps wines were made with grapes from the Home Ranch in St. Helena, Joe also sourced fruit from outside growers. But as the winery continued to grow and he traded earlier efforts in Riesling and Chardonnay for Cabernet, Merlot and other red Bordeaux varieties, he began acquiring vineyard land in the Rutherford, Oakville, Stags Leap District, and Oak Knoll District AVAs. These vineyards became important sources of Insignia and Phelps’ other red wines.
For many years Joe was ambivalent about having his offspring work at the winery. His four children were encouraged to pursue their own lives and career interests, and they did, although each felt a strong connection to Napa Valley and the family business. But as Joe got older, that view began to change. When Bill Phelps moved to Napa Valley in 1998, Joe remained involved day-to-day, but over the next decade he gradually relinquished control to the 2nd generation. By 2008, Bill was President of the winery and all of Joe’s children occupied places on the winery’s Board of Directors.
“My grandfather strategically chose vineyards to purchase over time. As you head north, our vineyards zigzag east and west, spanning almost the entire length of the valley. Each vineyard purchase added a different piece to the puzzle. Today we have eight incredibly unique vineyards in Napa Valley from which we source our fruit.”
– Will Phelps, Joe’s grandson
With a successful career in law behind him, Bill worked closely with his father on the winery’s relatively new venture making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from family-owned vineyards on the western Sonoma Coast. He also, with Joe’s blessing, led the effort to transition to a portfolio of 100% estate grown wines. It was a decision that took guts. Some additional vineyard acreage in southern Napa Valley was purchased, but by necessity the winery’s production was reduced substantially. It was a gamble that Bill and the family were willing to make, with the notion that having complete control from grape to bottle could only improve the quality of Joseph Phelps wines. Like Joe, they were willing to take a risk.
Today all of Joseph Phelps Napa Valley wines, including the flagship Insignia, are made with 100% estate grown grapes. The Home Ranch in St. Helena that Joe fell in love with so many years ago features 130 acres of wine grapes, olive orchards, fruit trees, bee hives, and a hillside winery offering incomparable hospitality and panoramic vineyard views. Joe also donated a conservation easement over most of the Home Ranch to the Land Trust of Napa County in 1999. As a result of this gift, hundreds of acres of Napa Valley will forever be preserved as open space. With all four of Joe’s children and three of his eight grandchildren actively involved in the winery, the legacy of Joseph Phelps Vineyards as one of Napa Valley’s preeminent family-owned and operated wine estates is undoubtedly assured.