Joseph Phelps spent a lifetime building things, first as a contractor in Colorado and then as a vintner in Napa Valley beginning in the 1970s, converting a cattle ranch into what became Joseph Phelps Vineyards. He and his winery would help pioneer a trademark Napa style of ripe, rich Cabernet Sauvignon accented by Merlot, Cabernet Franc and a generous use of oak. Phelps was in the midst of renovating the winery's visitors center in St. Helena when he died Wednesday at age 87.
Phelps made his mark on the wine world with a Bordeaux-inspired blend he branded Insignia, a name he came up with one morning while shaving. Phelps’ winery excelled with many wines, from late-harvest dessert whites to Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot. He was also among the pioneers embracing Rhône-style reds in the 1970s.
"Joe was a businessman and a real vintner—all too rare these days," said Chuck Wagner of Caymus. "Joe brought competition to Napa Valley in a significant way. He was one of the first vintners to enter the brave new world of the ripe and gorgeous style."
The youngest of four children, Joseph Phelps was born on a farm in Maysville in DeKalb County, Mo., in 1927. His family moved to Colorado in 1936, where his father, Abel Hensel Phelps, started a construction company. The young Phelps showed his business acumen early on, establishing a fishing fly-tying business during his high school years.
He became interested in wine while earning a degree in construction management at what's now Colorado State University. Phelps graduated in 1951 and married that same year. After serving as a lieutenant in the Navy during the Korean War, he returned to Colorado and went into business with his father. In 1957, they incorporated the Hensel Phelps Construction Co., now one of the largest construction firms in the U.S.
In the mid-1960s, Phelps established an office in San Francisco and the company later won a bid to build Souverain Winery (now Rutherford Hill) in St. Helena. Phelps started spending time in wine country and made Cabernet and Zinfandel in the basement of his home using Napa grapes. Contemplating a career change, he purchased a 600-acre cattle ranch in Spring Valley in 1973 and started planting vineyards and building a winery.
Phelps released his first wines—a Riesling and a Cabernet Sauvignon—that same year. Then, in 1974, he produced Insignia, a blend of classic Bordeaux varieties that is now recognized as one of Napa’s signature red wines.
It was a radical approach to Napa Cabernet at the time—a proprietary label in which the vintage and winemaker determined the final blend. Insignia helped establish the winery as a leading Cabernet producer, with Phelps' and winemaker Craig Williams' 2002 bottling named Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 2005.
Initially Phelps relied on Napa growers for his Cabernet grapes. He forged relationships with top vintners including Milton Eisele, owner of Eisele Vineyard in Calistoga and Oakville’s Backus Vineyard, and bottled them as single-vineyard wines.
Along with Insignia, the Cabernets were unmistakably bold, dramatic and ageworthy, and consistently ranked among California’s finest. "He was a pioneer with Insignia and Backus of rich, full-blown Cabernet," said Napa vintner Randy Lewis of Lewis Cellars. "He set a style in a good way, with wines that had lots of oak, lots of fruit and lots of concentration. Insignia and Backus were wines to emulate."
Over the years Phelps expanded the vineyards with the goal of using only estate-grown grapes. Today the winery owns eight vineyards in Napa stretching from St. Helena to Carneros.
Known as a low-key yet influential leader, Phelps was also one of California’s most innovative vintners. He helped pioneer the use of Rhône varieties in the 1970s, and was one of the first to bottle a varietal Syrah in California. The winery also made rich dessert wines from grapes such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Scheurebe.
While Phelps built his reputation on Cabernet, he also had a lifelong interest in the wines of Burgundy. He made a popular Chardonnay and from the mid- to late 1970s produced Pinot Noirs from St. Helena and Yountville. Later he bought grapes from the cooler Carneros appellation and bottled Pinots from Santa Barbara under the Innisfree brand.
His search for an ideal spot to grow Burgundian grapes eventually led him to the Sonoma Coast. There he purchased two vineyards outside the rural community of Freestone and started developing them in 1999. The winery now has 100 acres planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with the wines bottled under its Fogdog and Freestone Vineyards labels.
Joseph guided the winery for three decades before stepping down as chairman in 2005. His son Bill took over for the family and now serves as president. In his later years Phelps continued to visit the winery almost daily, while taking time to travel and enjoy his many accomplishments.
"Joe built a beautiful place and left his mark on the Napa Valley wine industry," said Wagner.
He is survived by four children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.