“The parallel between our beginnings in Napa and later in Sonoma is striking. The conversion of grazing land to vineyard, the assumption of risk, the trial and error; it was history repeating itself.”
- Bill Phelps, Joe’s son
In the mid-1990s we renewed our quest to find a suitable place to grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Joseph Phelps Vineyards had a long history with both varieties: we produced a Napa Valley Pinot Noir from 1973-1983, and made well-received Chardonnays, from Napa Valley and Carneros, starting in 1974. But Joe had never been entirely satisfied with the results. As we searched for vineyards we headed further and further west until we landed in the town of Freestone on the Sonoma Coast, where, in the late 1990’s, few vineyards existed.
It was 1999 when we first purchased land in Freestone; there were a few vineyards in the area, but not many. Better known for cattle, pasture and forest land, the region - just eight miles from the Pacific Ocean - was socked in by fog that lingered into the early afternoon on most summer days. For grapes, this cool area was relatively untested. But with its Goldridge soils and rumored potential for both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it was a region that our family was willing to bet on.
“People said the region was too cold, too wet, too windy for grapes.”
- Justin Ennis, Winemaker, Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards
As in Napa Valley so many years ago, we worked quickly to turn pasture into vineyard. Our Pastorale Vineyard, a former dairy farm, was planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines in 2000. When another property just down the road became available the same year, we added it to the portfolio, and the Quarter Moon Vineyard was planted entirely to Pinot Noir in 2001. Joe’s vision of one day producing a Pinot Noir to stand side by side with the French Burgundies he so admired was taking shape. But as in Napa Valley, the ground had yet to be proven.
The challenge of farming wine grapes on the Sonoma Coast became rapidly apparent, and as in Napa Valley, the first years involved a learning curve as steep as the hillsides on which we planted our vines. We wrestled to adapt our farming practices to an environment, climate and soils utterly different from Napa, and after the first growing seasons we grafted several vineyard blocks over to more favorable clones. We also adjusted our trellising, pruning and canopy management techniques. It took us five years to get our first crop.
As in Napa, we knew that building a winery near our Sonoma vineyards was imperative for maintaining quality. Our Freestone Winery was completed in 2007, built by Hensel Phelps Construction Company as a favor to Joe and our family and a nod to our past. With our Pastorale Vineyard rising steeply above it, the three-story building of redwood and steel is designed so that grapes and wines can be moved by gravity, an ideal way of gently working with thin-skinned Pinot Noir.
“We didn’t just stick a flag in the ground. We stuck 100 acres of vines in the ground. It was a risk and a challenge, but the wines we’re making now show it was a good bet.”
- Mike McEvoy, VP, Director of Sales, Joseph Phelps Vineyards
2007 was also the year we produced our first single-vineyard Pinot Noir from Quarter Moon Vineyard along with a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Pastorale Vineyard. Joining the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Freestone Vineyards bottlings, these limited-production wines are sourced from two or three blocks in each vineyard, vines that produce wines of exceptional depth, purity and finesse.
Since those first few vintages the reputation of Joseph Phelps’ Sonoma Coast wines have grown in tandem with the stature of the growing region itself. Today, dozens of vineyards share the landscape with dense forests and open pastures, and some of California’s most respected Pinot Noir producers source grapes in this sparsely populated but burgeoning winegrowing region. Joe’s fearlessness and infectious vision – his willingness to put a stake in the ground and take our family along with him – proved once again to be prescient.