In the late 60s, Joseph Phelps was running one of the largest construction companies in the U.S. when he won the bid to build Souverain Winery (now Rutherford Hill) located a few miles outside of St. Helena. Enamored with the beautiful Napa Valley and contemplating a career change, in 1973 he bought the 600-acre Connolly cattle ranch in Spring Valley, and began planting vineyards. The winery was completed in 1974 and that same year the first Syrah was made, the first grapes were crushed at the new facility and the first Insignia was produced. It was a period of unparalleled activity, creativity, ingenuity, entrepreneurship and risk-taking and it put Joe Phelps on the map of top Napa Valley wine producers.
Nearly four decades later, the flagship wine, Insignia, is recognized as one of the world’s great wines. Twenty nine of 34 vintages have been rated ninety or more points by various wine publications. From 1990 to 2007, the average score from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate is 94.5 pts., with the lowest score still a fabulous 91. The 2002 vintage was “Wine of the Year” by Wine Spectator Magazine, and the 2007 vintage has been rated 98 points by Robert Parker and 96 points by Wine Spectator Magazine.
Over the years, the goal of becoming 100% estate grown resulted in carefully planned acquisitions of prime vineyards in the Napa Valley. Today, the Phelps estate consists of the Spring Valley Home Ranch outside of St. Helena, Banca Dorada in Rutherford, Las Rocas and Barboza vineyards in Stags Leap, Yountville Vineyard in Oak Knoll, Suscol Vineyard in South Napa and Backus Vineyard in Oakville.
Joseph Phelps long had a passion for the wines of Burgundy. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were an important part of the Phelps Vineyard plans all the way back to the Estate’s origins. And while the wines made from fruit in Napa and Carneros were well received Joe was never entirely satisfied. This quest for improvement led to the purchase and planting of new vineyards on the Sonoma Coast, solely for the production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
At Joseph Phelps Vineyards, the philosophy is to maintain, preserve and (where possible and appropriate) ecologically enhance the natural vineyard environment.
While this goal is essential for present vineyard practices, it will have an even more profound effect on the development of maturing vineyards in the future. In order to achieve the greatest possible ecological health in and around the vineyards, the Joseph Phelps team continues to build upon the sustainable vineyard practices they began using in the early 1980s. Gradually but steadily, they are embracing a style of farming known as “biodynamic agriculture” or simply, “biodynamics.”