As Phelps Enters a New Era, A Look Back at Insignia

The wine world (OK, California) is abuzz over the acquisition of Joseph Phelps Vineyards by luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. While the sale price was not disclosed, rumors put the dollar figure anywhere from $500 million to more than $800 million for the Phelps brand and its attendant 525 acres of land in both Napa and Sonoma.

Phelps will join a portfolio that already includes Domaine Chandon, Newton Vineyard, and a sizeable chunk of Colgin Cellars.

The crown jewel in the Phelps portfolio has long been its Insignia wine, a Bordeaux style blend that has steadily held its place among the top wines produced in Napa each vintage that aren’t only available through a mailing list.

At between $250 and $315 in price and produced in quantities that allow it to be sold all over the world, Insignia no doubt represents a significant opportunity in the minds of the estate’s new owners. It has been a wine produced exclusively with estate fruit since 2004, but there’s no reason that has to continue. A carefully managed 25% increase in Insignia’s production without a loss in quality would make this purchase a home run for LVMH.

The Joseph Phelps Winery in Napa

California’s First Proprietary Red

Joseph Phelps loved wine, but he came to Napa first to build wineries for other people rather than himself. In the early 1970s, when Phelps was still running his construction business, there were less than three dozen wineries in Napa. On one of his trips, Phelps stumbled across a 670-acre cattle ranch for sale, and he decided to take the plunge. He purchased fruit in 1973 to make a Cabernet, a Riesling, and a Pinot, and set about building himself a winery.

In 1974 Phelps bought fruit of several varieties from Steltzner vineyards and it was so good that Phelps and Walter Schug, the winemaker he had hired by that point, decided to keep all those grapes together, add in a little Merlot he got from the Eisele Vineyard, and blend them to make a single wine separate from the rest of production. For some time, the wine sat in bottles without labels as Phelps figured out what to do with it.

Phelps famously held a contest among friends and family to come up with a name for a wine that he adamantly didn’t want to call a “reserve” or anything predictable along those lines. A few days later while shaving, Joe came up with the name Insignia and ended up winning his own contest.

These days, the two-word phrase “Proprietary Red” has a distinctive cachet in Napa and is almost always associated with a three-digit price tag. Even while Joseph Phelps didn’t use that specific phrase to describe his new Bordeaux-style blend, it was the first of such wines in Napa Valley, and indeed in California as a whole, its blend changing every year as dictated by the conditions of the season and the intuition of the winemaker.

While that approach to crafting a wine now seems quite commonplace, at the time it was somewhat radical in a valley where the two dominant approaches were either field blends of “mixed blacks” or bottling mono-varietals.

Insignia usually features a significant portion of Cabernet Sauvignon, sometimes as much as 95%, but at least 14 vintages between 1974 and now have had less than 75% Cabernet. Merlot, Petite Verdot, and Cabernet Franc are often blending components, as well as Malbec.

The entryway to the Napa winery.

The grapes for Insignia are fully destemmed and cold-soaked before being inoculated with yeasts and nutrients and then fermented in steel tanks separated by source and grape variety. The tanks feature automatic pumpovers which have been used in lieu of punch-downs since 2007. The winemaking team, led by Ashley Hepworth, has been experimenting with co-fermentation of some varieties, but most things are kept separate until blending.

After fermentation completes, the wines go into 100% new French oak barrels, with the final blend being made relatively early on in the Spring after malolactic conversion finishes. The finished blend spends 24 months in barrel, as it has ever since the 1997 vintage, with typically 4 to 5 rackings during that time.

“I’m not looking at composition in the blend,” said Hepworth at a tasting featuring many of the wines I’ve reviewed below. “We look at all the lots and start tasting. The base is usually simple and then the blend just works itself out. When we get down to the end, tasting the outliers, Insignia is just the best wine left standing.”

That usually means a blend that isn’t far off from the proportions of the estate’s best plantings, but there have been exceptions. “One year we almost did a wine that was 20% Petite Verdot,” admitted Hepworth, “but we decided it would be too much of a stylistic deviation.”

