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.