No Ordinary Joe 

Behold the pioneering wines of Joseph Phelps.

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In the world of winemaking, it's easy to get distracted by all the cool kids in town, so to speak. That is, we tend to take for granted some of those winemakers who paved the way for the newer kids, and who still produce world-class wines. We like things that are shiny and new.

I was reminded of this fact recently when I opened a bottle of Joseph Phelps Vineyards Freestone Pinot Noir. It was outstanding. So, why had it been years since I'd last tasted a Joseph Phelps wine? After all, Phelps is considered by many to be one of the pioneers of the Napa Valley. After his death in 2015, the famous wine critic Robert Parker wrote, "Joseph Phelps was one of the great visionaries of Napa Valley. His legacy is one of extraordinary quality. Joe Phelps was a leader, and one of the greats of the wine world."

When I mentioned enjoying the pinot noir to a wine aficionado friend of mine, he said, "I always think of Phelps as the one Napa winery that hasn't sold its soul to the highest bidder; and it shows in the bottle." Indeed, Joseph Phelps Vineyards is now run by his son, Bill Phelps, who is the spitting image of his late father.

The winery's story is an interesting one. As the head of one of the country's largest construction companies—Colorado-based Hensel Phelps Construction—he had accumulated many top wines from around the world for his private cellar, and even took a shot at winemaking himself, buying California wine grapes that were shipped to Phelps in Denver where he made wine in his basement. He would find himself in California after his company won the bid to build the then Souverain Winery (now Rutherford Hill), near St. Helena in Napa Valley.

Falling quickly in love with Napa, Phelps purchased a 600-acre former cattle ranch in 1973, and began constructing a winery and planting vineyards. By 1974, he had bottled the first-ever syrah produced in California. That year, Phelps also debuted his legendary Insignia, a proprietary blended red wine that has garnered, among many other awards and acclaim, three perfect 100-point scores from Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate for the 1991, 1997 and 2002 vintages. The 2002 vintage of Insignia was also awarded "Wine of the Year" by Wine Spectator magazine in 2005.

I've enjoyed sipping Joseph Phelps Vineyards Insignia, but not too often—since it sells for around $225 per bottle. Insignia 2012 is three-quarters cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent petit verdot, 10 percent merlot, 3 percent malbec and 2 percent cabernet franc, all from estate-grown Napa Valley vineyards. Star anise and blackberry aromas are prominent, along with tobacco, and on the palate the texture is silky with supple tannins—a luscious, plummy mouthful of full-bodied greatness. Start saving for a bottle now.

The more affordable Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards Pinot Noir 2013 ($42.99) that I tasted recently is classic Phelps. He was a lover of French Burgundy (he had a house there), and wanted to make a French-style California red Burgundy. So, he went in search of cooler climate sites for vineyards in Sonoma and eventually planted 80 acres of pinot noir there, in what is now called Freestone Vineyards. The Freestone Pinot Noir 2013 needs some additional time aging in the bottle, as it's a tad tight right now. But even so, it's a beautifully textured wine with gorgeous cranberry, currant and raspberry notes, ending in a well-balanced, sweet vanilla finish.

Other Joseph Phelps wines that are widely available to enjoy (and I heartily recommend) are Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc ($30.99), Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards Chardonnay ($42.99) and Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon ($71).

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