The early 1970s was an exciting time for wineries emerging in Napa Valley, such as Chateau Montelena, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and Joseph Phelps Vineyards--now all considered iconic Napa Valley wineries.
The Joseph Phelps story is similar to many other successful Napa Valley properties; Joseph Phelps was running one of the largest construction companies in the U.S. at that time. But he fell in love with Napa Valley and decided on a career change. In 1973 he bought a 600-acre cattle ranch in Spring Valley and planted vineyards. The Joseph Phelps winery was completed in 1974, the very same year that Joseph Phelps produced California’s first varietal Syrah, a grape that he loved.
1974 was also the first vintage of Joseph Phelps’ Insignia, his premium Bordeaux–blend wine, which was in fact the first proprietary Bordeaux-blend wine made in California. Actually, over the years, Insignia has turned out to be predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc and/or Petit Verdot and/or Malbec. The early vintages of Insignia were, of course, made from purchased grapes; gradually, Insignia became more of an Estate wine, and from the 2004 vintage, Insignia has been made totally from Phelps’ estate-grown grapes.
Joseph Phelps wines first came to my attention not from Insignia but from his magnificent 1975 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Eisele Vineyard. Reviews at the time were off the charts for this wine, and I purchased six bottles. Over the years, I have enjoyed this wine immensely, but always thought that it needed a little more time. I still own one bottle of the ’75 Phelps Eisele Vineyard, and I guess it’s time to drink it.
Joe’s son, Bill Phelps, told a group of wine writers in New York recently--including Jancis Robinson and yours truly--that Joseph Phelps always regretted not buying Eisele Vineyard when Milton Eisele retired around 1990. Instead, it went to its current owners, Araujo Estate, in 1991.
From 1975 on, I began collecting both Joseph Phelps Eisele and Insignia, whenever I could afford them. Nowadays, Phelps Eisele is history, but Insignia carries on, from 1974 to the current 2010 vintage.
Joseph Phelps Vineyards recently added to its portfolio a very good Pinot Noir called Freestone from the Sonoma Coast, six miles from the Pacific Ocean; it is a winner, but in this column I am concentrating on Insignia.
The recent Insignia tasting I attended featured 12 Insignia wines, from the 1976 vintage to 2009. Bill Phelps told us that there were practically no bottles left of the 1974 and 1975 Insignia:
1976 Joseph Phelps Insignia: 1976 was a drought year, with lots of heat. The 1976 Insignia has 94 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with 6 percent Merlot, and the grapes were sourced almost entirely from Eisele Vineyard. It is remarkable in that it was still alive, for about 30 minutes, but then began to fade. Considering the difficult vintage, it was a success. It did need more acidity. Only 1500 cases made. Its release price was $20! 90 Points
1985 Joseph Phelps Insignia: 1985 was a very good vintage in Napa Valley. This wine, with 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Merlot, and 15 percent Cabernet Franc, was one of the stars of the tasting for me. It has delicate, lovely fruit, but also has depth, grace, and balance. Totally enjoyable to drink now. Its release price was a mere $35. 95
1987 Joseph Phelps Insignia: One of the surprises of the tasting. 1987 was an average vintage in Napa Valley, but the ’87 Insignia is showing very well, thanks to low crop yields. 1987 was made from 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 percent Cabernet Franc, and 10 percent Merlot--50 percent Estate fruit and 50 percent grower fruit. It is even more delicate than the 1985 with a shorter finish, and is slightly less intense, but perfect to drink now. Release price, $35. 93
1991 Joseph Phelps Insignia: For me, the 1991 was the best Insignia of the tasting, and quite a few others agreed, including Bill Phelps. 1991 was a great vintage in Napa Valley, cooler than usual. 1991 Insignia, with 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 10 percent Merlot, and 10 percent Cabernet Franc, was made with 89 percent Estate fruit. The wine took a long time to mature, is certainly at its peak, but will last for a few more decades, in my opinion. The fruit is intense and ripe, but not overly ripe. It has a grip that the other wines lacked, leading me to believe it will have a long life. Just outstanding! Release price, $50. Buy it if you can find it. 99
1994 Joseph Phelps Insignia: Another fine vintage for Napa Valley, although not so great as the 1991. The 1994 is mainly Cabernet Sauvignon (88 percent), with 10 percent Merlot and 2 percent Cabernet Franc--69 percent from Estate fruit. It has a very dark color, with cherry fruit, and a slightly roasted note. It is the most “California” in style of the Insignias so far, with ripe tannins but with a balanced finish. Release price, $70. 92
1997 Joseph Phelps Insignia: Proclaimed to be a great vintage in Napa Valley (warm and dry), but somewhat precocious. That being said, the 1997 Insignia, made from 83 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 14 percent Merlot and 3 percent Petit Verdot ( 60 percent Estate fruit), is still going strong. It has plenty of tannins, even with a surprising touch of austerity. A rich, ripe wine. Release price, $120. 91
(The first six Insignias ranged from 13.1° to 13.9° in alcohol.)
