Guests at Terrace Tastings enjoy Insignia Bordeaux-style blend in bucolic splendor.
Few wineries transport guests to the state of serenity and unrestrained beauty that Joseph Phelps Vineyards does – and this occurs even before the first sip of the famous Cabernets and Insignia Bordeaux-style blend. As visitors pass under a wood-framed walkway to enjoy a Terrace Tasting, views open up of undulating rows of grapevines, robust oaks, and, west across the valley, the Mayacamas Mountains. The scene is as timelessly bucolic as the line-drawing depiction that graced Joseph Phelps labels in the 1970s and 1980s and still does on a few to this day.
Then running a successful construction business, the late Joseph Phelps purchased a cattle ranch in St. Helena, planted grapes, and founded his winery in 1973. To design the production facility, Phelps hired John Marsh Davis, an early practitioner of a Northern California modern architectural style that emphasized synergy between indoors and outdoors. Production moved away from the Davis structure a while back. Renovations completed in 2015 respected the original design while adding grand and intimate spaces for tasting and wine education.
All about Insignia
Joseph Phelps Vineyards built its reputation on consistently superior Cabernet Sauvignon and Insignia, California’s first proprietary Bordeaux-style wine of its type. Since the late 1980s, Insignia has been Cabernet dominant, though the amount of that grape varies depending on the vintage. In the past two decades, the varietal has constituted from two-thirds to 95% of the blend, with Merlot and Petit Verdot often present in significant amounts, and Malbec and Cabernet Franc to a lesser degree or not at all. Wine Spectator magazine named Insignia its Wine of the Year in the early 2000s, and the blend continues to receive high praise from other quarters.
Whites, Syrah, and Pinot
Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Viognier are among the winery’s whites, along with Ovation, a sparkling wine, and Delice, a late-harvest ice wine from Scheurebe grapes. Joseph Phelps was a fan of Viognier and other Rhône varieties; his 1974 Syrah represented the first commercial American release of a wine made from that red grape. In recent years, the winery has produced a Syrah from a prestigious Carneros vineyard. The Chardonnays come from Phelps-owned vineyards in the cooler Sonoma Coast appellation, as do the Pinot Noirs.
Well-trained educators lead the private guided experiences at Joseph Phelps. The signature outdoor Terrace Tasting of current releases, sipped from a west-facing perch with vineyard and mountain views, usually begins with one or two whites, followed by Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Insignia. At two sessions, guests learn about barrel aging and how the Phelps winemakers craft Insignia, and several involve wine and food pairings.
Why go: legendary winery; terrace views; consistently superior Cabernet Sauvignon; Insignia blend.
Joseph Phelps Vineyards appears in 10 Foolproof Napa Valley Cabernet Tasting Experiences.
Napa Valley Itineraries
More St. Helena Wineries
Charles Krug Winery
HALL St. Helena
Louis M. Martini Winery
Schweiger Vineyards – Halfway to Heaven atop Spring Mountain
Stony Hill Vineyard
Tres Sabores Winery
VGS Chateau Potelle
Where to Sleep
This story originally appeared online in 2017; it was updated in 2022. Lead photo of Terrace Tasting, courtesy of Joseph Phelps Vineyards, is by Bruce Damonte.