Pioneering Spirit: Joe Phelps Inteview

  • Friday 16 January 2004

Phelps was the first California winery to produce a premium Bordeaux blend from its own grapes, and went on to pioneer Rhône varieties. By Paul Franson

Ask Joe Phelps how he got into the wine business, and he answers: ‘One sip at a time’. As he looks back on the 30th anniversary of his winery, Phelps says his role in building the business has been as ‘chief observer’. In truth, Phelps has been far more than an observer. He has had an enormous impact not merely on Joseph Phelps Vineyards, but on the California wine business as a whole.

Phelps grew up in Colorado, building his father’s modest construction business into a regional powerhouse. Along the way, he developed a taste for fine Bordeaux and Rhône wines. Increasingly, he found himself daydreaming about owning a vineyard in Napa Valley where he could make his own wine. When his construction company was chosen to build a winery there for Chateau Souverain (now Rutherford Hill Winery), it only reinforced his dream.

So it was that he purchased 243ha (hectares) in bucolic Spring Valley, a tiny enclave near St Helena. Then a cattle ranch, it had room for 50ha of vines. For 10 years, Phelps lived in a small old schoolhouse on the property. He now has an estate home overlooking the valley, which remains the site of the winery.

When he began, Phelps hired German-born winemaker Walter Schug, a confirmed fan of Pinot Noir. Not surprisingly, the winery started out by planting German varieties like Riesling and Gewürztraminer, as well as Pinot Noir. Equally predictably, they proved to be unsuitable choices for the site’s warm climate.

The winery’s first commercial release was in 1974, a Riesling from bought-in grapes. Phelps helped peddle the wine to restaurants and stores himself, selling it out of the boot of his car. He had started construction of the winery in 1973, eventually producing a large, redwood, barn-like structure that suggests the heritage of Napa Valley before Tuscan estates and faux-châteaux came into vogue.

Though everyone’s vision of the perfect California vineyard and winery, the Spring Valley site proved challenging. Many grape varieties and techniques were trialled before the winery finally mastered its unique soil, drainage and climate. ‘It’s one of the most difficult places to grow grapes we’ve ever encountered,’ notes president Tom Shelton. ‘It’s been planted to everything.’

Like most Napa wineries, Phelps bought grapes from many sources over the years, ultimately buying vineyards in Stags Leap District in 1983, Rutherford in 1984 and later in Carneros. More recently, the winery has added land in southern Napa County. It hopes to be supplying 90% of its own estate grapes in a few years – a high proportion for California.

Using both purchased and estate fruit, winemaker Schug and his assistant Craig Williams, now director of winemaking, perfected the art of blending, using grapes from different vineyards to complement the respective aromas and tastes in the classic Bordeaux style. Today, while Phelps makes a highly regarded Backus Vineyard Cabernet, it is best known for producing superb blends.

In 1974, this blending led to the release of Insignia, the first high-end proprietary blend of Bordeaux varieties produced in California. The wine was mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot, but in 1977, the winery started growing Cabernet Franc, and in 1997 it added the two other classic Bordeaux varietals, Malbec and Petit Verdot. The current (2000) release of Insignia ($135) is 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot, 1% Malbec and 1% Cabernet Franc. (By comparison, the 1975 was 80% Merlot.)

Many Napa wineries now push single-vineyard-designated wines, whose exclusivity can lead to high demand and prices. Phelps follows its own path.

‘Joe saw that we could mitigate year-to-year variation through blending,’ says Craig Williams, vice president of winemaking after 25 years of service. Phelps chose the proprietary name for the wine because he felt the then-common term ‘reserve’ was misused: ‘I didn’t want to call it a reserve,’ he says. ‘I wanted it to be unique and to be a blend rather than a single-varietal wine.’

Over time, the winery has increasingly focused on Bordeaux varieties. Yet, although they represent only 15% of the winery’s production, Phelps’ Rhône varieties have proved more significant to the California wine business.

Syrah, which excels in much of California’s climate, has been planted there since the mid-19th century. But it was largely abandoned by early growers who preferred higher-yielding grapes such as its inferior cousin, Petite Sirah. Joseph Phelps, however, loved Rhône wines, and had a large collection of old Côte-Rotie and Hermitage. He wanted to try Syrah on his new property and found that a large, unheralded Syrah vineyard was owned by the nearby Christian Brothers winery. Initially buying fruit from there to make wine in 1974, then planting a vineyard with its cuttings, Phelps became the first California winery to release a varietal Syrah since Prohibition.

Over time, and on becoming more familiar with Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s blend, the winery began making other wines from Rhône varietals, notably Viognier. The white grape is co-fermented with Syrah in the French method, while Phelps’ Le Mistral is also patterned after Châteauneuf, via a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Carignan, all widely planted but little respected in California. Phelps also produces its own modest Côtes du Rhône table wine blend called red Pastiche; the white Pastiche is more Alsatian.

Phelps has faced challenges in pioneering Rhône varietals. There’s an old American saying that the pioneers are the ones with the arrows in their backs, and Phelps’ Rhône programme fits the description.

Phelps himself admits that the winery’s experience with Syrah was a little drawn out: ‘At first we didn’t understand the sources and the clones,’ he says. ‘As a result, we bounced around the valley.’

For years, Williams struggled with Syrah. Early wines were over-extracted until the winery finally recognised that there are better places to grow the Rhône varieties than at its warm home ranch. Much now comes from cooler vineyards in Carneros and Monterey County.

The winery has been on a mission to replant and upgrade its vineyards in Napa, and is now expanding elsewhere too. The drive takes the form of two major, unorthodox projects.

The first is a big new vineyard in Napa’s cool southeast. The 27.5ha Soscol vineyard is in southern Napa Valley. Though the vineyard is on a warm southwest-facing slope, it lies in a cool area close to Carneros, a region traditionally preferred for Chardonnay.

Phelps already makes a regular and high-end Ovation Chardonnay by sourcing grapes from the cool Carneros area. Nevertheless, Phelps has also planted Cabernet here, a heat-loving varietal. Now the winery is also planting Malbec and Syrah in Carneros, where it hopes to ripen grapes with complex, elegant flavours minus the high sugar levels typical of warmer climates.

A second big project involves 40ha close to the Pacific Ocean in Sonoma County. In this spot, Phelps has planted 32ha of Pinot Noir and 8ha of Chardonnay. ‘We want to grow them in a cool climate,’ he notes. And though only a small experimental lot has been vinified so far, he says, with typical modesty: ‘They taste pretty good.’

Phelps downplays his role at the winery. He still spends most afternoons there, but also lives a few months each year in Provence. Expect to see a Mourvèdre-based blend in the years to come.

Paul Franson is editor of www.napalife.com

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