1999 Joseph Phelps Insignia: The 1999 vintage was a fine vintage in Napa Valley, not too warm, and somewhat underrated by critics. The 1999 Insignia contains 71 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 21 percent Merlot, 6 percent Petit Verdot, 1 percent Malbec, and 1 percent Cabernet Franc (79 percent Estate fruit). It is quite delicious now, definitely made in the new, California ripe style. But it’s hard not to like. Lots of tannin and cherry fruit flavors, slightly roasted fruit, but with good length on the palate and good acidity. 14° alcohol. Release price, $125. 92
2001 Joseph Phelps Insignia: The 2001 vintage might have been the best of this decade in Napa Valley, with a fairly cool summer and a warm September. The 2001 Insignia, 89 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 8 percent Petit Verdot and 3 percent Malbec (73 percent Estate fruit) is dark, ripe, and concentrated, an excellent wine in the modern style. I prefer it to the very good 1999. Release price, $125. 93
2002 Joseph Phelps Insignia: The 2002 vintage was somewhat overrated in Napa Valley, just a bit too hot. The 2002 Insignia managed to avoid some of the pitfalls of this vintage, despite its high 14.4° alcohol. With its Inky color and ripe, sweet tannins, it’s a lovely wine to drink now. Release price, $150. 91
(From the 2004 vintage on, All Joseph Phelps Insignia wines
were made with 100 percent Estate fruit.)
2007 Joseph Phelps Insignia: The 2007 vintage was very warm and dry in Napa Valley. For those tasters who prefer blockbuster Cabernet Sauvignons, this is your year. The 2007 Insignia is composed of 88 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 8 percent Merlot, and 4 percent Petit Verdot, with 14.5° alcohol. It is a rich, chunky wine with slightly baked flavors, difficult to evaluate because it is still evolving. Intense, in the modern California style. Release price, $200. 91
2008 Joseph Phelps Insignia: The 2008 vintage was a fairly difficult one in Napa Valley, with low yields that led to some intensely flavored wines. The 2008 Insignia, with 14.7 percent alcohol, is too intense and over-the-top for me, but some tasters liked this style. Who knows, perhaps in 20 years it will be a different wine. Release price, $200. 89
2009 Joseph Phelps Insignia: The 2009 vintage, with its mild climate, promises to be an excellent one in Napa Valley. The 2009 Insignia, although difficult to evaluate now, was clearly my favorite since the 2001 Insignia. Made with 83 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, a whopping 13 percent Petit Verdot, and 4 percent Malbec, it offers delicious berry fruit aromas and flavors. Typical of today’s modern California wines, it has 14.5° alcohol, but it is well integrated in the wine. I do believe that the 2009 will be long-lived, and far better than the 2008. Release price, $200. 92.5
All in all, Joseph Phelps Insignia impressed me as one of the great Cabernet Sauvignon wines being made in California today. The younger vintages suffer from their youthfulness right now. Whether they turn out to be as outstanding as some of the older vintages is a good question that only time will reveal. For this wine lover, just to have the opportunity to taste the magnificent 1991 and 1985 Insignias was a rare treat.