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Napa Valley's Joseph Phelps Expands Cabernet Production

The winery, best known for its three Cabernet-based bottlings, is developing a new, 70-acre vineyard in southern Napa.

Daniel Sogg
Posted: February 7, 2002

Napa Valley's Joseph Phelps Vineyards plans to keep playing its strong suit: By 2005, the winery expects to make at least another 20,000 cases per year of its highly regarded Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines, which already account for nearly two-thirds of the St. Helena-based estate's 90,000-case annual production.

Most of the production increase will come from Phelps' new Suscol Ridge Vineyard, a 160-acre property located about 2 miles south of the city of Napa. Phelps purchased the site in fall 1999 and should have 70 acres planted this year. Depending on vintage conditions, the new vineyards could yield anywhere from 12,000 to 17,000 cases.

Phelps will use the Suscol Ridge grapes to make more of its Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon bottling, and perhaps to augment output of Insignia, its top-of-the-line Cabernet blend. The winery also makes a third Cabernet-based wine: the single-vineyard Backus Vineyard, from Oakville.

Southern Napa County was once considered too cool for Cabernet, which was mostly planted in the warmer, up-valley vineyards of Oakville and Rutherford. But advances in viticulture and the experience gained over the last 30 years have encouraged Napa winemakers to try Bordeaux varieties in new areas.

"We've learned a lot about this region in three decades," said Craig Williams, director of winemaking at Phelps. "We certainly see the diversity and value of areas in regions not once considered suitable. Our farming is different, along with the vineyard architecture, rootstock and spacing, [and that] adds up to greater confidence to farm areas that are cool."

Williams and winery president Tom Shelton initially hoped to plant 100 acres of the Suscol Ridge property, which used to be pastureland, but they decided to leave 30 acres of hillside land untouched, to avoid potential legal action from environmentalists.

Phelps will further increase its Cabernet portfolio by replanting 20 acres of its Chardonnay in Yountville, reducing the winery's total Chardonnay output for the next few years from 10,000 cases to about 7,000 cases. "We're really focusing on [what has] the highest potential, and we believe that's the Cabernet varieties," said Shelton. "There's no denying that Cabernet from Napa competes on a world stage. Chardonnay doesn't."

Much of Phelps' Chardonnay production will eventually come from the Sonoma Coast, where it has two vineyards currently under development.

Williams and winemaker Sarah Gott also see less of a future for Syrah on Phelps' properties in northern Napa. Phelps was the first California winery to bottle a Syrah, starting with the 1974 vintage. The winery's success with its newer cool-climate Syrah plantings in Monterey and Carneros has encouraged them to replant its St. Helena Syrah plots with Cabernet.

In addition to those ongoing vineyard projects, the winery recently celebrated a series of milestones. Craig Williams marked his 25th anniversary at the estate and was promoted from winemaker to director of winemaking and executive vice president. Sarah Gott, who started at Phelps in 1993, became winemaker, assuming responsibility for day-to-day production operations. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of the estate.

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Check our recent ratings of Joseph Phelps wines.

Read past news about Phelps:

  • Dec. 4, 2000
    Top Napa Cabernet Producer Joseph Phelps Expands Into Sonoma
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