by Fred McMillin
for October 27, 1997

It Looked Like Blood and Gore in '94

"In 1994 our grapes had been slow to ripen. Sixty five percent of the crop was still hanging on the vine by October 4, when an unexpected thunderstorm swept through the Napa Valley with dreaded rain."

- Craig Williams, Joseph Phelps Winemaker

The Rest of the Story: Up until now, it had been a lot of fun. For ten years Craig had been Head Winemaker and Vice President of Production. One of his triumphs was an unbroken string of award-winning Bordeaux-grape blends called "Insignia." The 1992 was praised by the New York Times as "one of the Napa Valley's finest wines." The 1993 was given an eye-popping NINETY SIX by America's foremost wine critic, Robert Parker, Jr. His review: "Fabulous nose...spectacular richness...with a blockbuster finish." The question now was whether there would even BE a 1994 Insignia.

After the Oct. 4th storm, the weather warmed and grape sugar content rose...but more rain was forecast for Oct. 14 and 15. It was a white knuckle harvest. The entire team geared up and at the last minute processed 783 tons of premium grapes before the rains came. Whew!

Did that rush compromise quality? Is the '94 up to previous standards? I set a decanter of it on the table with no hullabaloo, since it was a working lunch with a low-key tamale casserole. Someone took a sip of the wine and business was over. Everyone wanted to know what it was and where to get it. I can guarantee the '94 ratings will be right up in the stratosphere with its predecessors. To check this I served a bottle blind to my 15 tasters, along with 19 competitors. They rated the Insignia 20% higher than the second place wine and 49% higher than the average of the 19. Case closed.

The Wine:
1994 Insignia, Napa Valley
Joseph Phelps Vineyards
Composition—88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 100% joy.
Contact—Hilary DePuy, (707)967-3733

Postscript: The Anatomy of Success The first Insignia harvest occurred in 1974. Here is how its price has changed.

'74 $12 '84 $30
'75 $15 '89 $35
'76 $20 '90 $40
'77 $25 '91 $50
    '94 $70

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.

Read more articles by Fred McMillin in the eGGsf

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