Musings of a Wine Maven


by Jerry Clark

Joseph Phelps (1927-2015). Photo:

(Editor’s Note: Provence WineZine, as its name suggests, focuses on wine produced in Provence, the history of the estates where the wine is made, and, especially, the stories of the men and women who make the wine, including the generations of wine makers that preceded them.  Every once in a while, something happens that touches the soul of the worldwide community of wine that, even though it falls outside our purview, we are compelled to include here on our virtual pages. In this case, it is the death of iconic California wine maker, Joseph Phelps. I don’t know if he influenced the world of French wine making—I would doubt that he did—but that world, particularly the Rhône Valley and Burgundy, certainly influenced Mr. Phelps. His choice of specific grapes, his blending of grapes, and what he put on his labels—all borrowed from longtime French practices in winemaking—were radical departures from the customary ones in Napa Valley, circa 1974, and all, in turn, influenced much of Napa Valley viniculture.   It’s a small world that knows no regional boundaries when it comes to influential figures in the world of wine.)

In April of this year, the California wine industry lost Joseph Phelps. Vineyards bearing his name line the famed Silverado Trail that winds its way past many well regarded Napa Valley vineyards that, for the most part, did not exist when he opened in 1973. He leaves behind his son Bill to continue the family commitment to the creation of outstanding wine.

A major part of his legacy are the hundreds of thousands of consumers who have come to know, first hand, that the Phelps label virtually assures high quality–no “shelf talkers” with Wine Spectator reviews or Wine Advocate scores were necessary beneath the Phelps wines on display. I am one of that appreciative population, and I buy without hesitation.


Insignia, a blend of traditional Bordeaux grapes, was first introduced with the 1974 vintage and marked a reversal of California’s practice of labeling the wine with the name of the grape comprising the greatest percentage of the blend.

There is no acknowledged pantheon of distinguished wine figures in our society. Nothing of the sort in France for that matter either, though the Academie Française continues to recognize people in the arts who get it right, with commerce having little or no bearing. The wine world is as commercial as any other, yet an encouraging number of producers accept that, in seeking excellence, they knowingly place a strain on profit margins rather than settle for an “adequate” product (that would less likely cause such strain).

What Joe Phelps chose, from the very beginning, was to provide a range of quality wines, not just Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, the hallmarks of Napa when he arrived, but also Syrah, Pinot Noir and late harvest Reisling and Scheurebe.

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Although Phelps grew famous with his Cabernets and Rhone-style wines, he also made other single varietals.

My exuberance with Phelps began during my first stop there, which I recall happening around 1975. The tranquility of its setting, viewed from the terrace outside the tasting room, is depicted in a simple line drawing on the labels of all of its early offerings, and is still in use on much of the line. Since that time I have never gone to Napa without showing up there.

During a business trip to San Francisco in 1994, I convinced my clients from England to accompany me on a half-day tour of Napa Valley that I promised would unlock both its physical beauty and the reason for its growing international reputation. (I did not mention a detour to Muir Woods on the way up, which is still a must for me.) They came back mightily impressed, and later back in England I got their order for a printing press to produce Johnny Walker cartons.

Did that excursion to the heart of California’s world renowned Napa Valley—of course including a stop at Joseph Phelps Vineyards—influence their business decision? Perhaps. Subliminally it surely didn’t hurt my company’s image.

To this day I tell people, “If you only have time to see one vineyard in Napa, make it Phelps.”


  1. Sharon Everingham May 31, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    Having lived in Sacramento for 5 years in the 1980’s, I was lucky to have visited the Napa Valley numerous times. Sadly, I had never heard of this winery, but will put it at the top of my list for future trips. Now, I will treat myself to a bottle of this wine, the next time I go shopping. Thanks for such an interesting story!

    • I have not been to Joselph Phelps Vineyards either but, like many of the people who commented, certainly intend to visit now! Let us know how you like the bottle you find!

  2. Good story on a great contributor to the world of winemaking.
    Thank you

    • Jean, He was an even greater contributor than I realized and seems like such a genuinely nice person. Thanks for your comment! Best, Susan

  3. This will be my first stop on my next trip to Napa Valley. Thx for interesting view of California winemaker.

  4. Kristin Schmidt May 31, 2015 at 3:59 pm

    interesting article. Will look for a bottle on my next shopping trip.

  5. Richard Koulbanis May 31, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    I visited Napa only once, and unfortunately I never had the opportunity to visit this vineyard, but now wish had. It’s admirable that you have recognized Joseph Phelps’ contribution to California wine making, and that you have not let him pass unheralded. Jerry, I look forward to more of your contributions.

