University of California Berkeley
Regional Oral History Office University of California
The Bancroft Library Berkeley, California
The Wine Spectator California Winemen Oral History Series
JOSEPH PHELPS VINEYARDS: CLASSIC WINES AND RHONE VARIETALS
Interviews Conducted by
Copyright 1996 by The Regents of the University of California
Photo courtesy of Colorado State University Alumni
Since 1954 the Regional Oral History Office has been interviewing leading
participants in or well-placed witnesses to major events in the development of
Northern California, the West, and the Nation. Oral history is a method of
collecting historical information through tape-recorded interviews between a
narrator with firsthand knowledge of historically significant events and a well-
informed interviewer, with the goal of preserving substantive additions to the
historical record. The tape recording is transcribed, lightly edited for
continuity and clarity, and reviewed by the interviewee. The corrected
manuscript is indexed, bound with photographs and illustrative materials, and
placed in The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and in
other research collections for scholarly use. Because it is primary material,
oral history is not intended to present the final, verified, or complete
narrative of events. It is a spoken account, offered by the interviewee in
response to questioning, and as such it is reflective, partisan, deeply involved,
All uses of this manuscript are covered by a legal agreement
between The Regents of the University of California and Joseph
Phelps dated December 11, 1995. The manuscript is thereby made
available for research purposes. All literary rights in the
manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to The
Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley. No part
of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written
permission of the Director of The Bancroft Library of the University
of California, Berkeley.
Requests for permission to quote for publication should be
addressed to the Regional Oral History Office, 486 Library,
University of California, Berkeley 94720, and should include
identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated
use of the passages, and identification of the user. The legal
agreement with Joseph Phelps requires that he be notified of the
request and allowed thirty days in which to respond.
It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Joseph Phelps, "Joseph Phelps Vineyards:
Classic Wines and Rhone Varietals," an
oral history conducted in 1995 by Carole
Hicke, Regional Oral History Office, The
Bancroft Library, University of
California, Berkeley, 1996.
PHELPS, Joseph (b. 1927) Winery owner
Joseph Phelps Vineyards: Classic Wines and Rhone Varietals. 1996, viii,
Hensel Phelps Construction Co.; building Souverain Winery; Joseph Phelps
Vineyards: start-up, planting Rhone varietals, vineyard management, label,
Vin du Mistral and the Rhone Rangers, Scheurebe wine, Innisfree; Oakville
Interviewed in 1995 by Carole Hicke for the Wine Spectator California Wine
Oral History Series, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library,
University of California, Berkeley.
TABLE OF CONTENTS- -Joseph Phelps
INTERVIEW HISTORY vi
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION viii
I GROWING UP IN MISSOURI AND COLORADO 1
Grandparents and Parents 1
Family Life, Influences, and Activities 6
Part-time Jobs 8
Higher Education 13
Service in the U.S. Navy 16
II HENSEL PHELPS CONSTRUCTION COMPANY 18
Early Responsibilities 19
Beginning Interest in Wine 20
Building the Souverain Winery (now the
Rutherford Hill Winery) 21
III JOSEPH PHELPS VINEYARDS 23
Locating the Property 23
More on Syrah 29
Vineyard Management 36
Pierce 's Disease Task Force 38
Bulmaro Montez 40
Grower Contracts 43
Designing the Label 44
Vin du Mistral and the Rhone Rangers 44
Winemaking Philosophy and Techniques 48
Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewiirztraminer,
and Semillon 49
The Innisfree Building 52
Private Labels 53
Marketing and Distribution 53
IV OTHER ACTIVITIES 57
Oakville Grocery 57
Personal Wine Collection 59
V SIGNIFICANT CHANGES IN NAPA VALLEY AND WINE INDUSTRY 61
TAPE GUIDE 64
APPENDIX A Wine Label Samples 65
The California wine industry oral history series, a project of the
Regional Oral History Office, was initiated by Ruth Teiser in 1969
through the action and with the financing of the Wine Advisory Board, a
state marketing order organization which ceased operation in 1975. In
1983 it was reinstituted as The Wine Spectator California Winemen Oral
History Series with donations from The Wine Spectator Scholarship
Foundation. The selection of those to be interviewed has been made by a
committee consisting of the director of The Bancroft Library, University
of California, Berkeley; John A. De Luca, president of the Wine
Institute, the statewide winery organization; Maynard A. Amerine,
Emeritus Professor of Viticulture and Enology, University of California,
Davis; the current chairman of the board of directors of the Wine
Institute; Carole Hicke, series project director; and Marvin R. Shanken,
trustee of The Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation.
Until her death in June 1994, Ruth Teiser was project originator,
initiator, director, and conductor of the greater part of the oral
histories. Her book, Winemaking in California, co-authored with
Catherine Harroun and published in 1982, was the product of more than
forty years of research, interviewing, and photographing. (Those wine
history files are now in The Bancroft Library for researcher use.) Ruth
Teiser 's expertise and knowledge of the wine industry contributed
significantly to the documenting of its history in this series.
The purpose of the series is to record and preserve information on
California grape growing and winemaking that has existed only in the
memories of wine men. In some cases their recollections go back to the
early years of this century, before Prohibition. These recollections are
of particular value because the Prohibition period saw the disruption of
not only the industry itself but also the orderly recording and
preservation of records of its activities. Little has been written about
the industry from late in the last century until Repeal. There is a real
paucity of information on the Prohibition years (1920-1933), although
some commercial winemaking did continue under supervision of the
Prohibition Department. The material in this series on that period, as
well as the discussion of the remarkable development of the wine industry
in subsequent years will be of aid to historians. Of particular value is
the fact that frequently several individuals have discussed the same
subjects and events or expressed opinions on the same ideas, each from
his or her own point of view.
Research underlying the interviews has been conducted principally in
the University libraries at Berkeley and Davis, the California State
Library, and in the library of the Wine Institute, which has made its
collection of materials readily available for the purpose.
The Regional Oral History Office was established to tape record
autobiographical interviews with persons who have contributed
significantly to recent California history. The office is headed by
Willa K. Baum and is under the administrative supervision of The Bancroft
The Wine Spectator California Winemen
Oral History Series
Regional Oral History Office
The Bancroft Library
University of California, Berkeley
CALIFORNIA WINE INDUSTRY INTERVIEWS
Interviews Completed as of September 1996
Leon D. Adams, Revitalizing the California Wine Industry. 1974
Leon D. Adams, California Wine Industry Affairs; Recollections and Opinions,
Maynard A. Amerine, The University of California and the State's Wine
Maynard A. Amerine, Wine Bibliographies and Taste Perception Studies.
Richard L. Arrowood, Sonoma County Winemaking: Chateau St. Jean and Arrowood
Vineyards & Winery, 1996
Philo Biane, Wine Making in Southern California and Recollections of Fruit
Industries. Inc. , 1972
Charles A. Carpy, Viticulture and Enology at Freemark Abbey. 199A
John B. Cella, The Cella Family in the California Wine Industry. 1986
Charles Crawford, Recollections of a Career with the Gallo Winery and the
Development of the California Wine Industry. 1942-1989. 1990
Burke H. Critchfield, Carl F. Wente, and Andrew G. Frericks, The California
Wine Industry During the Depression, 1972
William V. Cruess, A Half Century of Food and Wine Technology. 1967
Jack and Jamie Peterman Davies, Rebuilding Schramsberg; The Creation of a
California Champagne House, 1990
William A. Dieppe, Almaden is My Life. 1985
Paul Draper, History and Philosophy of Winemaking at Ridge Vineyards; 1970s-
Daniel J. and Margaret S. Duckhorn, Mostly Merlot; The History of Duckhorn
Ficklin, David, Jean, Peter, and Steve, Making California Port Wine; Ficklin
Vineyards from 1948 to 1992, 1992
Brooks Firestone, Firestone Vineyard; A Santa Ynez Valley Pioneer. 1996
Louis J. Foppiano, A Century of Winegrowing in Sonoma County. 1896-1996. 1996
Alfred Froram, Marketing California Wine and Brandy. 1984
Louis Gomberg, Analytical Perspectives on the California Wine Industry. 1935-
Miljenko Grgich, A Croatian-American Winemaker in the Napa Valley. 1992
Joseph E. Heitz, Creating a Winery in the Napa Valley. 1986
Agustin Huneeus, A World View of the Wine Industry. 1996
Maynard A. Joslyn, A Technologist Views the California Wine Industry.
Amandus N. Kasimatis, A Career in California Viticulture. 1988
Morris Katz, Paul Masson Winery Operations and Management, 1944-1988, 1990
Legh F. Knowles, Jr., Beaulieu Vineyards from Family to Corporate Ownership,
Horace 0. Lanza and Harry Baccigaluppi, California Grape Products and Other
Wine Enterprises. 1971
Zelma R. Long, The Past is the Beginning of the Future: Simi Winery in its
Second Century, 1992
Richard Maher, California Winery Management and Marketing, 1992
Louis M. Martini and Louis P. Martini, Wine Making in the Napa Valley.
Louis P. Martini, A Family Winery and the California Wine Industry. 1984
Eleanor McCrea, Stony Hill Vineyards; The Creation of a Napa Valley Estate
Winery. 1990 "
Otto E. Meyer, California Premium Wines and Brandy. 1973
Norbert C. Mirassou and Edmund A. Mirassou, The Evolution of a Santa Clara
Valley Winery. 1986
Peter Mondavi, Advances in Technology and Production at Charles Krug Winery.
Robert Mondavi, Creativity in the Wine Industry. 1985
Michael Moone, Management and Marketing at Beringer Vineyards and Wine World.
Myron S. Nightingale, Making Wine in California. 1944-1987. 1988
Harold P. Olmo, Plant Genetics and New Grape Varieties. 1976
Cornelius Ough, Researches of an Enologist. University of California. Davis.
John A. Parducci, Six Decades of Making Wine in Mendocino County, California.
Antonio Perelli-Minetti, A Life in Wine Making. 1975
Louis A. Petri, The Petri Family in the Wine Industry. 1971
Jefferson E. Peyser, The Law and the California Wine Industry. 1974
Joseph Phelps, Joseph Phelps Vineyards: Classic Wines and Rhone Varietals,
Lucius Powers, The Fresno Area and the California Wine Industry. 1974
Victor Repetto and Sydney J. Block, Perspectives on California Wines. 1976
Edmund A. Rossi, Italian Swiss Colony and the Wine Industry. 1971
Edmund A. Rossi, Jr., Italian Swiss Colony, 1949-1989: Recollections of a
Third-Generation California Winemaker. 1990
Arpaxat Setrakian, A. Setrakian. a Leader of the San Joaquin Valley Grape
Elie Skofis, California Wine and Brandy Maker. 1988
David S. Stare, Fume Blanc and Meritage Wines in Sonoma County; Dry Creek
Vineyard's Pioneer Winemaking. 1996
Rodney S. Strong, Rodney Strong Vineyards; Creative Winemaking and Winery
Management in Sonoma County, 1994
Andre Tchelistchef f , Grapes. Wine, and Ecology. 1983
Brother Timothy, The Christian Brothers as Wine Makers. 1974
Louis (Bob) Trinchero, California Zinfandels, a Success Story, 1992
Charles F. Wagner and Charles J. Wagner, Caymus Vineyards; A Father-Son Team
Producing Distinctive Wines. 1994
Wente, Jean, Carolyn, Philip, and Eric, The Wente Family and the California
Wine Industry. 1992
Ernest A. Wente, Wine Making in the Livermore Valley. 1971
Warren Winiarski, Creating Classic Wines in the Napa Valley. 1994
Albert J. Winkler, Viticultural Research at UC Davis (1921-1971), 1973
John H. Wright, Domaine Chandon; The First French-owned California Sparkling
Wine Cellar, includes an interview with Edmond Maudiere, 1992
INTERVIEW HISTORY- -Joseph Phelps
Joseph Phelps, founder and owner of Joseph Phelps Vineyards, was
interviewed as part of the Wine Spectator's California Wine Oral History
Series to document his career and contributions to the history of California
Phelps has had a varied and innovative career- -venturing seems to be
part of his nature. Born on a farm in Missouri and raised in rural Colorado,
he started early with a fly tying business developed in his high school days.
In 1950 he graduated from Colorado State University in Fort Collins (then
Colorado A&M) with a major in construction management. After a stint in the
navy, Phelps went into business with his father, and in 1957 they formed
the Hensel Phelps Construction Company. With an office in California, the
firm was able to win a contract to build Chateau Souverain at Geyserville, and
Phelps began spending time in wine country.
A growing interest in wine- -he had been making some at home in the
basement with purchased grapes led Phelps to purchase 600 acres on Napa
Valley's Silverado Trail in 1973. He started out with Zinfandel, Cabernet
Sauvignon, and French Syrah. "The Syrah grape was obviously something waiting
to happen in California," Phelps said, "it had been important in California in
the nineteenth century, although to our best knowledge, it was never
commercially bottled and sold as a varietal. As far as we can tell, our 1974
Syrah was the first commercially bottled and labeled Syrah wine; although some
Syrah wines were being made, they were being blended."
The winery went on to make Viognier, and brought out its Le Mistral
line, a family of Rhone-style wines, in 1989, making Joseph Phelps well known
as one of the first "Rhone Rangers." Insignia became their label for Bordeaux
Phelps "s other innovations abound: late-harvest Riesling and Meritage
wines; Eisrebe, made in German-eiswein-style from Scheurebe grapes; his
formation of the Wine Services Co-op, a warehouse for a group of wineries; the
Oakville Grocery, providing fine foods to go with fine wines. For Phelps,
variety is his life. "The thing that, I feel, has been very satisfying to me
is the good fortune that I've had in experiencing several careers. I look
forward to growing in other directions the rest of my life."
Joseph Phelps was interviewed in his winery offices in December 1995.
It was a stormy day, but the vineyards along Napa Valley's Silverado Trail
offered a picturesque scene from the office windows. The winery's Jeff
Hunsaker offered me a tour before the interview, and Joe Phelps proved to be a
welcoming and hospitable interviewee.
Phelps reviewed the transcript carefully and thoroughly, adding
information and substituting whole paragraphs where he felt his remarks were
This series is part of the ongoing documenting of California history by
the Regional Oral History Office, which is under the direction of Willa Baum,
Division Head, and under the administrative direction of The Bancroft Library,
University of California, Berkeley.
August 28, 1996
Regional Oral History Office
The Bancroft Library
University of California, Berkeley
Regional Oral History Office
Room 486 The Bancroft Library
University of California
Berkeley, California 94720
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I GROWING UP IN MISSOURI AND COLORADO
[Interview 1: December 11, 1995 Iff 1
Grandparents and Parent s
Hicke: I'd just like to start this afternoon by asking you when and
where you were born.
Phelps: I was born on November 12, 1927, in my mother's bed on a farm
in De Kalb County, Missouri, not very far from St. Joseph.
Hicke: And did you grow up there?
Phelps: I lived there until my parents moved to Colorado in 1935, and I
was in the third grade, as I recall.
Hicke: Okay, let's leave that for just a minute, and let me go back
and ask about your parents and grandparents, where they came
from and what they did.
Phelps: Midwesterners. My grandfather was a county doctor; I can
remember very, very early in my life accompanying him with
horse and buggy as he went on his rounds in the countryside.
Hicke: Through snow and sleet?
Phelps: Not as I recall [laughter]. But it was not what you would
consider a highly paid profession; I think he took a lot of
payment in kind. That's how I remember my grandfather most
Hicke: What was his name?
