© 1998 JDM Enterprises
QUIET GREATNESSby Jerry D. Mead
Few California wineries celebrating their 25th anniversary have received more accolades and can command higher prices, with less hoopla and shmoozing of the media, than Joseph Phelps Vineyards of Napa Valley.
Phelps was a contractor based in Colorado, when he first came to California to build a pair of North Coast wineries. He so liked what he experienced, the geography, the lifestyle, and the wine, that he decided to stay. After all the research into the needs of the other wineries he was building, he decided to put the knowledge to work. He hired a winemaker and viticulturist, planted 200 acres of premium wine grapes and built his own wine estate just off Silverado Trail north and east of Napa.
Phelps has never had a public tasting room (though personal appointments to visit can often be arranged), has never played the media or public tasting games and generates far fewer press releases than other wineries.
And while Phelps isn't exactly reclusive, I'd venture a guess that more members of the wine media have met Ernest Gallo (known for protecting his privacy) than have made the acquaintance of Phelps.
Through several winemaker changes over the past quarter century, one thing has remained constant...the quest for excellence. Phelps was among the pioneers in making German style late harvest wines from Riesling and other varieties. And Phelps really made the first "Meritage" wine, though the name yet to be coined. Phelps "Insignia" was the first California wine, to my knowledge, to feature a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other Bordeaux varieties, without listing the varieties on the label. Insignia earned its image and reputation by consistent excellence.
It's odd that a winery first famous for its white wine (of course that was what was fashionable at the time) has now become world renowned for its reds, with demand (and price) increasing every year.
By the by, you're not going to believe my scores for the three reds reviewed! I could hardly believe them myself. Shop quickly before they're all gone.
Phelps wines have limited national distribution, and will usually be found at better restaurants and wine specialty shops: Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Box 1031, St. Helena, CA 94574 (707) 963-2745.
Jos. Phelps 1996 "Napa" Sauvignon Blanc ($14) Delicious! Grapefruit is the major fruit component, combined with some pleasant grassy undertones. Light and delicate in mouthfeel (but not thin) with crisp acidity. Oysters? Swordfish? Lemony sauces? Yes! Yes! Rating: 94/85
Jos. Phelps 1995 "Napa" Merlot ($27) I don't use the word "great" to describe many wines...I reserve it for the truly exceptional. This is a great Merlot...if you like them big and brawny. Chateau Petrus, eat your heart out! Big, chewy, extractive, bold black cherry and bittersweet chocolate with very long after-flavors. Rating: 98/88
Jos. Phelps 1995 "Napa" Cabernet Sauvignon ($27) Blackberry and cassis and more bittersweet chocolate. A major mouthful of flavor and extract, grows and builds all through the taste experience until it radiates all over your palate and then lingers as an aftertaste for literally minutes. Enjoy now, or cellar for improvement for a decade or more. A great Cabernet. Rating: 99/88
Jos. Phelps 1995 "Insignia" ($75) Expensive, but worth it if you can afford it. This elegant, predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon red wine in the Bordeaux style, is the first wine this year that I've given a perfect score. It is very great red wine, able to set on the table with the world's greatest and show proud. Mostly berry flavors with some plum and cassis and loads of smoky, toasty nuance from more than two years aging in small French oak barrels. It is a classic example of the "iron fist in the velvet glove," there being all the flavor and substance you could ever want, but with a supple, silky mouthfeel that just downright feels good. Rating: 100/84
Jos. Phelps 1996 "Anderson Valley-Late Harvest" Johannisberg Riesling ($18 the half bottle) Apple, honey and pear nose, with a little of that pleasant petroleum quality so often found in German Rieslings. Flavors go to stone fruits, peaches and apricots, along with more honey. Very crisp acid prevents the 17 percent residual sugar from cloying. Only 7 percent alcohol, so you can have an extra serving, if your sweet tooth permits. Rating: 94/84
Jos. Phelps 1996 "Eisrebe" ($20 the half bottle) At 23 percent residual sugar and 8 percent alcohol, it has the classic numbers of a German Trockenbeerenauslese Eiswein (wine made from frozen, moldy, raisinized grapes). This attempt is made from commercially frozen Scheurebe grapes, and there's big honey, stone fruit and pineapple flavors. While many will love it, and it may win medals, it's over the top for me...too much of a good thing. The combination of high sugar, high acid and low alcohol makes me shudder at its excesses. Rating: 84/80
SPRING WINE & FOOD MATCHES
If your ham is seasoned more to the savory side, try Pinot Noir, especially those user friendly ones from Santa Barbara/Santa Maria areas or Carneros. If your wine shop is closing out some of those 1997 Beaujolais Nouveaux from France, they could work nicely too.
Spring lamb? Zinfandel, Merlot and some Syrahs. KOSHER? If you want your wine to be Kosher, you needn't restrict yourself to those awful, sticky-sweet Concord wines from New York that come in the square bottles. The most widely available Kosher wines from California are under the Baron Herzog label, which offers all the classics, Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, White Zin and Chenin Blanc. And now Korbel has a limited production Kosher champagne available.