    • I echo your comments, Richard, for more contributions from Jerry, and for not letting Phelp’s passing go without acknowledgment from us.

  6. An interesting insight into one of the greats of California wine making. I, too, look forward to more of your contributions, Jerry!

  7. If I ever get a chance to revisit Napa I will certainly make sure I add this to my itinerary.

  8. Excellent article. I must visit the vineyard next time I visit Napa. I look forward to your next article.

  9. Thanks for this article, Jerry. I somehow missed Phelps’ passing – such a loss for the wine world! You hit the nail on the head whe you talked about trust: you always could trust Phelps.

    • David,
      In a sea of many labels, it’s always nice to see Phelps! There is a lot of history behind that label!

  10. Bonjour Jerry,
    Thanks for sharing with us Joseph Phelps contribution to the California wine.
    Will buy a bottle next time I see one of these labels!
    Looking forward for your next input on this blog!

    • Jacques,
      Shall we have a dinner party with Monsieur Phelps? There is much to choose from in his collection.

  11. Great article about a great man. I share your love for the Napa Valley and Joseph Phelps Vineyards. We will have to make a visit next time you are in the area!

  12. Contributor Clark has for years done his best to guide my oenophilic excursions. And now I can read such interesting commentary as this. Keep it up!


  13. Jerry – Thanks for this wonderful article. I too am only vaguely familiar with all that Napa has to offer but, as a consequence of this article, will be sure to make this a destination point the next time in wine country. Enjoyed your first contribution and encourage more.

  14. Robert Buongiorno June 1, 2015 at 11:33 am

    Wonderfully written! Winemaking has lost one of the great ones.

  15. Tres bon article de revue Jerry! I missed Joseph Phelps passing. As a Napa Valley red wine enthusiast, Joseph Phelps Cabernet is always wonderful.

  16. Thank you, Jerry! I am ready for the journey to Phelps Vineyards and a tasting. Reading your article first thing in the morning has my head spinning about the pleasures of wine, and the possibilities of having it with breakfast. Again, thank you for the inspiration and thoughts about things that continue to make this world more beautiful.

    • Wine with breakfast! Is that some kind of Cajun thing? Seriously though Karen, you would absolutely love sitting on the Phelps terrace and reflecting upon nature’s beauty – with a glass of wine of course. But I don’t think that Phelps will be pouring too early in the day.

      • What do you think is the best time for tasting, Jerry?

        • If we use my one visit only scenario, then I would be starting the day with breakfast in San Francisco, heading out around 9 am. Shortly after crossing the Golden Gate I leave the highway to work up to Muir Woods, which as I noted is always a stop before hitting Napa or Sonoma. If you talk of peace and tranquility, the Redwood forested glade borders on a different time and world. I could be there anywhere from an hour to three, if a little hike is included. When I get to Napa country it likely time for lunch. My preferred stop for a bite is Bistro Jeanty in Yountville. So, all of this to answer that about 2:00 pm to be seated with a glass on the Phelps terrace. After that its on to another local vineyard, or cross over to Sonoma for one stop before heading back to San Fran.

  17. Nicely written article. I am familiar with the Phelps name, but have not yet tried it myself. With so many wines to choose from, it’s nice to get a good recommendation — I will give it a try next. Thank you Jerry!

  18. Great article Jerry Clark – hope to see more – your expertise is legendary

  19. I enjoy reading about pioneers in most any industry. A great tribute to Mr. Phelps and his labor of love. This weekend at the wine store, Phelps it is!

    • There have been a great number of pioneers in Napa over the past 150+ years, and it is worth recognizing how the wine reputation in the valley grew through the efforts of men like Joe Phelps.

      • Planning a small group tour?! I am smiling at the idea you have eloquently presented. Keep the wine stories flowing, my contemplative spirit can only handle living vicariously.

        • Karen,
          Actually I should be. Its been a couple of years since I have been in California wine country. In the meantime I have the North Fork of Long Island just a ferry ride away.

  20. A great tribute to a wine pioneer. Proof that wine knowledge knows no borders.

    • Yes, its truly a global culture, and with very ancient roots. I am currently reading of the things found by Howard Carter in 1922 when he uncovered Tutankhamon’s tomb. These included wine amphorae that noted vintage dates, vineyards and winemakers. Perhaps I should bury a time capsule with the best of modern Napa, which would include Phelps 1974 Insignia.

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  1. A TRIBUTE TO JERRY CLARK, THE WINE MAVEN (November 17, 1939 – April 17, 2019) - Provence WineZine

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