'This symbol (If) indicates that a tape or a segment of a tape has
begun or ended. A guide to the tapes follows the transcript.
John Quincy. He was one of a series of John Quincys: his
father was also a medical doctor, and he had as a matter of
fact been born on a caravan in Wyoming. Both he and my
grandmother argued about whether it was Fort Laramie or Fort
Bridger. But his father was the medical officer that
accompanied the wagon train. And my grandfather had gone to
Northwestern [University], and then my uncle, who delivered me-
-who just happened to be passing through town the day I was
duehad completed his internship at Cook County Hospital in
Northwestern, in Chicago. He was traveling across country to
open his practice in Cheyenne, Wyoming, when I was born.
What was his name?
Did the John Quincys have anything to do with the Massachusetts
No, I don't think that the name went that far back. My guess
is that that ' s where the combination of John Quincy and Phelps
came from. This probably involves too much verbiage to be
included in the oral tape, but it's interesting that my
grandfather was one of thirteen children. Of the thirteen, he
was the only one who grew to adulthood and had a male
offspring. Only one of his sonshe had three sonshad
children, and that was my father. My father had two daughters
and two sons, and my older brother who was killed when he was
twenty or so in an automobile accident was John Quincy also.
Of the family, I'm the only one who had a son named Phelps, and
I had three daughters and one son. My son has now had two
children, one of whom is a grandson. So I have seven
granddaughters and only one grandson. So the Phelps name is
really hanging on by a small thread.
Just one person in each generation had the Phelps name,
good for you and your son.
Well, back to my parents. My father was a farmer; his name was
Abel Hensel. He dropped his first name fairly early in his
career and became the Hensel Phelps that remains in the name of
the construction company doing business across the United
States. He had a back injury early on in farming and was
limited and restricted in the hard labor that he could do. It
finally caught up with him and required that he find another
way to make a living, and at first he tried selling insurance.
That was during the Depression and tough going. He had
children to put through college, and that was pretty difficult
In 1937, on our farm in Colorado, he built a small one-
bedroom house for my grandmother and grandfather who, quite
some time previous, retired and wanted to move to Colorado
also. And in the process of building this small house, he
became acquainted with the local lumber dealer and a couple of
subcontractors. He lived west of Greeley, which is a farm
community about fifty miles north of Denver. A small
university farm town. Originally it was the state normal
school, and at that time it was called Colorado State College
of Education. It is the University of Northern Colorado now,
although it still has a very heavy emphasis on education.
In that community he found a calling, and that was to do
remodeling work, primarily, and build homesnever more than
one at a time, but he became a carpenter and a contractor and
worked with his tools.
Hicke: He could do that with a bad back?
Phelps: He could do that, but he couldn't do heavy work. And at that
time, the farm was rented out. He became a full-time builder-
contractor. My mother had sort of raised two families. Her
mother died when she was nineteen, and there were seven in
their family, and she kind of focused on getting them through
school. She married my father when she was twenty-nine or
Hicke: What was her name?
Phelps: Juanitaexcept she shortened it to Nita--Cundif f . And
although she was born in Kansas, and her family moved around a
bit, the Cundiff name does appear in the historical records of
my home county in Missouri. My youngest daughter took time
this summer to go back to Maysville, Missouri, to look up all
the information she could find on Hensel, Phelps and Cundiff.
We ' re going to have a family reunion in Southern California
between Christmas and New Year's, and she'll be presenting a
lot of this information.
Hicke: What fun. If you have something like a family tree or
something, we could include that.
Phelps: We haven't finished putting it together yet.
Hicke: And your maternal grandparents, then, were from the Midwest
Phelps: Yes. The Hensels migrated to Missouri from Illinois and Ohio.
My maternal grandfather was a station master in Skiatook,
Oklahoma with the Atcheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe. The family
moved around some, because that role involved transfers from
time to time.
Hicke: Did you know him?
Phelps: Yes. I knew him after he retired, but not during his working
Hicke: Okay, so both of your grandparents on both sides were from
around that area.
Phelps: Yes, Midwesterners.
Hicke: You spent the first eight or ten years or so of your life in
Phelps: Right. I was in the middle of the third grade when my family
moved. I attended the Hedge School in De Kalb County, which
was a one-room, eight-grade school. And I transferred then in
1935; we moved, as '35 was changing into '36, at Christmastime.
Then I attended a two-room school in Coloradothree grades in
each room, for a total of sixand then on to junior high. My
background from an academic standpoint was definitely
Hicke: But you got good schooling in those one-room schools?
Phelps: I've never regretted it; I can affirm to that. And this
getting to and from school on a horse was fun, too.
Hicke: Oh, you went to school on a horse? You parked your horse in
the schoolyard or whatever?
Hicke: Even in the winter would you ride?
Phelps: Yes. Unless, you know, the roads were impassable. Actually,
the school was on the diagonal section corner from my home, so
I rode through ours and the neighbor's farm to get to school.
How about brothers and sisters?
I had a brother, and I have two sisters. The younger of my two
sisters was, a matter of fact, just a year ago released after
two and a half years with the Peace Corps in Guatemala.
Is that right? You have a family of entrepreneurs and
adventurers. Could you give me their names, your brother and
My brother's name was John, and my oldest sister is Mary; she
was born in 1919. My brother was born in 1920. The younger of
my two sisters, Margaret, was born in 1921.
Okay. And when you rode the horse to school, was that in
I lived right across the road from the school in
So was this in Greeley or was it a small town outside of it?
At that time, it was about a mile west of Greeley. Greeley has
since grown up around it, but at that time it was out in the
country, and then I had to bike ride from there to--at that
time there was only one junior high school. It was grade seven
And high school in Greeley?
What kinds of things did you like in school in particular?
I liked physics and chemistry a lot. I would say those were my
Did you have any teachers that were particularly influential or
I think I had three at least, maybe four: my chemistry
teacher, my physics teacher, my Spanish teacher, and my English
teacher were all very important in my growing up and influenced
my feeling about school, for sure.
And your feeling about physics and chemistry, obviously. And
also obviously, your family had many doctors, and so there was
some interest in science perhaps from them?
Maybe, but I don't recall that having been a particularly
strong influence in my family, but since the professional
influence was not at home so much- -it did influence my sister,
however, I think; she became a registered nurse after she
graduated from high school. This was the beginning of World
War II, and she was in the navy through World War II and based,
as a matter of fact, at Mare Island. Then, of course, after
her husband died five years ago, one of the first things that
she decided to do after getting the idea of enlisting in the
Peace Corps was to go back to school and become recertificated
as a nurse. Then the opportunity to go further depended on her
taking a course in Spanish, because apparently the main
opportunity then was in Central America. So it became
necessary for her to take a six-month crash course in Spanish,
and she did that.
And this was Margaret, you said.
Family Life, Influences, and Activities
Hicke: How about the influences of your parents and family traditions?
What kinds of values did they set?
Phelps: Well, my dad, I think, was very conservative, and probably was
in some ways a greater influence on what I've done in my own
business life through that emphasis on being conservative in
Hicke: Financially conservative? Is that what you mean?
Phelps: He had had very serious financial problems--
Hicke: Sure, from the Depression.
Phelps: He lost the farm twice. He had cattle and lost a farm in the
early 1920s to begin with and then got a new start and lost out
when there was a drought there in Missouri in the mid- '30s.
And eventually he had to leave all that behind and start over
again in Colorado. He was able to sell everything, but had to
eventually start over again in Colorado.
Hicke: So he was conservative financially.
Phelps: Yes, having been through some very difficult times.
I think my mother's influence was at least equal, but was
more in terms of ethics; I'll never forget an inscription she
put in a Bible for me. I can't quote it, but it had to do with
the importance of being honest and adhering to the truth. "I
have to be true..." Do you remember that little quotation?
It sounds familiar.
I'm going to have to get it out and refresh my memory. "Dare
to be true; nothing can need a lie. The fault which needs it
most, grows two thereby."
What kinds of recreational activities did you like?
Well, with my dad I did both fishing and hunting.
Colorado's a great place for that.
Right. I lost my interest in hunting after growing up; at
first I quit hunting deer out of the shock of killing deer the
first time. Then within a matter of four or five years,
although duck and goose hunting had been very important to me,
I found that I didn't like that anymore either. So I haven't
killed anything since my late twenties [chuckles] .
Interesting how that changes, isn't it?
It truly is. It's such an exciting thing, you know, when you
first take that up and kid yourself that it's a sport. I can
remember going out and hunting ducks in late afternoons in
Colorado after carrying my paper route. Then a friend and I
would get our shotguns and go out in the slough and shoot
ducks. It was such an attraction to me at that time, and then
one day the curtain dropped, and I didn't want to do that
How about fishing? Did you keep that up?
I kept on fishing while I was in Colorado. I've not done much
fishing out here; I've fished out here in the lake a little bit
once in a while. But that was a big, big thing to me. As a
matter of fact, one of a number of entrepreneurial things that
I did in junior high and high school was to tie flies and
develop fishing lures, and we'll get into that later, I
Yes, I was going to ask you about your work activities, but go
ahead with your fishing.
Well, that's about it. It was a big and interesting part of my
life for a long, long time. And I just didn't stay with it.
Did they have ice fishing in Colorado?
Oh, I'm sure that they do in places, but fishing for me was
pretty much a mountain trout, stream- type thing. Eventually,
one progresses from fishing with bait to fishing with wet flies
and then eventually to tying and fishing with dry flies.
Hicke: Tying flies is quite an art form, I think, isn't it?
Phelps: It probably is in that it can be creative, but for the most
part it's copying a pattern and doing it well. Because when
people go to buy a dozen flies, they want a Grey Hackle or a
Royal Coachman or a substantially acceptable imitation of
Hicke: Something familiar?
Hicke: They have a book that says you could use this fly for these
Phelps: Right. And then when the sun goes behind the cloud, you should
shift to this, and so on.
Hicke: Like the wax on your skis and everything else; you develop
these little requirements.
Phelps: The right wine to serve at the table.
Hicke: Oh, now that is important! [chuckles].
Well, speaking of wine, did your family drink wine?
Phelps: No. In fact, my family really didn't they were not
teetotalers, but they didn't keep alcohol in the house. If
someone was coming over whom I guess they wanted to entertain
with alcohol, my dad would go out to the store and buy a half
bottle of this or a bottle of that, but it wasn't kept in the
Hicke: I think that's pretty standard for the Midwest. I grew up in
the Midwest too, and I don't know if we ever had any Mogen
David, but I never had heard of anything else.
Phelps: My mother got some Mogen David occasionally.
Hicke: I was going to ask you about outside activities like work, and
you said you had a paper route. When did that start?
Well, actually, the Greeley Daily Tribune was a big part of my
life when I was growing up in that I started as a substitute
carrier when I was probably twelve or thirteen years old.
Then, over a period of years, I had three different paper
routes, and at the same time, got extra pay by doing things
like wrapping the papers that were being pushed off the press,
and then wrapped with a mailer.
I became a counter; there were always two counters on a
press like the one there. You take an armful of papers off the
press and the carriers stand in line with a little slip of
paper that gives the route number and the number of papers
they're to get. This is handed to them by the subscription
manager. So you count papers, like two at a time, until you
get the right amount. And then, of course, if it's someone who
has been helpful to you, you might slip in a couple of extra,
and they can sell them on the corner, you know? You learned
about politics that way [laughter].
And then for the last couple of years that I was working
in the press room I alsothe expression was "carried kicks."
Complaints would be phoned in that the paper was in the mud or
the paper didn't get there, or the paper was thrown up on the
roof, or those kinds of things that happen. So I would sit at
the desk from like six o'clock in the evening. I would sit and
take the calls that came in. I don't know how people knew
this, but generally they had to call between five and seven,
and there would be a list of kicks that the receptionist could
handle. So I got there, and then I would take the calls from
six to seven, and then go down with my list and get papers that
had been stacked up at the press room, put them in my paper bag
and ride all over town to replace the missing papers. It
wasn't a very big town, you know? Well, it wasn't as bad as it
sounds. I think there were probably at that time maybe sixteen
thousand people living in the town. It's been long since then
over fifty [thousand]. But it did usually take an hour and a
half or so, depending on the weather; it could make you take a
lot longer, because the weather always doubled the number of
And made it harder for you to get around besides,
get a chance to eat and sleep?
Did you ever
You know, I don't remember how that worked, but I did. I
certainly did. I don't remember now when I used to have
dinner, but I probably ate when I got home and before I did my
Oh, you had homework to do besides! [laughter].
Phelps: Well, I'll have to admit that homework was never as demanding
in my years as it was when my kids grew up and went to school.
And I think probably even more so now.
Hicke: You got it done during study period maybe?
Phelps: I don't think we were that sophisticated in Greeley; I don't
think there was a study period as such.
Hicke: [laughter] How about people? Did you have some special
friends that were particularly memorable?
Phelps: Yes. I always had at least two or three boy friends. Didn't
have any girlfriends to speak of; I didn't date until I got to
college, and very little. But I was involved with one other
friend, Harold Hinckley, in one of my entrepreneurial efforts,
which was a print shop in his basement. And then I was
involved with another friend who became my principal assistant
in the fly tying business, and we had a number of other people
working for us part-time, but
Hicke: He was the number one guy that helped you with your fly tying
Phelps: Yes. He kept the supplies going in two directions. But one of
the interesting facets of running the Rocky Mountain Tackle
Hicke: That was the name of your business?
Phelps: Yes. And the cellophane bags that the lures went into, the
cards that were cut out, on which the flies were mounted and
sold half a dozen in a card, were all printed in the print shop
which another friend and I owned. So we had graphics and the
Hicke: You were vertically integrated [laughter].
Phelps: One of the interesting things was that there was not an
immediately available source of ingredients, which were
somewhat rare and exotic materialsthe pelts and the feathers,
peacock tails, and all kinds of paraphernalia that you needed
to tie flies. There was a company in Wisconsin that sold all
of this sort of thing through a great catalog, and I happened
to have the only catalog in the county. So we would buy the
materials and sell them to the people who wanted to tie flies
for us, and then we would buy back the flies, giving credit for
Hicke: You had a cottage industry going.
Phelps: Yes. Also, we foresaw the shortage coming on high-quality
steel hooks after World War II broke out, and I bought enough
hooks to get me through three years. Since hooks became
impossible to find, that became a pretty good trading commodity
Hicke: I see the beginnings of your innovative wine career here.
That's why I questioned, when you said your father was
conservative, what kind of conservative, because I don't think
all the innovations, the entrepreneurship that you've shown is
Phelps: Well, it is and is isn't. You shouldn't be an entrepreneur if
you aren't disciplined in terms of trying not to spend more
than you make, and that's how most entrepreneurial people end
up in trouble; they don't start with a big enough nest egg or
they overextend themselves in terms of budgeting their costs
against their income. Making a profit is what it's all about.
Hicke: So you combined the financial conservatism with a certain
amount of risk-taking.
Phelps: Well, that's true, but risk-taking has a bad name in terms of--
the rewards are ultimately available only to those who are
willing to take some risk.
Hicke: Well, buying up the iron hooks is a certain amount of risk.
Phelps: Oh, no, not really, when you know there aren't going to be any
Hicke: Well, yes, that's true. But then the war could have ended in a
very short time, so there's a certain amount of risk involved.
How did you happen to get the only catalog?
Phelps: I was the only one that knew about it, and then I just didn't--
Hicke: Well, of course you wouldn't pass it around.
Phelps: I read about the Herter catalog--Herter Manufacturing Company--
in some obscure magazine, sent away for it, and realized it was
a real resource.
