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 of it that graced Joseph Phelps labels in the 1970s and 1980s and still does on a few to this day.
The late Joseph Phelps, then running a successful construction business, purchased a cattle ranch in St. Helena, planted grapes, and founded his winery in 1973. To design the production facility, he 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
Phelps also makes whites, among them Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Viognier, and there’s a late-harvest ice wine from Scheurebe grapes. Joseph Phelps was a fan of Viognier and other Rhône varietals; his winery’s 1974 Syrah represented the first commercial American release of a wine made from that red grape. The winery produces a Syrah from a prestigious Carneros vineyard. The Chardonnays come from Phelps-owned vineyards in the cooler Sonoma Coast appellation. The Pinot Noirs come from here, too.
The winery made a few Covid-19 related adjustments to its Terrace Tasting, but this has always been a private guided experience led by a wine educator. Tastings usually begin with one or two whites, followed by Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Insignia.
Joseph Phelps Vineyards is part of 10 Foolproof Napa Valley Cabernet Tasting Experiences.
Why go: legendary winery; terrace views; consistently superior Cabernet Sauvignon; Insignia blend.
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This story originally appeared online in 2017; it was fact-checked and updated in 2020. Lead photo of Terrace Tasting, courtesy of Joseph Phelps Vineyards, is by Bruce Damonte.