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Magazine Archives: Dec. 31,2005 - Jan. 15,2005

Wine of the Year

James Laube
Issue: December 31, 2005

JOSEPH PHELPS
Insignia Napa Valley 2002
96/$150, 15,000 cases made

Wine Spectator's 2005 Wine of the Year is one of California's greatest success stories. The Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley is a tribute not only to the great wines of Bordeaux, as expressed by Napa Valley grapes, but also to one man's determination and another's winemaking skill.

When Joseph Phelps produced his first Insignia, in 1974, it represented a radical new approach to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The proprietary label didn't identify the bottling as a varietal wine, leaving it up to the vintage and winemaker to determine its composition, though it has for years been anchored by Cabernet Sauvignon.

"People thought it was pretty nervy to charge $12 for a wine that didn't have a varietal name on it," recalls Phelps of the 1974, which came mainly from Steltzner Vineyard. Now, 29 vintages later, Insignia is recognized as one of Napa's signature red wines and routinely one of its finest. It's fascinating for its ever-changing varietal composition, remarkable consistency from year to year and ability to improve with age. It has earned an outstanding score in 26 of its 29 vintages, and in years such as 1997 and 1994, it rates in the classic category (95 to 100 points).

The soft-spoken Phelps, now 77, founded his winery east of St. Helena in 1973. Throughout his career he has been a low-key yet influential and competitive vintner. He is also among the most innovative, creating amazing dessert wines from Riesling and Scheurebe, tapping Rhône Valley varietals and blends, including Syrah and Viognier, and highlighting single-vineyard Cabernets from the Eisele and Backus vineyards.

In addition, six years ago he decided Sonoma Coast was the best place to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and he went to plant a vineyard near the hamlet of Freestone.

But it's the Insignia that ultimately defines Phelps and his passion for excellence. Craig Williams, Phelps' longtime winemaker, says that even after all these years, the Insignia remains a work in progress—a varietal mosaic that in 2002 included 78 percent Cabernet, 14 percent Merlot, 7 percent Petit Verdot and 1 percent Malbec primarily from estate-owned vineyards in Stags Leap and Rutherford, with additional grapes coming from independent growers.

The wine spent 26 months in a mix of new French oak barrels from coopers Taransaud, Nadalie and Demptos. Starting with the 2004, Insignia will undergo yet another change—all of its grapes will be estate-grown.

"Joe, at the end of the day, acknowledged the need to step up and acquire the vineyards [needed to keep improving Insignia]," says Williams. That control over the vineyards—even those Phelps did not own—has allowed Williams to take quality to a new level, and in the 2002 he has created a profoundly rich, opulent wine that relies on Cabernet for its density and color, tannic strength and power, while tapping Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot to round out its texture and structure. What is also stunning is that Williams made 15,000 cases of this genuinely breathtaking wine.

"When [Napa is] on, it makes these tremendous wines," says Williams of the 2002 vintage. "All the focus on winegrowing is playing out in the cellar," he says, acknowledging that his job is a little easier as a result. "The tannin levels in the wines seem high, but they're appropriate. The heat we get gives the wine the richness and dark sappiness that makes it distinctively Napa Valley."

As seductive as the 2002 Insignia is, don't be fooled by its plush layers of currant, mocha, berry, mineral and spice. This is classic Insignia with its precision, balance, concentration, power and finesse. With time, the best Insignias slowly soften yet retain their rich layers of fruit complexity. Expect the 2002 to reach its peak by age eight to 10 and to drink well for 15 to 20 years.

"As much as we'd all like to take credit [for the wines], it's an evolution in the farming that makes the difference," says Williams. Over the years, Insignia has matured and reinvented itself (the 1975 was dominated by Merlot), he says, with the next phase being complete control over all of its grapes.

Winemaking in Napa Valley is "fast track and very competitive," Williams explains, which ultimately benefits the consumer in that it raises the quality stakes. One sip of the 2002 Insignia makes a persuasive argument about the magic of Napa Valley Cabernet when married with its companion Bordeaux grape varieties. For Phelps, the 2002 Insignia marks yet another milestone in his remarkable career. "It's been a good ride for us," says Phelps. Indeed it has.


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