Hicke: Was this at the same time you were working for the paper, that
you were involved in these other- -
Phelps: Yes. Well, there was a transitional period of time, and they
all kind of overlapped between the ninth grade and eleventh
grade, I guess. By the time I became a senior in high school
the only continuing tie that I had with the newspaper was
working in the print shop after school and on Saturdays as a
printer's devil. That was really good background and good
training in that I learned so much about graphics that helps me
to this day to understand the balance of a printed page and
things that you need to remember about matching and contrasting
typefaces and so on, and the ability to do text alignment on
the page was good background. But by that time I had pretty
well wrapped up the other hobbies and extracurricular
activities, since that took all my time. I also got my first
car when I was a senior in high school and that changed my
life, and I worked in a filling station, because that was a way
of being able to get coupons so you could get war-rationed gas.
Hicke: What kind of car was it?
Phelps: A '36 Ford convertible. Black.
Hicke: Did it have a rumble seat?
Hicke: And this was what year? Do you recall?
Phelps: Yes, I bought it at the beginning of my senior year, which
would have been 1944. It was a burden to some extent, because
I was really saving as much as I could to go to college.
Between my junior and senior year and again between my senior
year and my freshman year of college, I had the opportunity to
go to work for the U.S. Land Office as assistant cadastral
engineer. All the men were off fighting the war, and even
college kids were hard to come by for this field work of the
Land Office. So they turned, literally, to high school kids to
assist the one engineer and a crew of maybe six kids.
We did surveys in case mines and surveys to reestablish
metes and bounds in the Colorado Rockies . And then the last
month of the second year, we were transferred up to finish the
year out on the Powder River in Wyoming, and actually, on that
experience three of us drove a truck from Pagosa Springs,
Colorado, which is the southwestern part of Colorado, to
Kaycee, Wyoming, which is north of Casper. But we were in
Douglas, Wyoming, the night that VJ Day was celebrated. And
then we spent the next day in Casper, which was just a ghost
town, because of everybody celebrating. But that was the
timing of the end of World War II and my wrapping up my career
as a surveyor.
Tell me how the car changed your life.
Phelps: Oh, I became social. I became interested in doing things that
I had just not had time for before.
Did you have any idea what you wanted to do with your life at
Not really. There was a period of timewell, I guess I knew I
wanted to study engineering but I didn't know what I was going
to do with my degree if and when I got it. There was a period
of time when I had some mixed feelings about continuing as an
engineer and I was very much attracted to studying
architecture. I did as a matter of fact go down and enroll at
the University of Oklahoma and went through orientation week,
and after one week, there was still time to get back to CSU
[Colorado State University] and enroll for my junior year
there, and I did. I just packed up in the middle of the night
and checked out and moved back to Colorado. One of the things
that influenced that decision was that they had started a
construction management course that interested me. So I
decided to go back to what was then Colorado A&M. You had me
listed on the outline that you sent as University of Colorado,
but I didn't go to Boulder, I went to Fort Collins, which was
also a land grant school, then known as AggiesColorado A&M,
which has since become Colorado State University, and which
beat Colorado University at basketball last Friday night.
[laughter] Well, I have two children who went to Colorado
University and they're both living in Boulder. So we raised
these Calif ornians that moved to Colorado.
Oh, no, that's good. Best of all worldsto be able to live on
your own property in both Colorado and California. I have a
daughter and three granddaughters and a son-in-law living in
Well, I guess I can wrap that theme up by saying that I've
always had a real appreciation and interest in architecture. I
think I probably could have done very well if I had become an
architect. It's been a great source of satisfaction to be able
to work with some wonderful architects through construction and
development that I've been involved with in my life. Some of
my very best friends are people who put their life into
So you went to the University of Oklahoma for your freshman
year, is that right?
No, no, I would have had to transfer, because that was the
beginning of my junior year that I went down there and then I
didn't stay but one week. And before they closed registration
back at A&M, I got in my car and drove all night and got back
in time to re-enroll.
Was there any other university that you were interested in
going to when you were a freshman?
You always knew you were going to go to Colorado State?
It was really, you know, about the only thing available,
because I think we all just considered that it took a lot of
money to go to Boulder or a lot more than I had saved up. My
dad, I don't know that he participated a lot in that decision;
I think I just made up my mind to do that. And on the morning
that I left, he drove me outside town, right past the city
limits on the north, and dropped me off, and I had a suitcase
and a little laundry box, a hard cardboard box with straps
around it. And I hitchhiked to Fort Collins and found a place
to sleep and got enrolled. And, you know, I didn't think
anything about it at all; I didn't need or want anybody to be
responsible for getting me to school. I compare that now with
the way I see mothers going to take their daughters to college
and staying with them and coming back for "Parents' Weekend"
and all that. Things have changed.
Things change, but also individuals differ, too.
freshman, how did you like school?
I liked school very well, and I began to grow up a lot. Well,
I won't say grow up, because I didn't grow up until I went into
the navy. But I began to become a little more socially
oriented once I got to college. Another guy that I had only
vaguely known from a neighboring town in high school and I
applied together for a job that we eloquently called a
"hasher." Houseboys at a sorority house. I got room and board
there. We slept downstairs in the sorority house. So I spent
my freshman year doing that, and it was great. It didn't
interfere with the classes, and I think that maybe having that
kind of a job may have made the difference between me really
being able to have a normal life in college or to be penurious
and not be able to have any fun doing anything. Because room
and board is a pretty big item.
That's a big chunk of your expenses. And you knew you were
going to be an engineer before you went,
or did that develop
Well, actually, I never really thought of myself, and still
don't, as an engineer. For one thing, I don't have a degree in
civil engineering, which is what I started out in. But when
they opened the construction management school, I went to that
one immediately, because not only was my dad in the
construction business in a way, but I had spent a year between
my sophomore and junior year in Denver working as an estimator
for one of the major construction companies. I learned the
estimating trade there, and I think that, plus going back and
having the opportunity to take electivesthere were zero
electives in those days in civil engineering; it took 120 hours
and everything there, the closest you got to anything that
wasn't straight engineering was a course in technical writing.
And that was not an elective. When I switched to construction
management, on the other hand, I had a number of electives that
became available. I got a lot of good out of that.
What did you take for your electives?
Great Books, designthat was a home economics course; so you
can imagine what the design was. A broad range of things:
economics, business management, just a lot of things that I
never would have been able to do from an engineering base.
Your dad had never drafted you to work for him?
No, actually, I think he wanted me to. He probably almost gave
up on me then, when I went in the navy after I got out of
school. When I first went before the draft board in January
'46, they had essentially quit drafting people, but you still
had to go have a physical.
And then the Korean War started; it was really just
moving into high gear about the time that I finally did
graduate. In changing majors I also had to take an extra
quarter, because I didn't get all my credits transferred. So I
graduated in December 1950, and I had become married, and they
were taking childless married men at a high priority. I was
called up and reclassified, and I was going to be sent for a
physical, and I decided that I really didn't want to--if there
was some other alternativego into the army. There was a
program available of DCS [Officer Candidate School] training
with the navy in Newport, Rhode Island; I decided to take the
physical, and if I passed it, then I knew I would pass the army
physical and I had better do something about it, and I did.
Two weeks later I took the scholastic test and passed that;
within a matter of three months I was on my way to Newport.
That meant a longer period of [service] time than to be drafted
into the army and be out in two years. After OCS, it was three
and a half years. But I decided I wanted to do it anyway, and
I'm glad I did, because I matured a lot in those years.
Service in the U.S. Navy
Hicke: Let me go back. You said you went into the navy in '46?
Phelps: No, no. I was called up for physical in January of '46, and
this was after World War II was over, but they were still half
heartedly drafting people, but I was classified 4-F.
Hicke: When did you graduate?
Phelps: December of '50. And then I was called up for the Korean War,
I think it was February of '51. Then I enlisted in the navy
and was called to Newport in July '51.
Hicke: And that was OCS?
Phelps: Yes. I graduated from that around the first of December,
something like that, of that year. Then I was assigned to the
USS Helena, which was a heavy cruiser in Long Beach and sent to
a communications school. And while I was at that school in San
Diego--! '11 never know how this happened, but I got transferred
to an admiral's staff, who was the cruiser division commander,
and his flag was on the same ship. So I didn't even change
bunks, but I got a new boss. And then unfortunately, the
cruiser division commander, once he got to the Korean War zone,
which was in the Sea of Japan, and once you got there and the
USS Helena was rotated back, the staff just went to another
ship. So I went to the Bremerton and then finally to the
Quincy; I was on three different cruisers for that admiral.
Then, with a year to go, the navy did me the biggest
favor of all time: they transferred me to the staff of the
Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet [CINCPAC] at Pearl
Harbor. By that time, I had a daughter who was nine months
old. So I went to Pearl Harbor; that was a wonderful year, a
Hicke: Let's back up a little. When did you get married?
Phelps: September of 1950.
Hicke: Could you give me your wife's name?
Phelps: Her name was Barbara Babcock.
Hicke: So you were in Pearl Harbor for a year or something like that?
Phelps: Just a little over a year. My son came along- -
Hicke: What's his name?
Phelps: William Hensel. After we settled in there, been there a couple
of months, then he was born in late August, and the navy would
not transport a family back and forth until a baby was born and
six weeks old. So I was assigned to another month of
additional duty waiting for Billy to get old enough to fly back
[laughter]. We got back in late October of "54.
II HENSEL PHELPS CONSTRUCTION COMPANY
Phelps: I made up my mind at that time then to go into partnership with
my dad, and of course he was chomping at the bit to get out.
He had been expecting me to make up my mind one way or the
other years before, but then the navy came along. He hung on
to the operations and kept it going long enough for me to get
back, and then as soon as we started up the partnership, almost
immediately he went to southern California and bought a place
and started to spend most of his time there and come back in
the summers. He bought a place in the desert and didn't like
to spend the summers there. He came back to Colorado for
By the beginning of 1957, we had decided to change the
format so that he could eventually withdraw entirely. And so
we incorporated the Hensel Phelps Construction Company, and he
loaned me $40,000 to buy a half -interest, and he gave me an
option on buying his half for that same price. So within a
matter of a year and a half or so, I had been able to buy my
dad out, and he was able to fully retire.
Hicke: He patiently waited for you all that time.
Phelps: Right, and made the process much simpler and facilitated the
more rapid development of the company by having given me--in
addition to a lot of good values, he had established an
impeccable reputation and credit, so it just never was a
problem to become established.
Hicke: What were your challenges and responsibilities in taking over
this business? That was quite a change from your previous
Phelps: I don't know that I looked at it as a specific challenge, but I
know that what would be the area of most significant growth was
learning the principles of identifying the people that I
wanted, needed to have to build a team with. Identifying the
qualities and learning how to motivate and to help people
develop their own skills and abilities.
Hicke: Personnel management is a part of it.
Phelps: Right. It's an ongoing process. Certainly some people have a
greater gift than others for the ability to identify,
communicate expectations, and set goals with other people, that
sort of thing. For me it was kind of a trial-and-error
process; I think I was fortunate in the quality and
availability of people to associate with, and I think pretty
much in two or three years I had developed the team that was
important to me. That part of my lifethe years between
getting back to civilian life and the time I turned fortywas
undoubtedly the most productive time of my life. So much
happened in that relatively short period of time. I was
twenty-eight years old when I got back on the track, and by the
time I turned I turned forty I pretty much had laid the
groundwork for the rest.
Hicke: That was a crucial decade.
Phelps: I realize that it's only because I'm in the wine industry that
I have the opportunity to be included in this history, but the
circumstances of my earlier career not only influenced my
decision making in the wine industry, but literally made it
possible in an economic sense. Without question, I am indebted
to dozens of people who contributed in one way or another to my
successful years in construction, but I'd like to single out
just three. I've already mentioned my father, Hensel Phelps,
who left all of us in the company that bears his name the
legacy of a solid reputation for integrity, fair dealing, and
prompt discharge of all obligations.
Above all the others, a man who has contributed most
significantly to what I've done and have in my life todayboth
as a business associate and as a paradigm of achievement- -is my
successor in the construction business, Bob Tointon. Bob
joined us in 1963 as a field engineer and earned his way
quickly through the ranks to become, in 1965 or 1966, vice
president for operations and then, in 1975, president of the
company. He had, however, been virtually in charge of day- to
day field operations from 1970 on. His attributes as a
business leader were recognized by many other than myself in
that he has served or still serves on such important regional
boards as Bank One of Colorado, Mountain Bell, and Public
Service Company of Colorado. He has been chairman of the
Trustees of the University of Northern Colorado and very active
in a number of worthwhile organizations, including the Boy
Scouts of America. He is now chairman of Phelps- Tointon, Inc.,
which was formed in the reorganization of Phelps, Inc. in 1989
to include all of the non-general contracting assets of the
former holding company.
The other contributor I wouldn't want to leave out of
this history is Bob Ruyle, who was vice president and general
counsel of Phelps, Inc. and its successor companies from 1969
to 1993. I was seldom able to beat Bob in singles, but one of
the few times I did was the afternoon that I suggested to him
that he should consider closing his own law office, of which we
were often a client, and join me in trying to bring order to
the increasingly complicated challenge of dealing with
government agencies, unions, and an ever more litigious
society, as we developed into a nationwide contracting company.
He has been a most valuable friend and associate and I owe a
lot to Bob for the big part of his life that he put into the
success of Hensel Phelps Construction Company.
I'm going to let you take the lead and transition from
here to the sort of thing you want to go into.
Beginning Interest in Wine
Hicke: You've already told me that one of the things you learned or
had to learn was personnel management. Before we get to
Souverain [winery] , is there anything else in this decade that
impacted your wine career particularly?
Phelps: Well, we haven't really touched on how my affection for wine
began. That was actually back in the college days. One of the
years I was in college I roomed with a fellow that had been in
the Fifth Army Infantry in World War II; they landed at Anzio,
and he was with that group that fought their way up the Italian
peninsula and then over to Marseilles. They fought their way
up the Rhone and crossed the Vosges Mountains into Alsace and
obviously liberated a lot of fine wine. Sam had developed a
very keen awareness of wine; he had actually grown up, which is
sort of a rarity, in a home where fine wine was a part of life.
What was his name?
Sam Cooper. Through Sam, I became aware of what is good and
learned a little about wine. And that experience was kind of
one of the building blocks. I finally got around to spending a
little time traveling and learning more about wine and food.
Then in the mid-sixties, after I had established an office in
Burlingame, I was here in the [Napa] Valley from time to time
and began to experience the California wine country. I made an
arrangement with the Compleat Winemaker here in Napa Valley to
buy and ship grapes to Colorado, where I made wine in my
basement. Not necessarily wonderful, but it was all right.
What kind of grapes were you using?
The first two years I did Cabernet [Sauvignon] and Zinfandel,
and then one year I branched into Riesling and Chenin Blanc.
But my whites were not as successful as the reds. So I had
that little bit of a background.
When did you start your office in Burlingame?
So you were coming out here trying to find--
And didn't you plant some grapes also?
I planted grapes in Colorado -- French hybrids that I bought
from Philip Wagner in Maryland. That was a very difficult
encounter with nature; northern Colorado is just too close to
the Arctic Circle to really have viticulture. There is, of
course, a burgeoning wine industry of sorts in Colorado, with
some vinifera in the Grand Junction area. But I was in the
wrong place, a few years before my time.
