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Top Napa Cabernet Producer Joseph Phelps Expands Into Sonoma

Daniel Sogg
Posted: December 4, 2000

Joseph Phelps Vineyards, one of Napa Valley's benchmark Cabernet Sauvignon producers, is branching out to the Sonoma Coast with two recently purchased vineyards that will begin producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in 2004 and 2005.

The two properties, Quail Hill Ranch and Freestone Flat, are located a quarter of a mile apart, 5 miles west of the town of Sebastopol and 8 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Escrow on the 40-acre Quail Ridge site closed in September. Phelps winemaker Craig Williams has not yet decided how much of the land will be planted, but expects that it will be devoted exclusively to Pinot Noir.

Freestone, which was purchased in 1998, has 55 acres suitable for vines, of which 40 were planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay earlier this year. Phelps is also leasing an additional 6 acres from a neighboring property.

"We originally were looking at the area with the thought of doing Chardonnay," said Williams, who began exploring potential Sonoma Coast sites in 1997. "But looking at the quality of Pinot Noir coming out [of the Sonoma Coast], we thought Pinot made sense."

Though best known for Cabernet, Phelps has been one of California's most innovative wineries. It pioneered the use RhYne grape varieties in the late 1970s, while also breaking ground with a variety of late-harvest wines made from SHmillon, Riesling, Scheurebe and Gew8rztraminer.

Phelps had two earlier stints with Pinot Noir. From 1974 through 1979, the winery made a Heinemann Mountain Pinot from Spring Mountain grapes. In 1989 and 1990, it bottled Pinot Noir from Sangiacomo Vineyard in Carneros and Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Barbara under the Innisfree brand.

Despite the ongoing controversy between wineries and environmentalists over new vineyard development in Sonoma County, Williams is confident that Phelps' projects can happily coexist with area residents. "We've had a very positive meeting with the community, and we appreciate their concerns about vineyards," he said. "We want to be a good neighbor."

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