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August 3, 2016

An Insignia Retrospective—A Love Letter

On August 2nd, Will Phelps and Winemaker, Ashley Hepworth, hosted an Insignia Retrospective Tasting in San Francisco to celebrate the upcoming release of the winery's 40th vintage of Insignia. An intimate group of the winery's trade and media friends tasted 1976, 1985, 1998 and 2004-2013 Insignia from magnum. We are delighted to share Charlie Olken's recap of the event.

Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine | By Charles Olken | August 3, 2016

I will admit that I rank Phelps Insignia among the top Cabernet/claret bottlings being made in California and have for some time now. In the forty years of its existence, which more or less parallel the four decades of Connoisseurs’ Guide, it is among the handful of wines I would nominate as the most decorated during that stretch. There are many others, and as I often point out to people who ask me for my favorite wine ever, I don’t answer that question because a lifetime of collecting has taught me that I have many “best wines ever”—and thank goodness for that.

One of the reasons for Insignia’s long run in the top tier of great wines is the successful way the winery has pulled off the Insignia style of refinement and polish in a wine meant to age. Rather than relying heavily on tannin, Phelps has built Insignia to be deep in character, harmonious in its range of rich yet mannerly pieces and balanced by both adequate acidity and underlying, soft tannins that avoid being noticeably coarse yet provide plenty of backbone. The result is a wine that ages well yet is approachable for those who are willing to commit infanticide.

Now, this is not an essay about drinking wine too young, but, if you will pardon a brief digression, yesterday’s lineup of Insignia bottlings pretty much reinforces the notion that Cabernet Sauvignon reaches its greatest expression when it has aged past its tenth birthday—and then some.

No need to recite the litany of every vintage tasted here save to say that Insignia pretty much reflects the growing conditions for Cabernet in the Napa Valley. That not so surprising finding may be the first thing that stood out for us, but it is the second—that Insignia, despite its good manners, ages exceptionally well over ten, twenty, thirty and even forty years. That success is further proof that the riper style we make here in California ages every bit as well as Cabernet Sauvignon grown anywhere.

Here then are a few comments about wines that I found particularly instructive.

1976—The oldest wine in the tasting (I wish Phelps had trotted out the

1974, the first of the Insignias) but the 1976 from a drought year here in California which saw many concentrated wines but few great ones, had held up remarkably well despite a bit of brown sugar concentration that might have killed off lesser wines. Okay, I will grant you that the finish is beginning to dry out a little, but that is a critic’s finding. I would serve the 1976 Insignia with any rich piece of red meat adorned only with a bit of reduced wine sauce.

1985—Back in the mid-80s, there was a belief that the consecutive vintages of ’84, ’85 and ’86 would rival the best of list of any three back to back vintages. Both the ‘84s and the ‘86s were ripe and rich while the ’85, we thought, might well be the most special of the lot because it was both less ripe yet wonderfully aromatic. “Aha”, we said to our collective selves, “Here is the vintage that proves we can make Bordeaux here in California”. Well, silly us on two accounts. Each of those three vintages has turned out to be good with great wines coming from each but not enough wines of grandeur to live up to the “three best consecutive vintages” claim. That title still belongs to 1968, 1969 and 1970 even though 2012, 2013 and 2014 may well take the mantle when all is said and done. The 1985 Insignia came close to living up to the high expectations for the vintage. It was lower in alcohol but high in depth and came with a rich, minty overlay. The very best of the ‘85s have done very well, and this one has years of life left.

1998—Here is a vintage that was damned in parts of the wine press early on because the year was cold, the grapes came in late and it was clear that many wineries were going to be less than grandly successful with their Cabernets. Yet, for so many top efforts, 1998 has always outdone the early negatives hurled at it, and so did the 1998 Insignia. At eighteen years old, it is not the deepest of the bottlings we tasted, but it was no slouch either and it will go forward from here in very elegant form and last another ten years easily. Not bad for a vintage whose reputation is not very high.

2006—I pick out 2006 for a very personal reason. It was never a favored vintage among most commentators, but it was a year in which many good wines were made. And more to the point, it was a vintage, with its lighter, less concentrated style, that the English pundits just loved for its restraint. The 2006 is now a decade old and it is rounding into shape in the way that we hope our cellared Cabernets will. It is gaining complexity and richness and it has plenty of room to grow for another decade. Good on the Brits for picking it out.

2007—I liked the 2006, as you can tell, but I loved, Loved, LOVED the 2007. Whether the 2012 or 2013 will surpass it in time is a question left unanswered. Besides, when a wine at nine-years old comes close to perfection in taste and structure, when that same wine is both inviting and yet demands another decade in the cellar, it is possessed of greatness and that is what I tasted in the 2007.

2011—One of the most difficult vintages in the last twenty, the Insignia 2011 may surpass the vintage reputation, but, it is the least of the wines of the last ten years. It was, however, the perfect lead-in to the magnificence of the 2012 and just released 2013.

2012 and 2013—both deep and structured vintages, there is a debate on-going in California as to which is better. In this tasting I preferred the 2012 and my tasting partner, Steve Eliot, preferred the 2013. That debate among us and elsewhere is of little matter. Both are great wines with some suggestion that the 2013 Insignia is a bit richer/lusher in its baby years than the 2012 which seemed a bit tighter.

All in all, Insignia across four decades (and not all vintages tasted, mind you) showed why it has maintained its standing as one of the most decorated, appreciated wines across the years that Connoisseurs’ Guide has had the pleasure and privilege of tasting California wines.

News Above: Ashley Hepworth and Will Phelps.

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