Building the Souverain Winery (now the Rutherford Hill Winery)
Phelps: There has long been a somewhat apocryphal version of our
history that we came to California to build the Souverain
Winery. Actually, we were already in California and had been
for quite a few years. But even before I had set up an office
in Burlingame, I had established a correspondent banking
relationship with the Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco. This
was before the days of "Money Market" funds. We developed a
little homemade money market fund that involved wire transfer
of payments from various Corps of Engineers Districts and
headquarters of our national clients to the Wells Fargo, where
the pooled funds would be invested and /or reinvested almost
daily in short-term CDs, banker's acceptances, etc., to keep
those dollars working for us during the days we were paid and
the days on which we were committed to pay our sub-contractors.
Our contact in the national division of the Wells Fargo
was Adolph Mueller. In 1971 he and Fred Holmes, who was one of
the original partners in the Robert Mondavi Winery, put
together a plan to buy the old Souverain (which is now Burgess
Cellars) from Lee Stewart, who had revitalized the facility in,
I think, the "50s. Later on, of course, they elaborated on
that plan to build another winery in the Alexander Valley and
then sell the company to Pillsbury.
Anyway, Bud Mueller was a little concerned about whether
or not the job was big enough to attract enough contractors to
have a totally competitive situation when they put the
Souverain job out to bid, so he asked me, as a favor to him, if
we would bid on the job. Our Pacific Division, based in
Burlingame, was primarily involved in heavy construction, such
as BART, Corps of Engineers, and Bureau of Reclamation work-
bridges and structures, rather than building work- -but we
decided to go ahead and take a look at his project on the
theory we could transfer people here from Colorado if we were
the successful bidder. His concern was well founded, because
we didn't put together a really tough bid, but we were several
thousand dollars under the second bidder and felt we could
complete the project well ahead of schedule. There were some
attractive bonuses offered for early completion also, so we
transferred the people necessary and that was the construction
of our first winery.
Shortly after work commenced, Bud asked us to be the
construction manager, overseeing both the design and
construction of the Souverain plant at Geyserville, and work on
that started late in 1972. That winery was ready for
production in July of 1973, and Souverain Napa Valley started
crushing in '72.
Bulmaro Montes ,
III JOSEPH PHELPS VINEYARDS
Locating the Property
Phelps: Once we had a crew out here doing this kind of work, it
probably contributed to my interest in going ahead and buying
the ground and building a winery for myself, which I kind of
always wanted to do but just hadn't been triggered.
Hicke: So you were driving up here to the Napa Valley looking around
at available vineyards?
Phelps: Sure. I had fallen in love with this property earlier on
because I am a farm boy, and I had experience with a couple of
ranches in Colorado. Just the glimpse of the purebred Polled
Herefords that Pat Connolly used to run on his ranch- -you could
see them as you rode by on the Silverado Trail; you only get a
little cameo shot of it between the knolls. I had really
fallen in love with the property, and when it became available-
-or at least the realtor that I worked with in San Francisco
thought it might become available- -we put an offer in and ended
up with the property. That was actually in January '73, and by
March of '73 we had the property.
I had previously owned property at the intersection of
Silverado Trail and Zinfandel Lane, which I purchased from the
Christian Brothers in 1972. Our plans involved a smaller
winery at the foot of a small knoll on the property facing the
beautiful, old, double-vaulted bridge over the Napa River.
This location, as a matter of fact, influenced our choice of
names when we first incorporated our business as "Stone Bridge
Cellars." We had filed for a use permit on that property, and
the final hearing was going to be the last Tuesday of January,
as I recall, of 1973. The afternoon of the day that the permit
was to have its final hearing, we got word that we were going
to be able to buy this property. I put that permit on holdin
abeyanceand then I eventually began to repeat the process
here on this property, which was big enough to have a lot more
Hicke: How many acres was it?
Phelps: Fifteen. Down on Zinfandel.
Hicke: Oh, that's the earlier piece, but how many did you buy here?
Phelps: Oh, just a little over six hundred.
Hicke: And there was nothing of a vineyard here?
Phelps: Not a grape on the property. Lots of nice-looking cattle.
Hicke: What happened to those? They left with the sale of the
property, or did you buy those, too?
Phelps: Actually, Pat had sold his herd the year before, when he had
been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer in '72. They had a
nationally advertised, very successful sale of his herd here,
and so it was only a matter of time until the land would
probably become available also. I got to know him through
negotiations; a wonderful guy. He lived on for a few months
after we bought the property, but he was never able to come up
and look at it.
Hicke: Did you investigate the suitability for grapes?
Phelps: Not really well. I had two people come on the property with me
before I closed the deal, one of whom was Ivan Schock, who
passed away a month ago and whose service was a couple of weeks
ago. Ivan was an associate of Fred Holmes and a longtime
vineyard manager operating in the Napa Valley. Ivan had come
on the property and said grace over it, although he gave me, I
think, some good advice that I should also be looking for some
different soil on a different location for Cabernet, which we
eventually did. He correctly predicted that this would not
necessarily be a number one Cabernet location. We also had
Andre Tchelistchef f look at the land before planting started.
Hicke: You were looking for Cabernet, or--
Phelps: Oh, actually we weren't focused on Cabernet; we were looking at
the possibility of having two varieties, and of course it
turned out to be even more than that that we were interested
in. This, interestingly enougheven though the soil wasn't
that well drained, and it was probably not exactly the right
climate for Cabernet- -we thought it was a superb red wine
location, and so we committed pretty heavily to Zinfandel and
some Cabernet, but there was still some prime acreage left
uncommitted in '74. We were trying to decide what we would
Actually, that was '74, because in '73 we had to build a
reservoir and weren't ready to plant this part of the property.
We planted down by the river in '73, but this was in mid-summer
of '74; we still hadn't totally decided on what we were going
to do here. I wanted to find the answerwhat I thought would
be an ideal red grape location and suggested to Walter that we
should find out what would be required to- -Walter Schug was our
first winemaker--to bring in Syrah, which had been a favorite
wine of mine, Cote Roti and Hermitage. So he called and spoke
with Professor [Harold] Olmo at [University of California]
Davis as to what would be involved and how long it would take
to get materials available for propagation. And he said,
"Well, you don't have to do that at all; I did that for you in
There was a vineyard just across the river from
Zinfandel, which was owned by Christian Brothers, the Wheeler
Ranch. They still had ten acres of the true French Syrah that
was the only survivor in the state from the experimental
propagation that Olmo had done in 1935. Then in 1946- -
someplace in there, '48- -he had to take Syrah out of the
experiment station. And so he talked the Christian Brothers
into moving it over to the Wheeler property. They had never
done a varietal Syrah, and these grapes ended up in their red
burgundy program. So we were able to buy ten tons of the fruit
and all the budwood that we wanted. And it's in that year that
we started our Syrah program.
Now this is where you really were a pioneer, so I want to go
back a little bit to talk about some of those things. First of
all, tell me how you knew Walter Schug and how you got
interested in Syrah.
Okay, well, let's go back to Walter. In the process of working
with the management of Souverain and particularly designing and
making plans for the Geyserville operation, Bill Bonetti, who
had been with [Charles] Krug [Winery], was selected by
Souverain to be the winemaker at the property in Geyserville.
When I knew for sure that I was going to buy this property, I
got in touch- -well, actually, it was even when I was working on
the design for the property on Zinfandel. And so it was before
'73, late '72, I interviewed two or three winemakers, including
Joe Cafaro, who was then assistant winemaker at Chappellet
[Winery] . Gino Zepponi was involved a little bit in my
conversations, but Bill Bonetti recommended Walter Schug. And
as soon as I met Walter, I realized that this was probably the
right move for us to make. He consulted with us on the
Zinfandel Lane property with the understanding that if we went
ahead with it, he would come to work. Then, he actually did.
His first day with us was the day we took possession of this
ranchthe first of March in '73.
Walter was very, very good at the planning steps and
equipping the winery.
Hicke: He had a German background, right?
Phelps: Absolutely. Walter's father was the regisseur at Staatsweingut
Assmanshausen, which is the only one of the nine state-owned,
formerly church-owned, wine estates in Germany, that made red
wine. They grow Spatburgunder, which is actually Pinot Noir.
Kind of pink, but they're awfully close to the Arctic Circle
for red wine [laughter].
So Walter had grown up on a wine estate in Germany and
had gone to Geisenheim and was a natural for this job. After
Walter had left Germany, he worked for a bottling company in
London, and then eventually came to the States and worked for
one or two large producers in the Central Valley before
connecting with Gallo [Winery). He moved to St. Helena as
Gallo's wine country representative for quality control in the
wineries that they bought product from, most notably Frei
Brothers, which they eventually bought out. Also the two co
ops here in St. Helena, the Napa Valley Co-opwhich only
recently closed its doors and then the North Co-op, or the
Little Co-op, as it was known. It had ceased to be a viable
winemaking facility by '72. However, it is very much alive
now- -completely rebuilt by new Japanese owners, and is known as
Markham Winery. In Sonoma County, Walter operated as Gallo's
representative with regional growers and also did quality
control work, in addition to Frei Brothers, for Martini & Prati
as well as Seghesio.
Hicke: He had a lot of different things.
Phelps: Yes. Walter was interested in eventually having his own
winery. In 1980 we helped him with a three-year phaseout
actually, it was a five-year plan that we worked out to do it
in three- -to start his own winery in partnership with Jerry
Sepps and has long since built his own winery over on Bonneau
Road in Sonoma County.
His efforts continued to be important to us in the sense
that in 1976 Walter had had one other assistant winemaker but
in 1976 he hired Craig Williams as assistant winemaker, and by
1980 Craig was pretty much responsible for red winemaking.
Then in 1983, when Walter went full-time into his own winery,
Craig took over all production control, including vineyard
operations, and the wines have been over his signature ever
Hicke: I also see his influence in your German wines, but I don't know
whether you want to talk about that or get back to the--
Phelps: There's no question that Walter's input had an awful lot to do
with the prominence of Riesling as one of this winery's
important wines. Interestingly enough, that doesn't come from
his own family's estate, but rather from his father-in-law who
was an important wine negotiant in Wachenheim, in the
Palatinate. So that we had a lot of input on our Riesling from
the Rheinpfalz rather than the Rheingau.
I think that will take care of that part of it for now.
Syrah was important- -
Phelps: The Syrah grape was obviously something waiting to happen in
California, and it had been important in California in the
nineteenth century, although to our best knowledge and belief,
it was never commercially bottled and sold as a varietal. But
we only know for sure going back to pre-Prohibition, and as far
as we can tell, our 1974 Syrah was the first commercially
bottled and labeled Syrah wine, although some Syrah wines were
being made but they were being blended.
Our confidence in Syrah, which has eventually been
vindicated, was based primarily on the fact that it is such a
noble variety in France and relatively rare. But you may
recall that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the
British market, particular Bordelais wines that were from a
relatively insignificant year, or a less than important year,
would command a much higher price if they could claim to be
"Hermitaged." What that expression meant was that the estate
had brought barrels of Syrah from the Rhone and blended it with
the Bordeaux varieties of the estate. That made up the middle
body and extractive elements that were lacking in a less than
wonderful year. So there was a lot of background for that.
And of course in Australia, Shiraz is one of the finest and
most expensive wines of a number of the old-time producers,
particularly the wines of Penfolds, La Grange Hermitage. I
bought some the other day, and even the '92 is almost $100 a
bottle. But that's a blend of Syrah and Cabernet.
Hicke: Where did your interest in Syrah come from?
Phelps: Just from having collected Cote Rotie's and Hermitage of
several producers, primarily Guigal and Chave, and enjoying
them--wines from the fifties and sixtiesand wondering why you
couldn't find this grape in California. Then we finally did.
But I will have to say that the clone that Dr. Olmo had worked
with in '35 and '36 is not the very best of the available
clones, and we're experimenting now with three or four other
clones. More particularly, we're learning that the cooler
growing regions are more likely to develop a Syrah of more
intense varietal character.
Hicke: On that hill over there--
Phelps: That's Syrah, and that's been pretty good. The hillside's
better than the valley floor.
Hicke: Because of the importance of cooling?
Phelps: Better drainage, and it's a little cooler up on the hillside at
In 1985 we planted a one-acre experimental plot of Syrah
on one of our Stag's Leap properties. Unfortunately, this
planting has since been the victim of phyloxera and has been
replaced by Cabernet. From it, we were able to confirm the
affinity of Syrah for a cooler growing region and subsequently,
in '90, we planted some Syrah in Carneros, and this has
provided us with additional valuable data.
Hicke: Is that because of climate or soil?
Hicke: Didn't I read someplace that you traveled through the Rhone
district of France, or was that later?
Phelps: Actually my first trip to France included a trip through the
Rhone Valley, but that was several years before buying this
ranch. You may be associating my interest in those wines with
the fact that I've owned a home in the Luberon for several
Hicke: Yes, I didn't know which came first: your travels in the Rhone
Valley or your interest in the Rhone wines.
Phelps: I started looking for a farmhouse in Provence in '85, but I
didn't find what I wanted until "89, so that's relatively
recent. We started making this wine in '74.
Hicke: Yes. And you had primarily just tasted it; you hadn't been to
the Rhone area.
Phelps: Oh, yes. I had been there, going back into the early
seventies. In your correspondence you asked about our early
work with Viognier, and that has been a long, hard, slow battle
propagating Viognier to the point where we could really develop
significant quantities. But our interest in Viognier, at the
outset in the mid -seventies, was not as a varietal; we were
interested in Viognier because in Cote Rotie that's allowed or
expected to be a major contributor up to 20 percent; may be
blended with Syrah, as is Marsanne in Hermitage. So we, in
order to try to get some grace into the Syrah, which was a very
forward brute, in '82, we got our first budwood. Up until that
time, we had been experimenting with blending Chenin Blanc and
Grenache with Syrah, small lot experimentation. We had co-
fermented with Grenache; we just hadn't found the right
blender, and that's what led us to Viognier.
It took a long time to get our Viognier production up to
the place where it was more than just experimental, and by that
time there was so much demand for the Viognier, as a varietal,
and since we had not particularly developed the right answer on
blending it with Syrah, so we diverted in that direction. But
so far, we're finding that there are other things that we can
do in the vineyard that are more productive and more helpful to
us in getting the Syrah where we would like to have it.
More on Syrah
And, quite coincidentally, the Wine Spectator, on November 15,
gave us a nice 92 [rating] on the '92 vintage.
That is impressive.
Pretty hard for a red wine to get in the '90s with all the
Cabernet and Pinot Noir competition.
That's true. [Looking at magazine] Maybe I can get a copy of
Phelps: You can have that.
CANADA S3.95/39ffA2.SO DEC. 15, 1995
_^ .__ -.- /^^ CANADA S3.9V3WA2.MJ Ult. l>, WS
YIN to MI STEAL
GKOWN. PRODUCED AND /S?Kj\ "OTT I t II H | S t P H
PHELPS VINEYHUDS (y2yJ S1 Ht ' l x * tAll>ollvl4
ALCOHOL 13 7* (V VOLUME VgrtB/ CONTAINS S U L M T E S
92 Joseph Phelps Syrah Napa Valley Vin du Mistral
1 992 Intense and tightly wound, with a ripe, complex
core of pepper and currant flavors. It picks up an earthy,
oaky tone on the finish before the tannins clamp down.
Given its weight, it has a remarkably smooth texture at
mid-palate. 500 cases made.
Hicke: Thanks. Is there anything else about the Syrah that you can
tell me, about the development of clones and how that went and
who worked on it?
Phelps: Well, Craig has done all the work on the Syrah clones.
Actually, I would defer to him on an informational basis. The
U.C. [University of California] Davis sources really refer to
only about three different clones , some of which are called
Hicke: It's the same grape?
