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Copyright © 2018
Forkmedia LLC


by Fred McMillin
for March 24, 2000


Winery of the Week

A Giant in the Valley


"Joseph Phelps has one foot in the hills and one foot in the [Napa] valley floor."

...Wine Atlas of California, J. Halliday

The Rest of the Story

Hm-m. Sounds like Joseph is a giant...and he is. He made the first proprietary blend of red Bordeaux varietals, naming it Insignia (1974). Terry Robarts in the Wine Enthusiast reports tasting it 14 years later and found it still "in superb condition, at peak maturity with firm, black fruit flavors...should remain in peak form for years to come."

Another indication of the Phelps stature: He pioneered the Syrah in California, where Rhone specialist Remington Norman says it has "long been one of the Golden State's best."

In fact, Joseph Phelps is so enthusiatic about the Rhone varieties in Napa, that they occupy almost half of his 350 acres of vines. One of the most successful is the white Viognier. There are reports that the Phelps soil is even better for that grape than that of its home on the Rhone. It originally was grown to blend with Syrah, but by 1989 it showed so much character that it was bottled on its own. Total volume of the first release...15 cases. Today's 34 acres turn out a bit more. Where did such a talented vintner get his training?

Joe's Journey

Joseph Phelps was a Colorado construction contractor, not a vintner. However, when he was hired to build two Napa wineries in the early '70s, he fell in love with the business. So, in 1973 he bought the 670-acre Connolly Ranch on the east side of Silverado Trail. It's part of a niche in the hills known as Spring Valley.

Let's take a minute to learn about these names.

School House Silverado Trail—In the 1880s, the Trail served as the route of ore-wagons traveling from the mines of Mt. St. Helena to the Napa River for shipment south. About that time a colorful green school house, (pictured), was built in Spring Valley (see photo). Pat Connolly was an Oakland business man who raised show-class Herefords on the ranch.

While Phelps had plenty of creative ideas, he needed a fine winemaker to execute them. He hired German-born Walter Schug. One of the first varieties thay planted? The Syrah! Venerable critic Leon Adams said the wines soon received continuous "lyric praises."

Changing of the guard—Walter left later to start his own winery. He was replaced by the ultra-talented Craig Williams, who has worked over two dozen vintages since his U.C.-Davis days. Selecting his own replacement was done with similar care and wisdom. Tom Shelton, whom I had known at Guenoc, joined Phelps as V.P. in 1992... President in 1995...C.E.O and President in 1997...added the duties of President of the Napa Valley Vinters Assoc. in 1999. The gradual transition from Phelps (he's still Chairman) to Shelton has gone so smoothly that author James Laube calls the winery "one of the biggest success stories in California."

Just the Facts

Joseph Phelps Joseph Phelps Vineyards 200 Taplin Road, Silverado Trail, Napa Valley
Owner—Joseph Phelps, (pictured)
U.S.A. Sales—Kobrand Corp., New York City
Winery Contact—Office of Hilary De Puy, (707) 963-2745, FAX (707) 963-4831
Wines—Viognier production is up to 6,000 cases.
My palate gives it a HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for all those who will drink a white other than Chardonnay. Of course, Phelps has more California experience with the Syrah than the competition, so the serious student MUST try that one. The colossus, Insignia, is covered with awe in the October 17, 1997 WineDay," It Looked Like Blood and Gore in '94". There are other Rhone bottles, all under the Mistral label. (see "Mistral Above All", WineDay September 30, 1997.) We haven't mentioned the Phelps Cab, but we do in the June 12, 1997 " Kloeckera and Friends", WineDay.

Postscript —The Dedication

In 1973 neighbor winemaker Joe Heitz brought over a rare bottle and actually sprinkled some on the new structure before he and Joe put it to better use. It was a Madeira dated 1864!

Credits: James Conaway's Napa

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


This page created March 2000