California winery Joseph Phelps is best known for its flagship Insignia cuvée, one of the first and finest proprietary reds in the Napa Valley.
Joe Phelps was in construction, but, after he bought a property in the Bay Area, he fell in love with wine. This was the early days for Napa, with fewer than 30 wineries operating in the valley. He bought a 670-acre cattle ranch in St Helena, and planted vines, establishing Joseph Phelps winery in 1973. Over the 1970s and 1980s, the team experimented – planting and making a wide range of varieties, from Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to Riesling.
In their first vintage, they produced a Cabernet Sauvignon. The following year, there was a parcel of Cabernet that was particularly good – too good to be blended with the others. They bottled it separately and left it unlabelled while they decided what to do with it. One day, while shaving, Phelps came up with the idea for Insignia: each year they would make the finest cuvée possible, unconstrained by variety or origin. This concept – a proprietary blend – was radical. While at the time, Phelps thought that Insignia might even be a white wine in some vintages, the wine has – to date – always been a Bordeaux blend, dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon in all but one vintage (1975, which was mainly Merlot).
Since its first vintage in 1974, Insignia has become one of Napa’s most highly regarded wines, receiving four perfect scores from Robert Parker (for the 1991, 1997, 2002 and 2007 vintages).
Today the company has 425 acres in Napa, and an additional 100 acres on the Sonoma Coast (bought in 1999), where they produce Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They also buy in additional fruit for some wines.
Joe’s son Bill Phelps joined the business in 1998 and took over running the business when Joe passed away in 2015. In 2022, the company was purchased by LVMH, joining the company's prestigious stable of producers including Dom Pérignon, Krug, Ch. Cheval Blanc and Ch. d'Yquem. The third generation of the Phelps family, Elizabeth Neuman and Will Phelps, remain involved.