Phelps: It is the same grape, right.
Hicke: But there's a Syrah and Shiraz.
Phelps: Well, the original name for Syrah was Shiraz, and that's what
it's called in Australia.
Hicke: I thought you said there was a clone by that name.
Phelps: There's a Shiraz clone, yes.
I don't think that I've got an awful lot more to this
Hicke: How about marketing the Syrah?
Phelps: Well, it was a real struggle. I came into the wine business
with the misconception that there would be an advantage to be
the only one to be a pioneer and be able to say, "We're the
only house that makes Syrah." That just isn't the case, and I
learned the hard way: it's much easier to sell Syrah now that
there are twenty or twenty- five wineries making a Syrah. So we
sort of broke our pick on Syrah in the early years. It was a
pretty good wine, but people didn't know what it was. And then
there was the confusion with wine made from the unrelated
California Petite Syrah. The wine in the early years wasn't
always that ready to drink at the time it needed to be sold.
It's a very, very surprising ager, though, and the more
difficult vintages that we thought were going to be a problem
for us--ten years later, they just taste wonderful. It's a
wine that doesn't always have instant charm.
Hicke: I guess in today's wine drinking public, people are looking for
Phelps: And yet even that is not always easy to market, depending on
how it's designatedas a varietal or as a proprietary blend.
We have a very, very wonderful blend of Rhone wines called Le
Mistral. It's just an absolutely delightful, engaging wine,
and it's ready to drink, you know, two years after the harvest.
And it is a Chateauneuf du Pape style. Wonderful, wonderful
wine. In fact, I'll give you an interesting article that was
just out last week or the week before from Mike Dunn of the
Sacramento Bee, in which he was very, very complimentary of the
wine, and he gave it a 93. But he's also spending half of his
article talking about how* difficult [it is to sell], and this
came as a surprise to him to find out that we still have a lot
of wine that we released in September, because he thought it
would be all sold out within a matter of weeks after it was
released. But this is not an easy wine to sell because people
are very inclined to want to see a variety on the label. It's
an educational process that goes on and on and on, to get them
to try a blend. Once they try it, they love it.
Hicke: I want to go back to the Meritage-type wines a little bit
later, but let me first back up and ask about building the
winery. That was right along your line of business; I trust
you had a major hand in it.
Phelps: Interestingly enoughand I guess this probably reinforces the
idea that Souverain was that important to usthe architectural
concept for the building was done by John Marsh Davis, who was
the design architect although he didn't do the working
drawings of the two Souverain wineries. So it was natural,
when I had really fallen in love with his style, to have him do
this one for us in 1973. And I'm sure you'll notice the
similarity, particularly between this winery and Rutherford
Hill in the use of redwood and the trellising.
Hicke: Yes, it ' s a really lovely building. How long did that take,
and what were the special challenges in building it?
Phelps: Well, we had a bad winter in '73 and couldn't continue
construction. We built a road and started the foundation in
the fall of '73. We were relatively late in the year, because
the timing of our application for a use permit here coincided
with about the most stringent use permit requirements, land use
requirements of the last twenty years. It was a six-hundred
acre ranch, but it didn't make any difference whether we were
planting vines in a given place or whether a winery was going
to be built; we still had to have the bird count and the
archeological exploration and all that sort of thing for the
entire six hundred acres. It was just one frustrating process
after another to get the use permit cleared for this, so it was
really like, I think, the end of September before we could
start. So we were only, like, finished with the foundation and
beginning the substructure when the rains of November shut us
down in '73. We remained shut down until it was mid-April of
The Sacramento Bee
November 29, 1995
WINE OF THE WEEK
By Mike Dunn
When I find a wine I like, and which
I suspect has a story to tell, the first
thing I ask the winemaker is whether
it's still available. To write favorably
of a wine no longer on the market is
to invite angry phone calls from irri
Initially, therefore, I was relieved to
learn that of the 6,900 cases of the
1993 Le Mistral ($15) that Craig Will
iams made at Joseph Phelps Vineyards
in the Napa Valley, some 5,700 cases
remain in the winery's cellars.
Upon further reflection, however, I
was mystified that so much of this
extraordinary wine has yet to be sold.
Though the wine was released only
in September, there's simply no rea
son why it shouldn't be flying off store
shelves. The proprietary name Le Mis
tral, after all, is taken hopefully from
the wind-/e mistral-lhzt whips across
France's Rhone Valley.
Well, there is a reason. Americans
prefer their wines as varietals-Char-
donnay, Pinot Noir and the like-and
are wary of blends that bear propn-
etary names. Even though the folks at
Phelps have done their darnedest to
explain that Le Mistral was inspired
by a grand old French tradition the
blending of several Rhone Valley grape
varieties in the mighty and honorable
wine Chateauneuf-du-Pape- American
bibbers still seem inexplicably reluc
tant to get with the program
If they just would take one sip of
the '93 Le Mistral, they'd recognize that
here is a wine whose impact is greater
than the mere sum of its parts, and
they quickly would move beyond their
pro- varietal bias.
Seven different grape varieties go
into the wine The three principal ones
are Grenache (54 percent), Mourvedre
(23 percent) and Syrah (13 percent),
all major players in the southern
Rhone Valley Supporting roles are
played by two other Rhone varieties,
Cinsault and Carignane, and two vet
eran California workhorses, Alicante
Bouschet and Petite Sirah.
The upshot is a marvelously har
monious wine that captures the youth
ful raspberry fruitiness of the Gren
ache and rounds it out with the
pluminess of the Mourvedre and the
jamminess of the Syrah The bit play
ers help provide structure, softness
and color, adding up to a wine that
while sturdy nonetheless crosses the
palate with uncommon grace-round
in feel and long in flavor
Food suggestions: Craig Williams
likes the wine with grilled chicken and
vegetanan pastas heavy with tomato
sauce, olive oil and garlic
'74. Then we had no problem getting the winery complete enough
for the crush in "74 and that was our first crush year.
We did make wine in '73: Pinot Noir, Cabernet, and
Johannisberg Riesling. The Cabernet and the Riesling were made
at Souverain, and the Pinot Noir was made for us by Joe Heitz,
who took us in out of kindness and because we had extra Pinot
Noir [grapes] that he wanted. So he took half of our grower's
Pinot Noir and made Pinot Noir for us that year. And when I
say he made it, that's kind of the way it was, whereas at
Souverain, Phil Baxter was the one making it. He had come to
Souverain from- -he also had been at Krug under Bill Bonetti.
He had been there for the "72 opening harvest at Souverain, and
then "73 was his second harvest and our first. He was totally
open to letting Walter call the winemaking shots . That was
particularly appropriate, because of the coinciding of the fact
that nobody had really made a Spatlese-style Riesling, except
Wente [Brothers Winery] had done a little bit two or three
years earlier. But the world was ready for a California
Riesling that was off -dry. Walter consulted with his father-
in-law and got it made just that way, and that became our style
for a number of years.
Hicke: Well, that's another major innovation.
Phelps: It was almost a first, let me put it that way. And then,
interestingly enough, tastes changed and by 1977 it was time to
do a kabinett-style Riesling, and we called it "Early Harvest."
Grapes were brought in at twenty, twenty and a half, or twenty-
one, and made in a drier style. That was never as popular as
the regular Spatlese-style Riesling. At one point we made
sixteen thousand cases of dry and off-dry Riesling wine and two
thousand cases of sweet. It was a big component of our total
production. Then almost as suddenly as it began, the American
palate moved away from that sort of thing, and it became very
difficult and we gradually withdrew from the growing of
Riesling. We have a contract with a grower in Anderson Valley
that cooperates with us to achieve a botrytis condition so that
we can bring those grapes in for a much heavier must-weight
wine. Unfortunately, in the last two years, the vineyard
hasn't been able to become fully botrytized; we have not had
the Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese level that we would
like. So we're settling for just an Auslese or a late-harvest
Hicke: How about marketing that? Was that a challenge?
Phelps: Well, it was a challenge when we made lots of the wine. It's
not a problem now. Oh, you're referring to the dessert wine.
Right. The Rieslings in general, I mean, each one.
Well, the sweeter the Riesling is, the less of it, of course,
we produce and the easier it is to market, because there is a
demand for the very sweet botrytized wine.
Is there? So that wasn't difficult.
No, we've never had a problem selling the higher must-weight
But the Spatlese I was just asking about the early dry
Rieslings, which were not very well known in California.
The early harvest.
When I said early, I meant the first ones you did.
I'm going to say that particularly the wines and the style of
'73 through '76 were in great demand. That style continued to
be in great demand until maybe 1986 or '87. It's in the '80s
that we built the level of production up to sixteen thousand
cases of that style wine. The early harvest was drawn along, I
think, and the style of the other wine didn't really change but
it became less sweet. At one point, the residual sugar in our
Spatlese- style wine was as high as 2 1/2 percent, and it
finally settled back down to around 1 1/2. That seems to be
where those people who like that style of wine now are most
I'm not sure that I'm answering your question, but I
think the biggest single factor, when you get right down to it,
is an increase in the sophistication of the buyer and the
tendency to move away from semi-sweet wine or off-dry wine on
the one hand, and then the tremendous popularity of Chardonnay
--paradoxically, the take-off of Chardonnay really came in the
early '80s when wineries beganand some people say as a
consequence of stuck fermentations, but people began to leave
residual sugar, above the threshold, in Chardonnay as high as
.8; that's been, I think, the driving force behind the
popularity of Chardonnay as a fighting varietalthe amount of
sugar left in them. So the masses like off -dry Chardonnay,
maybe, a lot better than they ever liked off -dry Riesling. And
who knows: Chardonnay, it's is easy to say, is a cult of the
It's interesting to me that you said you made a range of
residual sugars and changed ityou know, you went up and then
back. How did you get the feedback?
people are wanting?
How do you know what
Phelps: We monitor restaurant sales very carefully and very closely and
are guided a lot by that. We certainly pay attention to wine
critics, and we're influenced by that, in a subject of that
nature. How else will you know what the public, what the
Hicke: Well, it would take years to figure out what percentage is
buying a little more of this or a little more of that because
of a little more sugar or a little less sugar, so that's why I
Okay, I'm not sure that we ever got the winery built, but
it did happen eventually [laughter).
Phelps: Well, we were ready for the crush in September of '74. After
the harvest, we finished the rest of the building and so on,
and we occupied this level in January of '75.
Hicke: How did you make decisions about equipment, and what did you
Phelps: We were definitely influenced by the movement toward stainless
steel and temperature-controlled fermentation. We came at the
right time to be part of that movement. We were prior to the
availability of the new wave of crushers, for instance; we
accepted pretty much fifty-year-old technology in our original
Hicke: Is that the Healdsburg Machinery Company?
Phelps: Right. We were still a few years away from automated, very
sophisticated, programmable presses, although we moved into
that within a matter of three or four years after we opened.
We had a certain amount of trial and error; we didn't plan the
winery for enough intermediate oak, for instance, and we were
lacking in capacity to move wine back from small to appropriate
intermediate-oak aging prior to bottling. We didn't have
enough intermediate oak to do wines that we didn't want to go
into small oak barrels, like Sauvignon Blanc, for instance. So
that gave birth to the need for the addition that you
undoubtedly went through today, which went on in '78, what we
call the Oval Room. It's where all the array of German ovals
In '78 I was out working with a surveyor staking out the
addition. It was going to be the entire length of the north
wing, but it was only going to be wide enough to permit the
ovals, which are about eight feet, plus another eight for a
corridor that pumps and filter presses and hoses could be moved
back and forth in. And I realized that I was missing an
opportunity: for a very little additional expense, we could
put another eight feet in the width and have a room big enough
to accommodate the ovals , but also have space where we could
set up tables for tasting or entertaining. So that room became
what it is as a afterthought to the original design, and we
just kicked the wall out another eight feet and made a multi
purpose room out of it. And, of course, then that required
adding a kitchen, so that we could have catered events or cook-
in events there. So that opened in '79.
That table is just spectacular.
The kitchen table?
That one too, but the one in the Oval Room.
Oh, that belongs to Belle and Barney Rhoades. That had been in
their home in Piedmont, and when they moved to their home here
in Bella Oaks they gave that to me on a long-term, no-charge-
for-storage basis [laughter]. They've since told me that it
should stay here forever, but it is gorgeous, isn't it? It
fits in beautifully; it gives the entire room a different
It's a work of art.
Who made the decisions on the equipment?
Most of the decisions were recommended to me by Walter in the
'70s, and Craig since. I don't know that we've ever bought a
piece of equipment without it being mutually agreed upon
between the people that have to use it in the production
department and the manager of production and the people who
have to find a way to pay for it. It's been a--I don't want to
say a committee decision, by any means, but participatory.
And what about the decisions on cooperage?
the sizes, but the kinds
You told me about
Phelps: Well, interestingly enough, cooperage is frequently influenced
by availability. The wish list is invariably compiled by Craig
and Damian and the people in the lab who are responsible for
measuring results and so on. Interestingly enough, the wish
list isn't always fulfilled entirely in that the amount of
toast or the forest or the tonnellerie that's going to supply
may not have as much as we need or may not be able to supply
our need in the time frame that we would have to work with.
Hicke: How about American versus French oak and that kind of thing?
Phelps: Well, we're experimenting with combinations of the two. There
are unquestionably places where the American oak is very
adequate and there might even be places where it has its
advantages . So we ' re open-minded on that , although
particularly with our Insignia, we're pretty dedicated to the
idea of using new French oak.
[Interview 2: December 12, 1995 ]tt
Hicke: Let's start this morning with some discussion about the vineyard
management. First of all, can you tell me how you acquired your
vineyards? You mentioned the one right here, but I know you have
Phelps: Well, the home property was of course the first to be developed.
We did the flat- lying acres on the valley floor first, and then in
subsequent years, each year we would go farther back in the hills,
and we eventually developed about 170 acres here, of which about
70 was hillside and 100 acres was more similar to valley floor.
This occupied us up through 1978, and then in '79 we made our
first acquisition, which was a fifty-acre vineyard that we had
been buying grapes from. It's halfway between Yountville and
Napa--from the Jesse Stanton Estate.
Hicke: Did it have a name?
Phelps: It has a name that we're just getting used to. We are now re
naming our various vineyards with Spanish names to honor the
people who make the vineyards productive for us. What was the
Stanton vineyard will become the Renaciemento--Renaissance--
Hicke: Will that be on a label?
Phelps: No. That will be an internal designation. That particular
vineyard was half planted to old standard vine and half planted in
1968 to a combination of Pinot Noir and Riesling, and that was the
original source of our Johannisberg Riesling and more particularly
the Riesling that was successfulabout two years out of threein
having botrytis infection; so that we thought the location was
worth eventually owning ourselves . Only this last year have we
finally taken out all the Riesling and converted that vineyard to
other varieties, including Merlot and some Viognier. It's one of
the more important vineyards in our down-valley operation.
In 1983, we were successful in following on with a thirty-
five-acre vineyard in Stag's Leap, which is almost entirely
Caberneta little bit of Merlot; at the same time, we bought and
redeveloped in the mid-eighties a thirty- five acre vineyard on
Manley Lane, which is on the Rutherford Bench southwest of the
town of Rutherford. It's a well-drained, beautifully situated
Cabernet vineyard which we call Banca Dorada. Unfortunately, that
was one of our first vineyards to be attacked by phylloxera. So
we're in the process of replanting that, and it's about half
replanted at this point. We pulled everything out in '83, and
originally planted it in '84 and '85. Then we began to replant it
in '90; it didn't last very long.
Hicke: It was on A x R #1?
