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Napa Valley

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Joseph Phelps

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.

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Joseph Phelps

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