Napa Valley pioneer Joseph Phelps – an ‘extraordinary and visionary leader’ in the fields of wine, construction and philanthropy – has died at the age of 87.

The late Joseph Phelps. Image credit: Joseph Phelps Vineyards

Missouri-born Phelps, the youngest of four children, founded Joseph Phelps Vineyards in Napa Valley in 1973 after buying a cattle ranch just off the Silverado Trail – and won early fame by making California’s first varietal Syrah.

But Phelps’ most lasting legacy is Insignia, first bottled in 1974 and a key marker for Bordeaux blend as a new category in Californian wine.

His vision, as an obituary on the Joseph Phelps Vineyards website notes, was to ‘craft a cuvee that represented the best wine he could produce in any given vintage, irrespective of variety – a wine to be known by its own unique name, rather than by the varietal name’.

‘He was one of the Valley’s pioneers,’ Margrit Mondavi told the Napa Valley Register. ‘Together with Robert Mondavi and others at the time, they put their hands in the soil and their souls in the wine, creating what we have today.

‘Joseph Phelps crafted a style of Napa Valley wine that can be enjoyed for a long, long time.’

Phelps was described as an ‘extraordinary and visionary leader’ by his own vineyard team this week.

Phelps had an early interest in wine and linked this to the family business, the Hensel Phelps Construction Company, by becoming involved in winery construction projects in Napa and Sonoma Counties.

Other interests included flying – Phelps became a pilot at the age of 60 – the Oakville Grocery Company which he purchased and helped run for many years, and a number of good causes, including the St Helena Hospital, the St Helena Women’s Center and Colorado State University.

With his first wife, Barbara Ann Phelps, Phelps had four children, followed by eight grandchildren and two great-granddaughters. He died at his home in St Helena on Wednesday, 15 April, surrounded by his family.

The family is set to announce plans for a celebration of his life soon.

Written by Richard Woodard