Phelps: Yes, most of it all but five acres.
Hicke: Are you now using several different rootstocks?
Phelps: Yes. For one thing, we're at least twenty years away from having
all the answers on this subject. Beyond that, we need several
different selections in order to meet variables such as depth and
composition of soils, drainage, water-holding capability, and
intended varietal scion. Interestingly enough, when we planted
rootstock in Banca Dorada in the mid-eighties, we had about five
acres which we committed to disease-resistant stock
experimentally. We did not do this for disease resistance, we did
it because we were experimenting with devigoration limiting
productivity to learn about the impact of devigoration on wine
quality. It Just so happens that this experiment turned out to be
very timely in that it resulted in five acres that did not need to
Hicke: Really? So that actually was phylloxera-resistant,
what rootstock that was?
Do you know
Phelps: Well, actually there were several, but the two primary ones making
up the five acres consisted of about two acres of 110R and a
little over three acres of what was called S04 when we planted it
but turned out to be 5C. In the same vineyards we also planted a
number of other rootstocks for the purpose of annually collecting
and weighing cuttings to learn about their effect on canopy or
Then we followed in '86 with another small vineyard adjacent
to our Stag's Leap Vineyard. It was planted to Merlot and
Cabernet but suffered from both phylloxera and eutypa and has
gradually been replanted on resistant rootstock, close-spaced.
Then in "89 we purchased a vineyard in Carneros, almost on the
Bay, on Milton Road. It has been planted primarily to several
clones of Chardonnay and some other varieties experimentally,
Hicke: Do all of these vineyards now have Spanish names?
Phelps: Yes. The one I just mentioned in Carneros is Los Carneros Negros
--the Black Sheep. The Stag's Leap vineyards are called Las
Rocas, and the Rutherford vineyard is called Banca Dorada--Gold
Hicke: You also have a vineyard in Monterey.
Phelps: Well, we are developing vineyards in Monterey, right. The one
Napa vineyard that I didn't mention is one we have on a long-term
lease, which is the Bacchus Vineyard; it's on a red soil hillside
on the east side of the Silverado Trail near the Oakville
crossroad. That's the only vineyard from which we presently
produce a vineyard-designated wine.
Hicke: And is that Cabernet?
Phelps: Cabernet, right.
Pierce 's Disease Task Force
Hicke: Besides phylloxera, do you have other vineyard diseases?
Phelps: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I put in the folder some
information that I thought you might find interesting in terms of
our involvement in research. Vine diseases such as the fan- leaf
virus, nematodes, and eutypa are still a challenge but are at
least susceptible to solution. The largest and unfortunately
unresolved problem is Pierce 's Disease, sometimes known as the
Anaheim Disease, inasmuch as it was first discovered in that area
in the nineteenth century. It has reappeared cyclically, and it
is again a serious problem here in the Napa Valley, focused
primarily in the Stag's Leap District and on Spring Mountain.
Aside from the fact that it is lethal to the vines and so far
incurable, it is pretty well established that the causal bacterium
is transmitted primarily by the blue-green sharpshooter. There
are other vectors as well, but this one seems to be the critter
that causes the most damage. At this point, efforts have been
limited largely to controlling the breeding habitat of this
vector, namely creek beds and concentrations of dense vegetation
Hicke: Is this in collaboration with U.C. Davis?
Phelps: We bring people in to participate from Davis, but basically
they're from Davis and a couple of other entities working on the
problem. You're probably familiar that this is--I won't say
unique, but it's bacterial rather than viral. At this point, the
best information is that the vector is the Blue-Green
Sharpshooter. It lays its eggs and thrives in riparian vegetation
along the creek beds at the borders of the vineyard.
Hicke: [Looking at rain outside the window] It must be doing well today!
Phelps: Well, I'm not sure. We don't really have a good handle on whether
it's aided and abetted by stormy, wet weather. There are a lot of
questions without answers yet.
Hicke: Well, that's what the task force is for. When did this start?
Phelps: In 1994.
Hicke: And how long do you expect it to continue?
Phelps: Until there's a solution to the problem.
Hicke: Who else is helping to fund this?
Phelps: Well, almost all the vineyards in the Stag's Leap and Spring
Mountain area are participating. I think there's a long list in
the folder. The American Vineyard Foundation is matching funds,
dollar for dollar, that are contributed by growers and wineries,
and this helps a lot. Several vineyard management companies are
participating. The University of California Extension Service is
very active and helpful, as are U.C. Davis and Berkeley, with the
latter perhaps even more active.
Hicke: What department?
Phelps: Well, I think the principal player is Dr. Alexander (Sandy)
Purcell of the Department of Entomological Sciences.
What about other problems in the vineyards?
You had mentioned
Well, 1 don't think of spacing as a problem per se as much as an
ongoing learning process. Spacing has been the subject of major
experimentation and innovation in California for at least ten or
twelve years. I would say that the primary objective of changing
to closer spacing is to maintain yield per acre to offset
decreases in per vine yields which accompany replanting to less
vigorous, disease-resistant rootstock. To some degree, spacing
decisions are also influenced by canopy choices as, for example,
the popular GDC (Geneva Double Curtain) requires somewhat greater
row spacing than a single vertical trellis system. Expenses,
however, increase in direct proportion to the number of vines per
acre resulting from closer spacing. This is true both in
development and annual farming costs. More stakes and vines per
acre to plant initially and prune each year; two to three times as
much drip irrigation and trellis hardware per acre, etc. We
believe that on the whole, closer spacing is quite effective in
concert with the less vigorous rootstock we are now using. In the
last two or three years in looking into the future, our spacing
and system of choice will be five by nine (one thousand vines per
acre) and the single, movable wire, vertical trellis
configuration. We are using this both in the Napa Valley and in
Do you prefer to own a vineyard, rather than buy grapes?
Actually, we buy quite a large percentage of our production from
independent growers. We're about, at this point, about fifty-
fifty. When all of our vineyards are back in production, we will
probably be 60 percent to 65 percent self-sufficient. We do enjoy
working with independent growers as well. I think there's a good
balance that can be achieved.
Will you tell me who your vineyard manager is?
Phelps: From the very beginning our vineyard operations have been under
the control of Bulmaro Montez. Bulmaro was just a young man,
barely out of school, when he began work here in 1973. His
ability to lead and to absorb technical as well as practical
knowledge of viticulture is truly remarkable.
Hicke: How did you find him?
Phelps: Walter knew Bulmaro and his family before either of them came to
work here, and he brought Bulmaro on board within days of the time
that we took possession of the ranch, taking down pens, fencing,
and other vestiges of the cattle ranch in preparation for
planting. That first year, Bulmaro planted the twenty acres or so
between the Silverado Trail and the Napa River, our so-called
River Ranch. As our vineyard acreage grew, Bulmaro built the
organization carefully and steadily to where, today, he supervises
about forty people, more than half of whom have been here ten or
more years . Several of the vineyard foremen have been here
fifteen to twenty years, and we see this as a tribute to his style
Hicke: Jeff [Hunsaker] told me that this year you kind of went against
the trend. The trend in the grape production was everybody had a
lot of problems. But he said your vineyards did very well.
Phelps: I think on average Napa Valley growers had between 10 and 15
percent reduction in productivity. We had a couple of vineyards
that were off, but we had two or three vineyards that were ahead
of anticipated or estimated production. So on average we had
achieved our full productionour full estimate, let me put it
that way. Our estimates were lower than last year to begin with.
Hicke: That's not just luck.
Phelps: Well, I think that Bulmaro put in a great deal of effort to help
that result along, without any question.
Hicke: I think loss of blossomswasn't that a problem? The hailstorm?
Phelps: Well, actually, the hailstorm came after the crop had set, so he
was probably referring to rains during bloom, which tended to
reduce yield in many vineyards.
Hicke: What can the vineyard manager do to overcome it?
Phelps: Certainly nothing about rain or hail, but beyond that, careful
attention to the irrigation regime is probably the most
significant thing, once the crop is set and for the balance of the
growing season. At a time when the vineyard needs a little boost,
the application of water is probably the most significant factor,
although canopy management- -leaf thinning, hedging, and cluster
thinning- -all play an important role in quality control.
Hicke: Are there certain grape varieties that you prefer to buy?
Phelps: Well, we've made the decision not to plant Riesling, but we still
intend to produce a small amount of Riesling dessert wines when we
can find and purchase botrytised grapes. The same is true of
Muscat, which we use in our Beaumes de Venise style Vin du Mistral
dessert wine. We intend to continue purchasing, rather than
planting, Carignane, Alicante Bouchet, Petite Syrah, and Cinseault
for the Vin du Mistral program.
Hicke: What about other vineyard management problems or factors?
Phelps: In my mind an area of change over the last ten years of critical
importance is related to improvement of canopy control through
selection of trellis systems, together with such efforts as
hedging and leaf thinning. The traditional, conventional T
crossarm and two-wire system is a thing of the past. I believe
the most significant trellis systems available now are to be
movable, vertical wire, single canopy system (which we use), the
lyre, and the Geneva Double Curtain. Each of these systems,
together with hedging and leaf thinning, improves grape quality by
increasing the amount of ventilation and sunlight reaching the
fruiting zone of the vine.
Hicke: So you've got most of at least your own vineyards on the movable
vertical. And how about your growers? Do you have something to
say about their systems?
Phelps: It depends, as certain grower relationships that we have where
we're involved at the time the vineyard is developed and are asked
to participate; others are of course already in existence, and in
those cases we try to work out in advance with the growers a
cooperative approach where we may pay a little extra in order to
get leaves stripped, some of the crop dropped if there is a need
and we have problems facing us. We find that most growers
nowadays are pretty much aware of canopy control and are willing
to cooperate with management of the canopy system in a way that is
Hicke: But the impetus for canopy management came from the winemaker or
Phelps: Yes, I think our North Coast Viticultural Group, with U.C. Davis
help, pioneered canopy control in the eighties and actually
borrowed a great deal of the technology from Europe as well.
Hicke: From France, or what part of Europe?
Phelps: Yes, primarily from France.
Hicke: When it comes time for harvest, how do you work with the growers
on deciding when to pick?
Phelps: Our contracts invariably call for that to be the decision of the
winery. The growers respond within a few days, or a day sometimes
if we need to have the crop taken off.
Hicke: And you have to manage bringing in the crops also, so you don't
get it all in the winery in the same hour.
Phelps: Right. That's a finely tuned, finely orchestrated process that
Craig is in charge of, but he has an excellent communication
system developed with the people in the production department and
in the vineyard to execute that.
Hicke: It must be very complicated, especially when the weather causes
unexpected difficulties. Anything else about the vineyard?
Phelps: Nothing more that I can think of at this point. I think maybe you
are very much aware that probably the most significant change in
winemaking philosophy over the last twenty years has been the
shifting of focus to the source, to the vineyard.
Phelps: Twenty years ago and before, the industry tended to have a rather
simplistic view: what to do to make wine was determined by the
equipment and by the processes that were employed in the winery.
Gradually over the years we've come to realize that wine is
basically a product that is dependent on how the grapes are grown,
much more so than how grapes are processed here in the winery.
That's been a major change in how we look at winemaking.
Designing the Label
Hicke: Let's go back and talk about the label for a minute. How did you
design the labels? For example, how did you decide to label each
product differently, as opposed to using one label for all?
Phelps: Actually, what we have now is a variety of labels that are based
on families of wines. Our principal brand is Joseph Phelps
Vineyards, and the varietal wines of Joseph Phelps Vineyards have
the same label essentially, with minor changes depending on
whether they ' re red or white . And then in the case of the
vineyard-designated Bacchus Vineyard, the label is slightly
different to accommodate the vineyard name.
The Insignia brand, which is dealt with separately, is
another label variation. And then our family of Rhone-style wines
under the label of Vin du Mistral is a third. From time to time,
we have a Rhone-style wine called Pastiche that has a separate
label to separate it from the other Vin du Mistral wines. Then a
label for wines from our young wines that don't otherwise make the
grade for the Joseph Phelps brand is called Innisfree. Our
production of Innisfree has declined substantially over the years;
we no longer need that label nearly as much as we once did, so
that's become a less significant member of the family.
Vin du Mistral and the Rhone Rangers
Hicke: Since we're on the subject, let's go into these different labels.
First of all, the Vin du Mistral. How did that come about?
Phelps: We originally made a Syrah under the Joseph Phelps label, and then
in 1989 we were ready to introduce Viognier commercially and
Grenache Rose. And at that time, we decided to put our Rhone-
style wines under a different family name and a different label.
The name Vin du Mistral was chosen for reasons best described
on its original back label, written for us by Gerald Asher,
referring to the Provencal phenomenon Le Mistral. "Only the
sturdiest of temperaments, it is said, can live with this wind
that scours the Rhone Valley from the Alps to the Mediterranean.
The vines of that valley, too, need vigor and tenacity to resist
it--the reason, perhaps, why the wines made from them are prized
for their boldly individual character. When grown in California,
these Rhone varieties display that same distinctive character,
thus our choice of the term Vin du Mistral to describe them." The
most important member of that family was one we talked about
yesterday, which has been somewhat of a marketing problem, and it
requires consumer education, because American wine buyers are
prone to choose a varietal and are, as a group, reluctant to
experiment with wines they don't recognize the composition of.
The blend of Rhone varietals which we call Le Mistral, is a
gorgeous wine, a wonderful wine in the Chateauneuf du Pape style
but it does not have the consumer acceptance that the varietal
wines have. Someday it will!
Several other wineries came along with Rhone blends,
communication with them?
Were you in
Yes, to a certain extent. Some of the more significant players in
this game were Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon with his Cigare Volant.
It really got the tradition going for a blend. I think that Bonny
Doon, Qupe, Sean Thackrey, McDowell Valley, and Estrella were
pioneers and important players in the advent of the Rhone Rangers-
-not to leave out the reality that with Syrah, we were the very
first of the Rhone-style producers [laughter],
I was going to say it's more likely the other way around.
From '74 on, however, our focus was on Syrah; the other varieties,
such as Mourvedre and Grenache didn't find their way their way
into our repertoire until the late eighties, although we have been
working experimentally with Voignier since 1983.
Pastiche is one of the Rhone wines, as you mentioned,
more about that?
Can we talk
Phelps: Pastiche is a product that we make when we have more Grenache
and /or Mourvedre than we can use in Le Mistral. We are able to
bring it out a year earlier than Le Mistral and sell it for a
slightly lower price. So we use the strategy of a separate label
for that wine to separate it from Le Mistral.
Hicke: Is it mostly Grenache or all Grenache?
Phelps: I would say mostly, in that it's usually 50 to 60 percent
Hicke: Now can you tell me about Insignia?
Phelps: I'd love to. Insignia is a great story in and of itself,
first Insignia was the '74 and came about as a result of
discovering that we had a single tank of truly great Cabernet from
a vineyard in Stag's Leap immediately adjacent to what became,
nine years later, our Las Rocas Vineyard. Although the "74 was
mostly Cabernet with only a small amount of Merlot, we knew that
we wanted a name for this wine that would give us the long-range
ability to blend superior selections of Bordeaux grape varieties
without regard to the limitations of the BATF regulations
governing varietal labeling. - We decided that our label should
refer to this wine simply as "a red table wine" and that the
perceived quality would ultimately speak for itself. The
"reserve" designation, which was in vogue at the time, had already
been compromised by large producers, and had no recognized
definition within the wine industry. Therefore, the proprietary
name Insignia was selected to represent the finest lots available
form each vintage, and to emphasize the importance of blending
over varietal designation as a determinate of quality. We are
steadfast believers in varietal integrity whenever a variety is
shown on the label, but we are equally committed to the idea that
blending, in certain cases, can truly enhance other wines, adding
interest and value for the customer. We were the first California
winery to introduce a high-end proprietary label and remained
alone in that field until 1984, when Mondavi-Rothschild brought
out Opus One. The idea caught on eventually and has become a
class of wines called Heritage.
