Joseph Phelps Vineyards
200 Taplin Rd.
St. Helena, CA 94574
(800) 707-5789 • (707) 967-3720
Hours: Open daily. Seated Exceptional Wine Experience tastings are held at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.(see website for all options). Terrace tastings are offered Monday through Friday beginning at 10:00 a.m. with the last tasting beginning at 3:00 p.m.; on weekends, they begin at 10:00 a.m. with the last tasting beginning at 2:30 p.m.
Tasting fees: $75 for a terrace tasting or $100 per person for a seated experience
Wines offered: Varies depending on chosen tasting experience.The winery’s flagship bottling, Insignia, is included in all experiences and terrace tastings.Reservations: Required
Did you know: In addition to its St. Helena winery, Joseph Phelps has a second winery facility and tasting room in Freestone in Sonoma County.
Show of hands: Who’s ever dreamed of becoming a winemaker? I’m guessing the notion has crossed the mind of every wine lover at some point—probably after a few glasses of the good stuff.
At Joseph Phelps in St. Helena, consumers can play out that fantasy via the Insignia Blending experience. In a nutshell, you’re guided through a tasting of single vineyard wines and then encouraged to mix-and-match to create your perfect blend. It’s fun, educational and eye-opening.
We started by tasting the 2014 Sauvignon Blanc (St. Helena) and 2013 Viognier (St. Helena) side-by-side to compare them. Stefen Soltysiak, the wine educator who was guiding us through, got us started with easy-to-answer questions like, “Which wine has a more intense nose?” and “Which has more acidity?”
So far, so good: We all agreed the Viognier’s ripe floral nose (apricot, honeysuckle and jasmine) was a standout, while the Sauvignon Blanc’s crisp citrus notes and minerality (lemon, pineapple and green apple) indicated more acidity.
Next came the 2012 Pinot Noir (Quarter Moon Vineyard) and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley), along with more questions, including, “Which is more tannic?” and “Which has more body?”
Surprisingly, the Pinot (smoky and savory, with berry, cherry and a hint of pepper) held its own against the Cab in terms of tannins, while the latter wine (dark fruit, tobacco and licorice) had a big personality and a long, lush finish. Of course, it was all subjective, but that was the point.
As we continued, Soltysiak talked about bigger concepts and more subtle techniques, including lessons about encouraging and discouraging tannins, malolactic and secondary fermentation, and how the relationship between different elements (sugar level and acidity, for example) changes with time and so must be considered when blending wines. When blending, he explained, it’s important to consider multiple elements of each wine, including color, nose, body, acidity and tannin. It’s often not the wines you like most as a standalone that will create the best blend.
With our crash course completed, it was time to get to work. We were given six wines to sample and evaluate, then tasked to create two blends—one an accessible, drink-it-now wine and the other a cellar-worthy ager—modeled after Joseph Phelps’ flagship wine, Insignia.
Our choices were a 2012 Merlot (Yountville Vineyard, Oak Knoll District), 2012 Malbec (Spring Valley Home Ranch Vineyard/Suscol, Napa Valley), 2012 Cabernet Franc (Suscol Vineyard, Napa Valley), 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Suscol Vineyard, Napa Valley), 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Barboza and Las Rocas Vineyards, Stags Leap District) and 2012 Petit Verdot (Spring Valley Home Ranch Vineyard (St. Helena). Each was delicious on its own, and a few in our group were disappointed that none of them are available as an individual bottling; it’s all reserved for the Insignia program.
Using a pipette to siphon wine from our samples and measure percentages, we each concocted our best blends and then shared our creations with the group. It was interesting how wildly different everyone’s choices were. I had taken the “everyone in the pool” approach, using a bit of everything, while others had chosen to forego almost everything in favor of a 90 percent Cab blend (50 percent Suscol, 40 percent Barboza and Las Rocas) with just 10 percent Petit Verdot. Soltysiak shared a fact sheet listing the percentage blend for every Insignia vintage since 1974, and even here, the numbers varied greatly year-to-year.
In the end, we were treated to a glass of the 2012 Insignia. It’s dark and lush, with clove and mocha on the nose; black plum, violets and baking spice on the palate and a velvety, lingering finish. A standout. I couldn’t have done better if I tried. (Oh, wait: I did.)
Joseph Phelps has recently completed an extensive remodel of its St. Helena winery. The new space is bright and open, with several rooms for private tastings and a sunlit terrace that overlooks the estate vineyard. Clean lines and sharp angles are softened with bare wood and a rich, warm color scheme (the sunshine streaming in through a multitude of full-length windows helped, too). All in all, it was a beautiful day, an educational experience and an all-around great time.
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