Napa pays tribute to Joseph Phelps

Joseph Phelps, a pioneering force for Napa Valley’s wine industry and major philanthropist, has died at his home in St Helena aged 87.

Joseph PhelpsBorn on the family farm in Missouri on 12 November 1927, Phelps was the youngest of four children and showed considerable entrepreneurial spirit from an early age, from delivering newspapers to starting his own fly-tying business.

After the family moved to Colorado, he graduated with a degree in Construction Management and served in the US Navy during the Korean War until 1954, when he joined his father’s construction business, helping it to expand across the country.

An early fascination with wine developed further when Phelps set up an office in the San Francisco Bay area in 1966 and began exploring Napa and Sonoma. Before long his construction firm was taking on winery projects and in 1973 Phelps founded his own wine business, Joseph Phelps Vineyards.

Working with his winemaker Walter Schug, Phelps embarked on an ambitious planting scheme that saw him at the helm of a group of entrepreneurs pursuing a high-end quality transformation of Californian wine.

1974 saw the first vintage of his Napa Valley Syrah – the first varietally labeled Syrah in the state – as well as flagship wine Insignia, California’s first estate-grown Bordeaux-style blend.

Released for the first time in 1978 to great critical acclaim, Insignia marked a departure from most producers’ approach at the time as a cuvée designed to represent the best expression from any given vintage, and labeled by its own name rather than grape variety.

Among the many wine industry representatives who paid tribute to Phelps and his work was Margit Mondavi, who described him as “one of the valley’s pioneers” to the Napa Valley Register.

“Together with Robert Mondavi and others at the time, they put their hands in the soil and their souls in the wine, creating what we have today,” she told the paper, noting: “In addition, he gave back to the community and was a great supporter of the arts which transcended into his family – a family that has made a big mark.”

David Duncan, chairman of Napa Valley Vintners’ board of directors and president & CEO of Silver Oak and Twomey Cellars, praised Phelps’ contribution as president of the Napa Valley Vintners board in 1983 and chairman of Auction Napa Valley in 2007. “We will miss Joe and send our deepest condolences to his family and the winery team,” he told the Napa Valley Register.

In addition to his wine and construction success stories, Phelps bought and managed the Oakville Grocery Company and became a private aeroplane pilot at the age of 60.

Among his many philanthropic schemes was support for St Helena Hospital, St Helena Women’s Center, the Land Trust of Napa County and his alma mater Colorado State University. In 2001 Phelps donated land for the creation of Napa County’s River Ranch Farmworker Housing Center.

Phelps and his wife Barbara had four children, all of whom were at his bedside when he died on 15 April. He is also survived by eight grandchildren and two great-granddaughters. The family has said that it intends to announce plans soon for a celebration of his life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our newsletters

UK Commercial Manager (E-Commerce/Online)

Ian Macleod Distillers
United Kingdom

Regional Sales Manager (Midlands)

Ian Macleod Distillers
Field based - regional coverage Midlands

Marketing Manager

Amathus Drinks Plc
London, UK

Partner Manager - Managed On-Trade

Maverick Drinks
London, UK

Events Sales Executive

The Drinks Business Hong Kong
Hong Kong

Brand Manager

Hatch Mansfield
Ascot, Berkshire

Head of Sales

London, UK

Logistic and Fullfilment - Whisky (and wine) administrator

Stilnovisti Ltd
London, United Kingdom // Dufftown, Keith, United Kingdom

Account Manager

Harviestoun Brewery
Field Based, UK


5th Nov 2018

Exploring Beaujolais Wines Across The Years & Appellations

Manchester,United Kingdom
6th Nov 2018

Pink Rosé Festival

7th Feb 2019
Click to view more

Green Awards 2018

Deadline : 26th October 2018

Rioja Masters 2018

Deadline : 26th October 2018

Click to view more

The Global Sparkling Masters 2018

As with all of the drinks business awards, our judging panel is comprised of Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers and senior buyers making the competition globally renowned.

Champagne Masters 2018

Enter your wines into the Champagne Masters 2018, the only blind competition dedicated to Champagne in the UK.

Click to view more