Hepworth, who says she blends for mouthfeel and flavor and assumes the aromas will take care of themselves, has established a consistent architecture for Insignia over the last 15 or so years. The wine is broad-shouldered, rich without being jammy, and generally walks the fine line between early accessibility and age-worthy structure. One thing I like about Hepworth’s approach is that she’s not afraid to let a little of the vintage character show in the wine.

The Road Ahead

This is far from LVMH’s first rodeo, and the conglomerate has a pretty impeccable track record of success buying brands and managing to help them excel (as opposed to ruining them through ham-fisted management). Fans of Insignia and other Phelps wines probably have little reason for concern, except perhaps for the inevitable raising of prices, which no matter how much anyone says isn’t the plan, always ends up happening.

While it’s always bittersweet to see a multi-generational family brand sold to a big corporation, it’s hard to imagine a better home for one of Napa’s most iconic brands.

Tasting Notes

In some cases, I have multiple tasting notes from different occasions of tasting some of the historic vintages of this wine, so I have provided both notes because as folks in the industry like to say, after 30 years there are no great wines, only great bottles.

1976 Joseph Phelps Insignia Red Wine, Napa Valley
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of farmyard and cherry and chocolate. In the mouth, cherry, cedar, and tobacco flavors all mix with just a hint of farmyard (likely a touch of Brettanomyces) that thankfully doesn’t overwhelm the fruit. Lovely acidity and powdery-but-muscular tannins. 13.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

1976 Joseph Phelps Red Wine, Napa Valley
Medium to dark cloudy ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cocoa powder, cedar, cherries, and mint. In the mouth, sweet dried cherries, leather, cedar, and mint have a wonderful aromatic sweetness with notes of anise. Great acidity and very faint tannins, great length, and outstanding character. Fades over the course of two hours, but at its height, magnificent. 85 cases made. Aged in large oak barrels, some of which were Yugoslavian oak. Cost $20 on release. Tasted out of magnum. Score: around 9.5

1985 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Medium to dark bright ruby in the glass, this wine smells of forest floor, eucalyptus, wet earth, and raisins with a hint of vegemite. In the mouth, juicy cherry and raisin flavors mix with mint and cocoa powder. Excellent acidity, tight, still-muscular tannins, with hints of forest floor in the finish. This was the first vintage using the Las Rocas vineyard in Stag’s Leap, which has become the typical backbone of the Insignia blend. It also contained Cabernet from Eisele, Cabernet Franc from Markham, and fruit from Skellenger, To Kalon, Vine Hill, and Stanton. Aged primarily in older puncheons and fined with egg whites. Tasted out of magnum. Score: around 9. Cost: $476. click to buy.

1989 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
A strong medium ruby in the glass, showing the time dilation effects of such a large format bottle, this wine smells of dried herbs and leather. In the mouth, the wine is tight and angular, with a SweetTart sourness of cherry and leather and herbs. Not the best of vintages thanks to rain during harvest, and, well, it shows. Tasted out of a 5-liter bottle. Score: between 8 and 8.5.

1998 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cedar, and cigar box. In the mouth, black cherry, black plum, dark chocolate, and a hint of mint have a wonderful supple tannic muscle to them with gorgeous length and depth.  Powdery tannins, earth, and dried fennel seeds waft across the palate in higher registers. There’s a long licorice finish.  This was supposed to be a very difficult rainy year, but this wine doesn’t betray that in the slightest. Almost 80% of the fruit in this wine came from the estate, most of it picked very late, into October. Aged in 100% new French oak. 14% alcohol. Tasted out of magnum. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $200. click to buy.

2004 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black plum and sweet dark chocolate with a hint of vanilla. In the mouth, juicy bright black cherry and cola flavors mix with tobacco and cedar. There’s a faint aromatic sweetness to the wine and a slight sense of alcoholic heat in the wine. Suede-like tannins. Great length. This is the first year that this wine is made from 100% estate fruit. The hot year led to small berries, some shrivel, and 20-40% lower yields than normal. Picked in September. Tasted out of magnum. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $250. click to buy.