Another pioneering step.
We were all alone on that for a number of years. We brought the
'74 out in '78, and it wasn't until '84 when Mondavi/Rothschild
introduced the "79 Opus One that there was a second Heritage wine.
Now I think there are probably twenty-five to thirty at least.
Isn't there a Heritage association?
The Heritage Society, right.
Did you help found that?
We were involved in that for the first couple of years, and then
eventually decided we would go our own separate way.
It's a marketing organization?
How did you market this Insignia?
Well, it sort of marketed itself in that we had never made that
much Insignia, so that it was almost always an allocated wine. We
have, I think, been successful in keeping the quality at a level
which tells the story in itself.
Hicke: You don't offer that for tasting? Do you offer it to restaurants?
Phelps: Actually, Insignia, like all of our other wines, is sold through a
national distribution system. And yes, we certainly try to see
that the Insignia is presented as a on-premise wine. Also, it's a
very popular collector's item; so there's a demand for it
certainly in the off -premise retail outlets.
Hicke: Okay. Innisfree.
Phelps: Innisfree was originally created as a way of using grapes that
were not up to the standards that we wanted in the Joseph Phelps
brand. We had a couple of vineyards that we had planted here on
the ranch with Chardonnay, and we felt that the climate was a
little warm here, and those grapes normally didn't make it into
the primary brand. Innisfree was a good outlet for that. Young
vines, in the first, second, and third year of production, from
any of our vineyards generally found their way into Innisfree. In
reality, the Innisfree became a second label.
Hicke: You also have another one called Ovation.
Phelps: Exactly. That's a sweetheart. It's a Chardonnay that is selected
at the time of harvest and then dealt with in a much more intense
way. It stays on the lees for fourteen to fifteen months and is
treated with a lot of respect and becomes a unique wine in and of
Hicke: And that's pretty new?
Phelps: Yes, the '93 was our very first Ovation.
Hicke: And you're not producing very much of that.
Phelps: No, it's a limited wine.
Winemaking Philosophy and Techniques
Hicke: Well, we haven't talked too much about the actual making of the
wine. Do you have a philosophy for winemaking?
Phelps: Well, what's even more important is that Craig certainly has a
approach to winemaking which I totally endorse. I
had an opportunity to see growth and development as
that which has taken place with Craig in the twenty
been with us- -both as the winemaker and as a manager
Yes, his approach is philosophicalbut at the same
unique blend of intellectuality, passion for the
dedication to the highest standards.
years he has
time it is a
It is no secret that our brands were impacted by a
combination of factors in the late 1980s, ranging from grape
sources and vineyard problems to overloaded facilities and a
couple of difficult vintages. Craig deserves full credit for
turning this situation around through his work with Bulmaro in the
vineyards, his design and construction of additional production
facilities, his judicious use of consultants, and openness to new
and different ideas. The results have been phenomenal in terms of
both critical acclaim and a renaissance of winery sales and
Hicke: I'd like to ask you some specific things, like about the
cooperagewhat kind of barrels and how long you put the wines in
Phelps: Okay. I think I mentioned yesterday that we use primarily French
oak for our Cabernet and especially for Insignia. We use a small
amount of American oak with the Napa Valley Cabernet and about 40
to 50 percent American oak with the Rhone-style wines.
Hicke: I must have seen at least four or five different French oak
coopers on your barrels.
Phelps: Right. That is intentional and by design in some instances, and
in other instances it's based on who can make the delivery of a
specific barrel that we want at the time that we need it. So
sometimes that's by design, and sometimes it's by process.
Hicke: You specify the toast?
Hicke: Individually for each varietal?
Phelps: To some extent, right.
Hicke: Bottles and corks?
Phelps: [laughs] We have the same problem that the industry as a whole is
faced with. I don't know that there's anything unique in our
experience in terms of glass, but we certainly have had our share
of problems with corks, and we go to great lengths to try to keep
that under control. There's not an awful lot to elaborate on in
terms of the cork problem; it's going to be with us, I think,
until another sealer is accepted by the consumer.
Hicke: What can you do to keep it at a minimum?
Phelps: We've been, I think, fairly successful in increasing our ability
to test and preselect cork now. We have much more rigid
specifications than we once had; it's just a matter of constant
Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewiirztraminer, and
Let me ask you about the Pinot Noir.
when Walter Schug was here.
I know you had some earlier
Right. Pinot Noir has never been a very successful wine for us,
and one of the reasons is that we believe that we're not a large
enough winery to focus on both the Cabernet and Pinot Noir. So
gradually over the years, as our Pinot Noir vineyards were
replaced, we have increased our focus on Cabernet Sauvignon. It's
been a constant struggle for us to resist the temptation to try to
be all things to all people and make fifty-seven flavors
[laughter]. So wherever it's made sense for us, we have reduced
our repertoire. But we still manage to produce twenty-two
One of the easy reasons why we don't make Pinot Noir is that
we no longer have Pinot Noir vineyards, and the same is true of
Zinfandel. We no longer grow Zinfandel on any of our properties.
We continued through 1990 to make a small amount of Zinfandel from
a wonderful vineyard in Alexander Valley (Demonsthenes Brothers)
that had sourced us since 1975, and when that source was no longer
available, we discontinued making Zinfandel, although at one time
we had thirty-some acres of Zinfandel on this property. We've
placed our red wine chips on Cabernet and the Rhone varietals.
Hicke: There are three other whites that you make or have made:
Sauvignon Blanc, Gewiirztraminer, and Semillon.
What's going on
Phelps: Sauvignon Blanc will be always an important varietal for us,
because we have a fair amount of that variety planted on this
ranch and it does very well here. At the same time, we only make
about half as much now as we made at one time. The basic problem
with Sauvignon Blanc, given the farming costs in the Napa Valley,
is that it is a wine that, except for barrel time, costs almost as
much as Chardonnay to make, and does not command a Chardonnay
bottle price. Economics becomes a limiting factor.
Moving on to Gewiirztraminer, we no longer grow that variety.
We continue to make a small amount--maybe a thousand cases as
opposed to the five or six thousand that we made at one time.
Semillon is a variety that we grow for two reasonsto blend
with Sauvignon Blanc, or when Botrytis comes, to make a dessert
wine. Our dessert Semillon is sold under a beautiful proprietary
label and is called "Delice du Semillon." It is a very, very
popular wine in the one year out of three we're able to make it.
Hicke: And tell me about Scheurebe.
Phelps: Scheurebe is unique to our winery. It is a hybrid crossing of
Sylvaner and Riesling, and was developed in 1916 by Dr. George
Scheu, a German botanist. The name of the variety is, literally,
"Dr. Scheu 's grapevine."
Hicke: And Walter Schug knew about this, I suppose?
Phelps: Yes, absolutelyhe selected the first cuttings in the Rheinpfalz,
and our first harvest was a '78 Auslese-style. We made several
vintages of similar wine through 1984, and only intermittently
since. The vineyard was replanted and beginning in 1994, we are
producing Scheurebe under the proprietary name "Eisrebe" which is
made in the tradition of the German Eisweins, but rather than
having been frozen on the vine, which can't happen in California,
it is refrigerated commercially and kept in a frozen state until
it can be brought back to the winery following the regular crush.
As the ice crystals begin to thaw, the concentrated juice is
pressed out and most of the water in the grape remains with the
other solids in the press. Thereupon it is fermented and treated
the same as any high-must weight dessert wine. Incidentally,
that's going to happen tomorrow with the '95 Eisrebe.
Hicke: You mean you're going to press it it's in refrigerated storage
Phelps: In Sacramento, right. We are just releasing the '94; I had it at
a dinner at another winery Sunday night and it was just gorgeous.
Hicke: It's something like 39 percent sugar? Is that what I read?
Hicke: That's wonderful. I just read about it in your newsletter. Now,
you can't depend on the botrytizing every year, though, can you?
Phelps: That's right. One of the advantages, of course, of this process
is that we can reliably produce an eisrebe dessert wine every
Hicke: Oh, I see. It doesn't have to be botrytized.
Phelps: No, it helps. If the grapes can be botrytized, it would be that
much better, even if they were slightly botrytized, but if they're
left to hang out and can reach twenty-five or twenty-six degrees
Brix, that's a good start.
Hicke: And did you ever make a Scheurebe wine other than the dessert
Phelps: We harvested the Scheurebe every year and made it into a small
amount of wine, but only in the years when it was infected with
botrytis were we able to make a dessert wine and keep it separate.
In the other years it was just simply blended into the Riesling,
Hicke: But you never made a varietal?
Phelps: No, not as a table wine. The highest and best use of Scheurebe is
as a dessert wine, and if it doesn't go to a high must-weight
level, the wine is not that special. They do make a certain
amount of Scheurebe in a couple of the German winegrowing regions,
but it's not sought after. It doesn't have the character of
Riesling when it's dry.
Hicke: Are there any varietals that I haven't brought up that we need to
Phelps: I think we've covered everything that we produce in commercial
volume. We do make experimental and small lots of an additional
eight to ten red and white French and Italian varieties, but these
as yet are not in the distribution system.
We've covered all the ones that I've read about,
table wines--Vin Blanc and Vin Rouge.
You've also made
Those were the wines that subsequently became known as Innisfree.
Young vines or ranch-grown grapes that didn't make the cut for the
The Innisfree Building
Hicke: And you now have a new building; isn't it called the Innisfree
Phelps: Right. That is actually our red wine facility. Most of our white
wine is made here; we can make white wine down there, but most of
that facility is dedicated to red wine.
Hicke: And when was that built?
Phelps: In '89--we moved into it in '89.
Hicke: You simply outgrew this facility?
Phelps: Yes. And we had been storing barrels in other locations around
the valley and wanted to bring everything into one place. Now we
have again reached that point where we rent space for barrels in
other wineries. So we just took out a building permit, and we
will start with construction of a 17,000-square-foot addition to
that winery, which will be all barrel storage. Since Innisfree is
no longer applicable, we are renaming that facility.
Hicke: Another thing I found very interesting was Jeff was telling me you
do a lot of recycling; something like 100 percent of the water and
also cardboard and glass.
Phelps: Well, let's talk about waste water. Nothing leaves the property
except some insoluble solids and wine; most of the insoluble
solids, in fact, go back into compost. Grape solids, skins and
seeds, go back into the vineyard also in the form of compost. The
processing water goes back into the reservoir eventually for
irrigation purposes, and everything else that comes stays here in
the form of grape juice converted into wine.
Another thing that I saw on my tour was boxes of private labels.
Can you tell me about that?
Like many of our fellow vintners, we have a following of
restaurants, athletic clubs, country clubs, and alumni
associations, etc., across the country that have asked us to do
private labels over the years. We're actually reducing the amount
of that work that we're accepting, and I think probably within
five years we won't do any private labeling at all. Only when
it's for a very special situation.
Marketing and Distribution
Let's talk a little bit about marketing,
Who did the marketing
I sold the first releasealmost all of it anyway. In March of
1975 we had our first person that was not in the production field
come aboard, and that was Bruce Neyers, who came on as a tour
guide and took over the marketing of the wine from me at a time
when we had six hundred cases left to sell, and grew into the job
of being our national sales manager. He was with us for seventeen
years and made many valuable contributions. When Bruce left four
years ago, we were able to retain Tom Shelton, who has just become
president of the company and is also national sales director.
How did you expand your market?
Through the use of a distribution system, a network of
You don't have any one distributor; you have different ones for
different parts of the country?
Yes. Distribution of alcoholic beverages is highly fragmented in
a regional way. There are some distributors who own wholesale
houses in several statesSouthern Wines and Spirits and NPC
[National Distributing Company] being good examples. NPC is our
distributor in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, New Mexico, and
Colorado, so they're a big player, but they appear as separate
companies in each of those states.
Going back to the repeal of Prohibition, the local-option
movement was conceded by the federal government as a way of
enlisting or getting enough states to sign the amendment. The
individual states were given the right to control the distribution
of alcoholic beverages at the repeal of Prohibition, so it's a
maze of frustrating rules and regulations, and each state has the
right to tax importation of alcoholic beverages and to regulation
of the distribution of alcoholic beverages including wine. There
is no way that we can sell wine directly into any other state
except California. So we need a licensed importer in each of
those states, even if we only had two cases of wine to sell.
Hicke: How about international? Do you export?
Phelps: Yes. We hope and expect to put more emphasis on exporting as time
goes by. Our primary export markets now are in Canada, the
Caribbean, Germany, Scandinavia, and an increasing amount to the
Pacific Rim. The U.K. [United Kingdom] is always there but not as
prominent in California exporting as it once was. The British
economy is very sluggish right now, and the British market really
can't afford California wine; they don't want to pay the price.
Hicke: Is Scandinavia a big one?
Phelps: It's growing. Primarily Sweden and Denmark have increased 200
percent to 300 percent in the last two or three years.
Hicke: Do you or does Tom Shelton do a lot of traveling?
Phelps: Tom does a lot of traveling. I don't travel any more than I
absolutely have to, which is maybe four or five times a year.
Hicke: We were up at Tahoe last week, and I think he was doing a
winemaker's dinner up there. I suppose that's a major part of his
Phelps: Yes, both he and Craig are involved in that.
Hicke: That's fun for everyone. Well, I don't know how much for the
winemaker, but it's fun for the people that attend.
Anything else about your sales at the winery or other areas
of sales and marketing?
Phelps: Retail sales at the winery have always been an important component
of our overall sales program. As you probably noticed, we have a
new guest center and a new retail sales room. We look forward to
increasing the amount of wine that is sold here at the winery.
Hicke: Was it a conscious decision not to have an open tasting room?
Phelps: No. In 1973, when we obtained our use permit, it wasn't possible;
the tasting rooms were limited to Highway 29, and the only
available use permit at that time permitted tours and tastings by
appointment only, which was fine with us, and we've lived with
that very comfortably over the years.
Hicke: And I see that you now have a club: Phelps Preferred?
Phelps: It's a mail-order, retail consumer organization. It seems to be
off to a very good start.
Hicke: How did you launch that?
Phelps: By introducing people to the concept here at the winery when they
visit. And by use of a consumer mailing list that we had built up
over the years based on people who had visited the winery or have
ordered wine in those states where we can ship wine--that's
limited by the reciprocity laws of individual states.
Hicke: How do you decide what to offer to club members?
Phelps: The decision is usually based on supplying a wine which isn't
going to be easy for the consumer to f ind--allocated wines or some
special reserve wines that are not just an ordinary garden
Hicke: I wanted to ask you the Wine Services Co-op. I know you were
president of a while. Did you help start that?
Phelps: Yes, as a matter of fact we did. It's been an extremely
successful organization; it has thirty-three member wineries now.
At one time it was as many thirty-six, almost forty. It's a real
pleasure to look back over the years and see how successfully that
was cooperatively developed by the wineries.
Hicke: Tell me how it started.
Phelps: Actually, it started as a co-shipping group, and we would have
containers at one winery or another to go to southern California.
There were five original members. Each winery would deliver its
wine to the location where the container was set up and shipped
together. That went on for about two years, and then in 1976 we
built the very first co-op, which was a 40,000 square foot
building and by '78 we had it full. We had to add 70,000 feet.
