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Williams Resigns from Phelps After 32 Vintages

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: May 19, 2008 4:49pm ET

Craig Williams and Tom Shelton, winemaker and president/CEO, respectively, of Joseph Phelps Vineyards, resigned from the Napa winery on Friday afternoon, according to their attorney.

The two longtime executives' departures from the famed Phelps winery was not a surprise, sources said, since they had been been mired in a drawn-out dispute over compensation.

Both Williams, a winemaker at Phelps since the 1970s, and Shelton, the company’s president since 1995, were limited partners in the winery and at the heart of the popular winery’s winemaking and business departments.

News of their resignation came in a Friday afternoon e-mail from their law firm, Goodwin Procter, LLP, in San Francisco.

Williams, who joined the winery 32 years ago, has been closely tied to the winery for years, not only as its winemaker, but also its spokesman in many matters. He oversaw winemaking, including the 2002 Phelps Insignia (96 points, $150, 15,000 cases), Wine Spectator’s 2005 Wine of the Year. He was not available for comment.

Winery chairman Bill Phelps, son of founder Joseph Phelps, said that there had been differences between the three parties for some time. But he declined to get into specifics.

“It’s something that’s been a matter of discussion for some time,” Phelps said. “It’s a business fact of life [that differences develop].” Shelton has been battling brain cancer for nearly a year and has not worked for the winery for some time, Phelps reported.

“Certainly Craig and Tom made great contributions to the winery [and the winery is] in great financial hands,” Phelps said, but added that “change is inevitable” and there were “internal differences" at Phelps [and] “philosophical differences, differences related to partnership interests."

“We wish Tom and Craig the very best,” he said

Damian Parker, who has been at Phelps for 26 years, takes over as winemaker, Phelps said. “One of the great strengths of this company is it’s a place where people come and don’t leave,” Phelps said. “That’s why we’re blessed with a great winemaking team.”

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  May 19, 2008 6:20pm ET
That's a shame. I'm still hanging on to a bottle of 2000 Insignia Shelton personally signed for me at a Duke of Bourbon event a few years back. He was very amiable. However, I did stop adding to my vertical with the 2004 vintage when I just couldn't take the unbelievable price hikes any more.
Timothy Moore
Tinley Park —  May 19, 2008 8:09pm ET
The 95 Insignia was the wine that changed my idea of what is fine wine,but I too stop buying after 2003 due to the ridiculous price hikes.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  May 19, 2008 11:14pm ET
I remember a song from my era that went " A little change is going to do you good". They had a glorious past, but it is time for the next generation to move in. Who wrote " the King is dead, long live the King"? To the 21st Century!
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  May 19, 2008 11:54pm ET
I stopped buying these wines with the 2002 vintage as the wine is excellent yet, not worth the increasing price adjustments. $150 was a lot for the Insignia..but $225 is just too much when I can find similar (sometimes better) quality for far less
Hal Howard
Sammamish, WA —  May 20, 2008 1:04am ET
With 2005 already in the bottle and 06 and 07 in the barrels, it may be several years before we know what effect this is going to have on Phelps' top wines. Sad to see them part ways, but it sounds like it's more about money than philosophy. Craig will now have to make it as a consultant or find a new gig.
Steve Shelton
Yuba City, Ca. —  May 20, 2008 2:57am ET
These are unhappy times. Probably the best wine dinner we ever did was when Tom Shelton came and poured Phelp's best, including their new exciting line of Le Mistral wines. After the dinner, we sold a ton of wine and it was the best evening ever. A short time later, "Cousin Tom" became CEO of Phelps and we were all proud. The winery steadily marched on and we were right there with them. Then one day they were getting some special attention and when we ordered more Insignia, it went off of the market???? It came back at a huge price increase after Wine Spectator gave them the big one. Shame on you Tom. You lost a lot of us after that. Cousin, now, we realize it was only business and you were just looking out for the boss. Your battle now is the only thing that counts. You are a real warrior in this business and now in life. You are one of the business icons in Napa Valley. KEEP FIGHTING.
Scott Basye
Portland, OR —  May 20, 2008 11:30am ET
I can't remember the last time I actually purchased a California Cabernet or, for that matter, any wine from California. When you consistently find good and average (not even very good) wines above $50 per bottle it's time to shop in other appelations. Statements like "attorneys from Goodwin Procter"....money money money....I'll shoop and visit elsewhere.
Holger Berndt
SF —  May 20, 2008 12:10pm ET
I was there for Insignia Weekend a few days ago and had the opportunity to speak with Bill, his wife and his sister. They were all very friendly and gracious people.I wonder if Craig's heart just wasn't in the winemaking anymore, maybe he was internally simmering from the ongoing dispute. The reason I say that is because I tasted the '04-'06 Insignias and while the '04 was amazing, both the '05 & '06 were nothing special (they were both good wines, but at 92% and 95% cab, they just didn't say "Insignia" to me). Maybe it was the heat or palate fatigue, but I actaully preferred the '05 Cab to Insignia that day. Also, I've spoken with Tom a number of times over the years and always enjoyed our conversations. I hope that he's able to recover.
Chris Haag
May 20, 2008 2:24pm ET
James, on an off topic, have you tried the bottled 2005 Ovid release? Offer to purchase has come out and at $175.00/bottle, 3 bottle minimum, I want to make sure the wine is living up to the hype?Thoughts, comments?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  May 20, 2008 4:38pm ET
No, Chris, but hope to soon.
Holger Berndt
SF —  May 20, 2008 8:02pm ET
James, you can have my Ovid allocation if you haven't been able to source any.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  May 21, 2008 10:22am ET
No, Chris, but hope to soon.
Tim Webb
high point nc —  May 21, 2008 11:40am ET
how interesting that most of the posted comments were complaints about pricing rather than addressing the possible effects on the winery as a result of losing these two important men. needless to say, phelps owns some fine vineyards, but the wine did not make itself, and the strong financial position of the company is not accidental. in the end, it's about the money, for phelps, for these gentlemen and apparently for the readers as well.
La Quinta, CA —  May 21, 2008 1:29pm ET
I just want to put my 2 cents in. With regard to pricing, did anyone notice the production for Insignia got cut in half? This means stricter selection of grapes, barrels, etc. This was not accidental. They wanted to make Insignia even BETTER than what it was, and in the end it took more capital. Am I happy the price went up...Hell no! But it is a greater wine. Also, a different wine. Dustin.

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