On the Trail

Dinner with Joseph Phelps

David Driscoll
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During the hectic holiday retail season we're often in need of a wine-soaked respite here at K&L and this past Thursday night we were treated to just that by the Joseph Phelps winery, who took the Redwood City store staff over to Donato Enoteca for an Insignia event. If you're unfamiliar with the iconic California red, Insignia was the idea of Phelps himself who in 1974 decided he should release one wine each vintage that represented the best his estate had to offer, be it Cabernet, Merlot, a blend of both, or even Chardonnay and Riesling. It would need a powerful name for the label, one that wouldn't pigeonhole him into any sort of requisite recipe. That year he released the first vintage of Insignia, a blend of 94% Cabernet grown in Stag's Leap and 6% Merlot, and one of the first Bordeaux style blends released in Napa at that time. The following year it was mostly Merlot. The year after that it was Cabernet again (surprise, surprise, the Insignia has never been a straight Johannesburg Riesling). While nothing about this story sounds revolutionary seeing that all wineries and distilleries do limited annual releases like this today, back then this was actually a new idea. At that point, winemakers in California were doing straight varietals and blending them into something better than the sum of their individual parts wasn't even considered. The Insignia became the standard that all wineries eventually followed. 

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I joined about a dozen of my colleagues for the presentation by our Phelps regional manager Jennifer Zemanek. As you can see from the above photo, my co-worker Jeff Garneau was ready and willing to soak up all the information. One of the most compelling facts about the Insignia is that the wine did at one point contain contracted or purchased fruit in the cepage, but today is blended entirely from Phelps-owned estate fruit. Seeing that Phelps today has vineyards in Oak Knoll, Stag's Leap, Rutherford, Oakville, and South Napa, the quality and diversity of grapes to choose from has never been better. It's for that reason that some at the winery think the most recent release of the Insignia—the 2014 edition, a blend of 94% Cabernet and 6% Malbec—might be the best vintage yet. Dark fruited, full of mouth-coating texture and decadent flavors, it's definitely one of the better 2014 California releases I've tried this year. Tasting it next to the 2005 was even more interesting, mainly because I've never tasted library vintages from Insignia before (especially from magnum). The wine had evolved nicely and the oak had integrated seamlessly into the fruit and acidity, but there was still a surprising amount of freshness.

We all ate and drank well late into the evening. More importantly, we got a reminder going into the busiest retail week of the year that Phelps is still very much on top of its game with its top cuvée.. As one of my old colleagues used to say: "There's a reason the great wines of France are called the great wines of France." To paraphrase that adage in the case of Insignia, there's a reason it's reached an iconic status here in California and is still one of the most recognized and respected labels we carry.

-David Driscoll