And then by '84 we had to build another addition, and then that
used up all the available property. In fact, there was a lot of
interest and effort that went into getting that additional
property for the '84 addition. That was the last addition there;
now the co-op has a piece of property south of Napa at the
airport, and we will build another building in that location
eventually. The mode of the co-op has generally over the years
been that the increased business is based on expansion of the
existing member wineries, rather than seeking new members.
IV OTHER ACTIVITIES
Hicke: Okay. The Oakville Grocery. How did that come about?
Phelps: The Oakville Grocery sort of evolved as a result of my interest in
having a means of presenting the idea that food and wine are
synergistic and complementary.
Hicke: This was 1978; you were way ahead of your time on that one.
Phelps: Not necessarily. You must remember that Robert Mondavi got us all
headed in that direction with the Great Chefs program that he
introduced in '75 or '76, and then Beringer of course, with
Madeleine Kaman in the late seventies, originated the idea of
teaching people to cook right there in the winery environment.
This is simply another way of projecting the idea that food and
wine belong together.
Hicke: Tell me how you got the idea and how you went about it.
Phelps: The original concept that I had was to develop little food markets
in different regions of the United States. The first idea was to
go into Scottsdale, Arizona. This all came about because I had
purchased a condo in the little desert town of Carefree, Arizona,
north of Scottsdale. In the process of furnishing that condo and
buying the kitchen supplies that were necessary, my wife and I
went through several different department stores in the Phoenix
area. My observation was that the women of the Phoenix area were
very noticeably attracted to cooking demonstrations, to cookbook
signings, to shopping for expensive saucepans and cookware. And
yet there was no place in the entire Phoenix area where you could
reliably buy fresh mushrooms; very little fresh seafood, if any,
no serious cooking ingredients. You couldn't buy saffron. You
name it, you couldn't find it.
So it dawned on me that the people of Phoenix and Scottsdale
were ready for the wave of cooking interests that had come to
California ten years earlier, but there was nobody there to supply
them. So my original thought was that I would open a shop there
which would bring California products to Scottsdale; then I might
eventually develop a way of opening other shops, say, in Michigan,
where I could ship back Midwestern products like morel mushrooms
and so on to the Bay Area in airfreight containers. That probably
was just a piece of blue sky, and I didn't really ever get
involved in that, but I hired a young man, John Michaels, to help
me with the planning and research that would be involved in
opening something like that. I was going to call them the Le
Fleuron shops, because we had another wine label at that time
called Le Fleuron. It wouldn't have been a good name at all for a
grocery store, but anyway, that was the project.
John was a half -owner in the Oakville Grocery. In the
process of working together with him as a consultant on the Le
Fleuron project, John, after about the third meeting, proposed to
me that we should really just consider buying his interest in
Oakville Grocery. He would go to work for us, and we would open a
store in San Francisco and forget about Scottsdale. So within a
matter of a year or so, we were looking in San Francisco and
eventually did open a store there which lasted for five years. But
it was a bad location and--
It was on Polk Street?
It was on Pacific right between Larkin and Polk.
And there was no place to park, as I recall.
Parking was a real problem, right. So eventually we closed that
store, and then a couple of years later opened in Palo Alto at the
Stanford shopping center, and then our third store was opened last
year in Walnut Creek. We're looking for a fourth location now.
It's practically world famous.
Well, people love the Oakville Grocery.
Yes, you can hardly get around it on a weekend- -people are just
piled up there. And do you have a philosophy for the store?
Fresh ingredients and so forth?
Yes. It started basically as being designed as a source of rare
and hard-to-find ingredients for serious cooks. But Steve Carlin,
who is Oakville Grocery president and general manager, has sort of
developed that into a much broader concept, with a heavy emphasis
now on prepared foods, particularly in Palo Alto and Walnut Creek,
where we have enough space to have kitchens. At Walnut Creek we
enlarged our repertoire to include a pizza oven and a rotisserie,
so that it's becoming closer and closer to a restaurant
[laughter]. There is a little space at the Walnut Creek store to
sit outside in good weather.
Steve is a great team-builder and visionary, and brings a lot
of talent and energy to the task of building an ever-better
specialty food organization.
Personal Wine Collection
Hicke: Okay, I'm going to skip around here a little bit. I want to ask
you about your own wine collection and how that got started.
Phelps: It started in the sixties, I guess. We had a couple of wonderful
stores in Colorado that had great wine selections and didn't
charge an arm and a leg for imported wine. One was Harry
Hoffman's in Denver and then the Boulder Liquor Mart in Boulder;
they were great sources for wine collectors. I just gradually
developed a collection in Colorado, which I then moved here in the
early eighties when I had a place where I could build a good
And then I began--! would say it was the mid- to late
seventies--! began to buy wine at auction at Christie's. We
developed a way of getting the wine here; that had been a barrier
before. We had an arrangement with a warehouse in London to store
the wines until there was enough to make a shipment worthwhile,
and then we would fly the wine into San Francisco. I would say
that at least half of the wine that I have in my cellar now was
bought at Christie's.
Hicke: Do you concentrate on certain kinds of wines?
Phelps: I had some vintages that were important that I would generally bid
on. I did kind of focus on certain estates in Bordeaux. I wasn't
that selective in Burgundy. But ports, Burgundy, and Bordeaux
certainly, were focal points, and good Rhone wines when I could
find them. The auction didn't offer the wines of the Rhone valley
to anywhere near the extent it did the others. So I don't have as
good a selection of Chateauneuf du Pape, for instance, as I would
Hicke: Well, you're making it [laughter].
Phelps: But old wines is what I'm referring to.
Phelps: I focused on Mouton-Rothschild, on Latour-Rothschild, on La
Mission Haut-Brion, and Gruaud Larose. I have a lot of vintages
Hicke : You pull them out once in while and pop the cork?
Hicke: I wanted to ask about some of your other professional activities.
For instance, you've mentioned the North Coast Viticultural
Research Group. Can you tell me about that?
Phelps: Actually, that's not an activity that I have been directly
involved in. Craig and Bulmaro are much more active in the
viticultural organizations; I served for a number of years on the
board and a couple of years as the president of the Wine Service
Co-op, and then I was president of the Napa Valley Vintners
Association. I was on that board for four years. I was president
in "83, and helped lay the groundwork for a cooperative effort
with the growers to develop an appellation "education" group to
promote the brand new Napa Valley appellation. It was the first
U.S. viticultural region to be approved by the BATF, and that was
in 1983. Under the plan, growers selling grapes to the Napa
Valley Vintners Association members were asked to contribute
through a small assessment on each ton purchased by the members
and forwarded to the committee. Each of the wineries then added a
larger assessment based on the tons of grapes purchased in the
valley. That effort was completed during Greg de Luca's term as
president in 1984. During John Trefethen's term in 1985, that
effort was firmly in place and it's been a real success.
V SIGNIFICANT CHANGES IN NAPA VALLEY AND WINE INDUSTRY
Hicke: In view of the fact that you're getting more and more hoarse, I'm
going to ask you if you could just briefly tell me about what you
think are the significant changes in the Napa Valley in the wine
industry here. That's a big one to do in five minutes.
Phelps: I think the most important changes in the wine industry in the
Napa Valley certainly include the consolidation of ownership in
larger companies. I think there is a very significant change in
progress there. I don't see it as either bad or good, but it's
one of the major changes in the profile of the valley.
The new awareness of the importance of vineyards and vineyard
control to the quality of wine has influenced some radical changes
in vineyard development, which are all to the good.
The marketing of wine--not just limited to the Napa Valley,
certainly--! think it affects all of the wine-producing regions of
the United States in that the marketing of wine has become much,
much more sophisticated and demanding.
Globally, though, I think the biggest single change is the
quantum leap in quality and consistency in both Napa and Sonoma--
maybe all over Californiain relation to the other wines of the
world. This phenomenon is, in fact, the most noticeable change to
me. Is that five minutes?
Hicke: Is there anything we've missed, that we haven't covered?
Phelps: Maybe we've missed some things on history. I can't think of
anything particularly in the wine industry. But I would like to
mention a few of the people who significantly influenced and
contributed to my involvement in the wine industry: Jack Davies,
Chuck Carpy, Joe Heitz, Angelo Sangiacomo, John Trefethen, and
Justin Meyer. They are all friends and associates in Napa or, in
the case of Angelo, Sonoma.
I think that one of the more profound changes in Napa Valley
has been what we've seen in the redevelopment of the vineyards and
what the impact has been of phylloxera. That of course isn't a
planned change, but I think that it's been handled and controlled
very well; instead of a disaster, it's been turned into a positive
improvement. And the wines of Napa Valley will, I think, continue
to improve for a number of years as a result of the replanting,
making a new valley out of it.
Can you elaborate a little on thatthey're planting varieties
that are more adapted to the microclimates?
Actually, there are several things that can be factored into that.
It's an opportunity to rethink the varieties, number one. But
it's also an opportunity to switch to improved or better clones.
Clonal selection was not terribly important twenty years ago; now
it's very important, and it gives us an opportunity to
reorchestrate the unique clonal attributes that we didn't even
know existed maybe twenty years ago. And we talked a bit earlier
about how this replanting has provided an opportunity to go to
different and more appropriate vine spacing, better trellis
systems, canopy control, and another opportunity to make sure that
we exercise better judgment in where we put a given variety that
will give it the best exposure and the best terroir. I think all
of those things working together will produce dramatic increases
in the quality and consistency of Napa Valley wines.
Maybe you could just tell me one more thing:
biggest satisfaction for you in your life?
what has been the
1 think the thing that I feel has been very, very satisfying to
me, and that I look back on as something that maybe sets me apart
from a number of other people is the good fortune that I've had in
experiencing several careers. I look forward to growing in other
directions the rest of my life. I had a very, very successful
career in construction, and I feel that it's been interesting and
productive to spend the last twenty-some years in the wine
industry. That has permitted me to have another interest in the
field of specialty foods and cooking. I'm confident other doors
will continue to open and lead me in other directions as well.
Another great source of satisfaction for me has been my children
and the way my family has grown and developed in an independent
way. Aesthetically speaking, I believe this winery has been an
object of great satisfaction in that it says a fair amount about
me and things that are important to me. It reflects my
appreciation of designespecially the integration of design with
nature; up close it reflects a devotion for attention to detail
and from a distance it shows a good relationship between function,
scale and visual experience. I'm very proud of it and of the way
it enhances its small place in the world.
Hicke: I think the key is that you look forward; you said you look
forward to other things, and I think that's why it happened. It's
not just good luck. You've always looked forward.
Phelps: And I hope I continue to.
Hicke: Well, I want to thank you so very much.
Phelps: Sure. It's been my pleasure.
Transcriber: Gary Varney
Final Typist: Shana Chen
Production Editor: Carolyn Rice
TAPE GUIDE- -Joseph Phelps
Interview 1: December 11, 1995
Tape 1, Side A 1
Tape 1, Side B
Tape 2, Side A
Tape 2, Side B 27
Interview 2: December 12, 1995
Tape 3, Side A
Tape 3, Side B 43
Tape A, Side A 51
Tape 4, Side B 60
r W %/ ; >&sliHlE
Alcohol I3.0S by volume.
Produced and bottled by Joseph Phelps Vineyards, St. Helena, Ca.
' \i >: ' '!' : ! I '.!;i i \\ I.. i
.>. 1 I H ' ' ' . i. I . '.. !i . ;n i > : ;;
: Mi'l !". I I'! 1 ! l'" SM! II '''''..' . M' ! Ml . .
: , - ' i ; ,
Appendix A. Wine Label Samples,
ALCOHOL 13.0% BY VOLUME
PRODUCED AND BOTTLED BY JOSEPH PHELPS VINEYARDS, ST HELENA, CA.
Appendix A, cont. Wine Label Samples.
INDEX- -Joseph Phelps
Baxter, Phil, 32
Bonetti, William, 25, 32
Cafaro, Joe, 25
Carpy, Charles, 61
Chateau Souverain, 22, 25, 32
collecting wines, 59-60
Connolly, Pat, 23-24
Cooper, Sam, 20-21
cooperage, 35-36, 49
Davies, Jack, 61
Davis, John Marsh, 31
de Luca, Greg, 60
Dunn, Mike, 31
fly-tying business, 7-11
Gallo Winery, 26
Greeley Daily Tribune, 9
Healdsburg Machinery Co., 34
Heitz, Joe, 32, 61
Hensel Phelps Construction Co., 18-
Herter Manufacturing Company, 11-12
Holmes, Fred, 22
Innisfree label, 45, 48, 52
Insignia label, 45, 46-47, 49
label, 44-45, 53
marketing, 32-34, 54-56
Markham Winery, 26
Meritage Society, 47
Meyer, Justin, 61
Michaels, John, 58
Montez, Bulmaro, 41-43
Mueller, Adolph, 22
Napa Valley Co-op, 26
Napa Valley Vintners Association,
North Coast Viticultural Group, 43
North Co-op, 26
Oakville Grocery, 57-59
Olmo, Harold, 25, 27
Ovation label, 48
Phelps, Barbara Babcock, 17
Phelps, Hensel [father], 1-3, 6-7,
Phelps, Juanita Cundiff [mother],
Phelps Preferred wine club, 55
Phelps-Tointon, Inc., 20
Pierce's Disease, 38-40
Purcell, Alexxander, 40
Quincy, John [grandfather], 1-2
Rhoades, Belle and Barney, 35
Rhone Rangers, 46
Rhone Valley, 28-29
Rutherford Hill (formerly Souverain
Napa Valley) winery, 21-22,
Ruyle, Bob, 20
Sangiacomo, Angelo, 61
Schock, Ivan, 24
Schug, Walter, 25-27, 35
Stone Bridge Cellars, 23
Tchelistcheff , Andr, 24
Tointon, Bob, 20
Trefethen, John, 60, 61
trellising, 41, 43-44
vineyard management, 36-43
Wente Bros. Winery, 32
Wheeler Ranch, 25
Williams, Craig, 26-27, 30, 35-36
winemaking, techniques, 48-50
winery buildings, 31-32, 35, 53
Zepponi, Gino, 25
Cabernet Sauvignon, 24-25, 37, 38
Johannisbberg Riesling, 37
Merlot, 37, 38
Pinot Noir, 32, 37
Syrah, 25, 27-28, 30
Cabernet Sauvignon, 21, 32, 50
Chenin Blanc, 21
Gewiirztraminer , 51
Johannisberg Riesling, 21, 27, 32
Early Harvest, 32-33
dessert wines, 32-33
Le Mistral, 30-31, 45-46
Pinot Noir, 32, 50
Sauvignon Blanc, 34, 50
Syrah, 25, 27-30
Zinfandel, 21, 50
Carole E. Hicke
B.A., University of Iowa; economics
M.A., San Francisco State University; U.S. history
with emphasis on the American West; thesis: "James
Rolph, Mayor of San Francisco."
Interviewer/editor/writer, 1978-present, for
business and law firm histories, specializing in
oral history techniques. Independently employed.
Interviewer-editor, Regional Oral History Office,
University of California, Berkeley, 1985 to
present, specializing in California legal,
political, and business histories.
Author: Heller, Ehrman, White & McAuliffe: A
Century of Service to Clients and Community, 1991;
history of Farella, Braun & Martel; history of the
Federal Judges Association.
Editor (1980-1985) newsletters of two professional
historical associations: Western Association of
Women Historians and Coordinating Committee for
Women in the Historical Profession.
Visiting lecturer, San Francisco State University
in U.S. history, history of California, history of
Hawaii, legal oral history.
U C. BERKELEY LIBRARIES