Tasting Notes: Joseph Phelps Winery

Inside the tasting area at Joseph Phelps Winery.

You can save lots of money by trudging out to the local Target on Black Friday to line up in the cold predawn hours. That’s just not me. I love a deal, but not at the expense of my post-holiday sleep and dignity.

Instead, Christine and I got up early the day after Thanksgiving to ensure we had plenty of time to make our 11 a.m. tasting appointment at Joseph Phelps Winery.

Located off Taplin Road, up valley near St. Helena, Joseph Phelps is one of the great names of Napa Valley and Christine and I are trying to polish off our Napa palates by visiting as many of these old mainstays as we can. It’s just the way it is when you grow up in area that you don’t appreciate the local highlights as well as the tourists.

Before our visit I read up on Joseph Phelps in a 1975 illustrated reference guide to Napa Valley wineries. Back then, Phelps had just been the first winery in the United States to bottle a Syrah and one of its most popular wines was a 1973 Johansesburg Riesling. The winery was a small but modern barn nestled in a tiny valley that had previously been a cattle ranch. (The book is a fascinating look at the Napa Valley back in the mid ’70s and comparing the “then” to “now” is going to be great fun.)

Today, Phelps is big time and the tasting area is located in an impressive room housing several large, but unused, wooden fermentation tanks. The tastings proceed at your leisure and Christine and I took a few breaks to wander around the grounds to enjoy the scenery and the pleasent vibe.

We started our tasting with Phelps’ Freestone line. This winery is located on the Sonoma Coast and produces cooler climate varietals like Pinot Noir and a restrained Chardonnay. Christine and I disagreed on Freestone. She loved all of their stuff, especially the Pinot, but I found them to be a bit too acidic, a little thin and lacking in the finish. It’s a definite style, I’m just not sure if I enjoy that style.

When we started moving into the Phelps’ labeled wines, I thought to myself that these were more my speed. The Phelps Napa cab had plenty of ripe, dark fruit flavors as well as some green undertones and cedar. But the best, bar far, was the winery’s Insignia label. This wine is made from the chosen lots of the winery’s estate vineyards, and Christine and I were both floored by the quality. The ’06 Insignia had such a redolent and enticing aroma that I almost felt I didn’t need to even taste it, I knew it would be good. And it was.This is the winery’s flagship wine, which receives all the praise and adulation and you can see why.

Oh, but at $220 a bottle taking one home for our modest cellar was not just going to happen. It would be nice to to just say, “Oh sure, let’s get a case for the celler and one to enjoy now,” but we’re not there yet, but thanks to the high rollers who keep our industry rolling.

Christine and I were both pretty interested in the wine and as two industry folks we soon started peppering the tasting associate with just a few too many questions.

“How much per unit do your bottles cost?,” asked Christine impressed by the custom French glass.

The view from the terrace, during our "Terrace Tasting" at Joseph Phelps Winery. Late fall is a great time to go wine tasting.

“I, I don’t know,” replied the woman. And then I jumped in with: “How many pumpovers per day during fermentation and do you guys do any extended maceration?”

Not wanting to embarrass anyone, we backed off and just went back to praising the Insignia.

A basic tasting costs $25 and can be arranged by calling (707) 967-3720. The relexed pace and beautiful grounds make it well worth a visit.

And I think Christine and I have a new tradition: Black Friday Tastings.

While I don’t think places like Phelps will have much in the way of “doorbusters,” it sure is a hell of a lot more relaxing that wrestling with an obese woman over a Blu-Ray player in a aisle at Target.

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