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james laube's wine flights

More on Insignia, Styles and Alcohol

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Dec 4, 2007 2:03pm ET

Today we return ever so briefly to the 1977 Joseph Phelps Insignia, for its evolution as a wine and wine style marked a radical departure for what would have otherwise been known as Napa Valley Cabernet. And at the time, though Cabernet was Napa’s most famous wine, it didn’t dominate the landscape or mindset the way it does today.

Insignia, of course, wasn’t a Cabernet, but a Bordeaux blend, a composition of 50 percent Cabernet, 30 percent Merlot and 20 percent Cabernet Franc.

“What made the ’77 Insignia important at the time was the blend,” winemaker Craig Williams wrote to me yesterday. “Before then, Insignia represented a selection of the best wine/cuvée from the vintage. I clearly remember Joe [Phelps] stating that [Insignia] could come from any variety that we were producing at the time, Syrah, Chardonnay, Johannisberg Riesling, for example. Since then, it has not been surprising to you or me that Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties have come to define Insignia and Napa Valley.”

I was also curious about the 1977’s alcohol level, which was listed at 13.8 on the bottle, and that is the correct figure, Williams said.

“With the exception in ’04, which was 14.7 percent, most of the Insignias have been in the range of 13.9 to 14.4 percent,” Williams said. “No kidding!”

“Notable ‘low’ alcohol vintages include ’97, ’99 and ’01, all in the 13.9 to 14 percent range,” he added. “’94 was actually 13.4 percent. 2002 and ’03 are 14.4 percent.”

As for the 1980s Insignias and other Cabernets, Williams offered this: “We all got off track in the '80s when the marketplace demanded ‘food’ wines; you know, more acid, lower pH and lower alcohols. For me, this seemed to be a reaction" by California vintners to the East Coast establishment view of California wines, which were decried as too ripe and alcoholic.

Today the market readily accepts riper, fuller-bodied wines, but I hardly consider these alcohol levels to be excessive.

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  December 4, 2007 9:52pm ET
The only thing excessive about Insignia is the recent exponential rise in price! I began enjoying it with the '99 vintage, but decided to pass on it recently when it released at $225. I know you can grab it at $160, but $125 was stretching it for me in '02 & '03. It's just not that exciting beyond $125.
Louis-ann Gonzalez
Chapel Hill, NC —  December 5, 2007 12:48am ET
Troy, you are right on. When they make so many cases and charge these excessive release prices, you can expect a lot of retailers to be sitting on stock and eventually have to reduce the price, just as they did drastically with the 2000 vintage. The new pricing will prove that what the market will bear is not $225 per, nor I expect even $160. This is what turns wine buyers against California greed.
John Stickler
nyack ny —  December 5, 2007 7:53am ET
1995 was my first year with Insignia,$65 per bottle picked up some 99's i think about $100 a piece, my 95's have peaked i believe so i'll be drinking the last 3 bottles very soon and after the 99's are gone thats it. 225 bucks is a joke
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  December 7, 2007 11:59pm ET
Williams' comment about the 1980s really finds a bulls-eye with me, a Cab/Shiraz/Zin lover, who regularly ponders on criticisms that wines are too ripe and alcoholic. I can't help but think we're repeating that historic cycle again, especially whenever I read one of J.L.'s reviews (and scores) of more "elegant" Syrahs and Pinot Noirs that he enjoys. And as for the 2000 Insignia, it remains one of the best bargains I ever paid $60 for to this date. Well worth every penny and then some!
Michael Myette
Sacramento, CA USA —  December 8, 2007 6:08pm ET
The Insignia is simply tracking along with all of the other High end, consistently high rated california Cabs from Napa. Many prices are excessive, but that is what the market bears. Phelps offers wines as "futures" for a relative bargain to wine club members, and the auction prices for the '04 Insignia approach retail already($140-160). It is still much more than what we pay for futures ($112 for the 2004). Compared to Bond, Araujo, Colgin, etc, it is still a bargain, and Insignia has a longer record of quality than all of those. Food (or wine) for thought.

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