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The story behind Joseph Phelps Insignia

Beginning in 1978, with the ’74 vintage, Insignia may very well be America’s first Bordeaux-blended proprietary wine.

Napa Valley (AVA)

Joseph Phelps Insignia:
The Components of Terroir
The Terroir of the Components

The story behind the creation of what might be America's first Bordeaux-blend.

by Alan Goldfarb
February 18, 2009

DropCap I t’s illusionary to believe that a wine, blended from vineyards across several intra-appellations, can definitively display its terroir characteristics. However, one can say assuredly, that Insignia, Joseph Phelps Vineyards’ iconographic Bordeaux-blend, exhibits pure Napa Valley-ism. But after 32 vintages of one of California’s greatest and one of its most expensive wines, what are the fingerprints of Insignia that inform its aroma, flavor and textural qualities?

Joseph Phelps winemaker Ashley Hepworth
Beginning in 1978, with the ’74 vintage, Insignia may very well be America’s first Bordeaux-blended proprietary wine. There were only 670 cases made then and it sold for a whopping $12 a bottle, considered quite a sum during a gas crunch that had the country reeling. With the current release from 2005, more than 12,000 cases were produced and a bottle sells for $225, still whopping at a time when the country is living though the worst economy in more than 75 years.

In a tasting for APPELLATION AMERICA recently in Phelps’ labs off the Silverado Trail east of St. Helena, newly named winemaker Ashley Hepworth and director of vineyard operations Philippe Pessereau discussed the various components that define Insignia’s terroir.

In the early years, the wine was mostly made from Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Today, Cabernet Sauvignon (80-85 percent) predominates. Insignia - since ’04 made entirely from estate owned or leased vineyards - is an amalgam of grapes from a half-dozen vineyards from five of Napa Valley’s sub-regions.

  • The Suscol Vineyard, 68 acres of Cabernet on the east side of the valley in southern Napa at the base of the Vaca Mountains, is Phelps’ newest vineyard, first planted in ’02. The San Pablo Bay nearby makes it the coolest site in the portfolio. (Napa Valley AVA)

  • The so-called Yountville Vineyard is actually in the Oak Knoll District, just north of the city of Napa. It sits in the center of the valley, and is made up of 24 acres of Merlot (the sole source of Merlot to date for Insignia) and 25 of Cab. It was from here that Phelps got its first grapes - Johannisberg Riesling - in ’73. Hepworth, who was named winemaker last year after the departure of longtime head Craig Williams, says of the vineyard: it’s “the least terroir-driven” in the stable. Nonetheless, she believes, Yountville gives Insignia “a little bit of backbone on softness.”

  • Insignia gets a lot of its intensity from two vineyards in the Stags Leap District. The Las Rocas Vineyard is 40 acres of Cab and sits under the Palisades on the east side of the Trail. It’s farmed bio-dynamically. The Barboza Vineyard, the smallest under Phelps’ umbrella, sits on the west side of the Trail, and is 15 acres of Cab and 1 ½ of Petite Verdot. (It is a leased site.)

  • The Spring Valley Ranch Vineyard, in the St. Helena AVA, is located on the Phelps’ estate off Taplin Road. At 125 acres, it’s the largest vineyard in the fold, and is Insignia’s exclusive source for Malbec. Hepworth says this vineyard offers the wine “upfront, more juvenile youthfulness …”
    (Interesting to note is that this vineyard and Yountville are, at this point, “consistently on the cusp” of not making the final cut, according to Hepworth. That’s because Spring Valley has been replanted many times over the years and is still being assessed as to its efficacy for Insignia; and Yountville needs more consistency from a farming standpoint.)

  • Finally, the Banca Dorada Vineyard in the Rutherford AVA, is 34 acres of Cab. This vineyard is a very hot site, with gravelly veins that meander through it holding water, which means it is therefore hardly irrigated. This factor, according to Hepworth, helps to develop ripeness and the backbone of Insignia.

  • Tasting the lots from each of these vineyards (from the ’06 and ’07 vintages) brings into focus what each of these vineyards lends to Insignia. The Suscol is the darkest in color with brambly, warm black fruit. The Yountville (from barrel) brings warm red fruit, with a hint of mint. The combined Las Rocas and Barboza from Stags Leap are more purple with blueberries, and bright with good acidity and some minerality.

    The Banca Dorada (barrel) from Rutherford is the most distinctive. It’s closed and tight with a tarry quality (Hepworth describes this characteristic as “graphite”) and huge tannins.

    The Spring Valley Ranch offering takes on lots of chocolate, no doubt from the barrel, with definitive blackberries, wonderful balance and fine-grained tannins.

    Hepworth, who just witnessed her 10th vintage working with Insignia, comments about how the wine has
    stagsleapvyd 400.jpg
    The bio-dynamically farmed Las Rocas Vineyard is 40 acres of Cab and sits under the Palisades on the east side of the Trail in the Stags Leap District.
    evolved due to the shift in varietal characteristics; and also the fact that Phelps is now controlling all of its vineyards.

    “We’ve learned how to farm better,” she offers. “… We’re more selective (now) and our expectations are higher, and we ask ourselves, ‘Is this inspiring quality?’ … Coddling went into Insignia before, but that’s become more streamlined. We’ve understood more recently what each vineyard has given us.”

    Added Pesserau, “Now that we have our own vineyards, we have better control. It means you can farm to the best of your ability to the vintage. (Before), the grower was the farmer and it (consistency) wasn’t always (achieved).”

    Hepworth and Pessereau are then asked, How does all this - better control and blending of the vineyards - turn up in the glass?

    There’s a long pause until Hepworth says, “I’m thinking back to the 2000 Insignia. That was a beautiful wine, but the lots were not consistent. That (keeping the lots separate and consistent) manifests in the glass. There’s more depth of flavor and more balance in the vineyards, which leads to more balance in the glass.

    “We can understand what we’re getting because we’ve quantified it … and we have a wine that is more ageable.”

    Director of Joseph Phelps vineyard operations Philippe Pessereau
    Why blend, though, when if just one vineyard was used (such as Phelps’

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