2005 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dark earth and dark chocolate with deep black cherry fruit. In the mouth, rich and dark black cherry and black plum mix with bittersweet chocolate. Deep billowy tannins support and provide structure to the fruit which lingers for a long time in the finish. Gorgeous. Deep. Powerful. Good acidity. A plentiful harvest in a cooler year. This is the first vintage from the Soscol vineyard in south Napa. Tasted out of magnum. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $240. click to buy.

2006 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Deep, inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, chocolate, and espresso. In the mouth, bright black cherry and cola flavors are juicy and bright and shot through with a hint of espresso and vanilla. Muscular, putty-like tannins provide structure and support and great acidity. Broad and expansive, with a great finish featuring notes of cola and black cherry and a wonderful grapey note. This growing season featured huge heat spikes in the summer and an extended period of veraison. It ended up being 95% Cabernet, 5% Petite Verdot. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $240. click to buy.

2007 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of dark cherry, carob, and a bit of forest floor. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and cassis flavors have a high-toned note welded to a darker deeper black plum, burnt espresso, and earth quality. Powdery tannins add structure to the wine and linger with a wet earth quality in the finish. There’s a weightlessness to this wine that is quite impressive. Picked early September through early October. It was a drier year, with smaller cluster weights. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $370. click to buy.

2008 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and a hint of raisin with dried herbs. In the mouth, chocolate-covered raisins and black plum flavors have a dried quality, exacerbated by drying tannins. Good acidity, with powerful powdery, mouth coating tannins that have a muscular quality. There’s a bitter note in the finish. This was a warmer year, an early harvest, and a bigger vintage. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $225. click to buy.

2009 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of high-toned black cherry and cola. In the mouth, black cherry and cola flavors have a super juicy aspect with great acidity. Deep powdery tannins have a thickness to them that is quite powerful and will bear some time integrating with the wine. Shorter across the palate with an earthy aspect in the finish. Most fruit was picked before the rains this year. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $250. click to buy.

2010 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Dark, inky garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and black plum with a nice herbal note behind them. In the mouth, rich and broad black cherry and cocoa powder flavors are backed by supple, muscular, leathery tannins that are still aggressive at this point in the wine’s evolution. Gorgeous acidity and great balance and depth. Broad-shouldered and still young and primary. Fantastic flavors of cassis and violets linger in the finish, thanks in part to the Petite Verdot, which is at a much higher percentage in this vintage than in others, a useful in cold wet years such as this one because it ripens early. Score: between 9.5 and 10. 14.5% alcohol. Cost: $245. click to buy.

2011 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of crushed herbs, green pepper, and bing cherry. In the mouth, fantastic acidity makes the wine quite bright and juicy, with mouthwatering flavors of cherry and herbs and wet earth with a hint of toasty oak. The massive tannins are big and chunky, and the fruit is a bit thinner than in past years but still quite tasty. Much smaller amounts of wine were made in this exceptionally rainy vintage. The acidity in this means it is built for the long haul and it will keep getting better for a decade or more. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $240. click to buy.

2012 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Deep inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of toasted oak and black cherry, and cocoa powder. In the mouth, sweet cherry fruit has a very bright acidity that is mouthwatering and juicy. Tobacco and espresso notes seem welded to the supple, smooth muscle skein of tannins. Notes of nutty oak, mocha, and cherry linger in the finish. The oak is more present than I’d like in this wine, but it is still delicious and will reward a decade or two of aging. This is the first vintage since 2000 that has all 5 of the Bordeaux grape varieties in it. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $220. click to buy.

2013 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of cassis and black cherry, and a hint of oak. In the mouth, muscular, hulking tannins enclose black cherry and cassis flavors in a tight fist. A massive, tight wine, this needs a couple of decades in the bottle for its black cherry, cassis, and espresso flavors to broaden and soften. This is the 40th vintage of Insignia. The vintage featured early bud break, early bloom, and early harvest. And the wine was given much less maceration time than normal, yet it still ended up with the tannins it did. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $325. click to buy.

Images courtesy of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. Top Insignia photograph © Briana Marie Photography.