Joseph Phelps, who died last week at his home in St. Helena, California, was among the first, most influential, and most successful of the best of a new wave of wealthy investors who flooded into Napa Valley about 40 years ago and helped turn the small poly-agricultural region into the best-know and best-regarded wine appellation of the New World. He was 87.
I first met him in the late 1970s, a half-dozen years after he started his new winery in 1973. Like many businessmen who fell in love with Napa, Phelps, who made his fortune as a builder in Colorado, was very much hands-on owner, who immersed himself in the wine business but also hired the brightest young winemakers and vineyardists and let them run wild in spending for new equipment, state-of-the-art cellars and acres and acres of manicured vines.
Among his early hires were a marketing head named Bruce Neyers, a friend of mine from Back East who now has his own winery and works with the influential importer Kermit Lynch, and Walter Schug, a graduate of Germany's prestigious Geisenheim Wine Institute, as winemaker. California was hot on varietal wines in those days, and Phelps had Schug make the state’s first varietal syrah, even though Schug’s expertise was more with riesling and other white wines.
At the time I was a freelance wine critic for the late Washington Star, and was visiting the Phelps winery just before the wine was released. Phelps and I joined Schug in the cellar to sample the syrah. We all sniffed the wine, then Schug sipped, squashed, and spit his wine out. Phelps downed his with a grin. “I’m new the business,” he said, “and I’ve still not learned how to properly spit!”
During the 1980s and 1990s, the reputation of Joseph Phelps Vineyard for quality and innovation grew. Although Napa was becoming immersed in single-vineyard wines, following the French model, Phelps was one of the first to come out with an iconic Bordeaux-influenced red blend, Insigna, which became a benchmark for later high-end Napa blends. On the other hand, Phelps followed for a time the fading Napa trend of producing an array of varietals wines instead of concentrating on cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and one or two other grapes. He was also a pioneer in growing other Rhône varieties in addition to syrah. Later, he invested in the Sonoma Coast in looking for places to grow pinot noir.
Phelps and his colleagues had influences beyond winemaking, though. They thought big and spent big. As they put down roots in Napa Valley, they demanded fine restaurants and expensive shops without the bother of always looking to San Francisco. They became leaders of the charity and non-profit scene for which the valley is now famous. Phelps’ biggest non-wine contribution to the Napa scene was his renovation of the fabled Oakville Grocery as a purveyor of fine foods and gourmet supplies. Trying to get a parking place at the Grocery on a late afternoon is still a challenge, and the store itself, with the bold red Coke circle painted on the side, has long been considered a “must” tourist stop.
Joe Phelps retired with his legacy intact, leaving his son Bill at the helm. As a consummate businessman who turned a passion into successful enterprise by all measures, he certainly learned when to spit and when not to.