Joseph Phelps: A Fond Farewell to a Napa Valley Legend

joephelpsI never met Joseph Phelps, but I felt like I knew him.

Phelps died on April 15. He was 87. Like Robert Mondavi and a handful of others, Phelps was a pioneer in the Napa Valley.

Like Mondavi and his compatriots within that famous valley, Phelps focused on Cabernet Sauvignon, but his winery was noted for a Cabernet-based red blend called “Insignia,” crafted with varieties historically connected to France’s Bordeaux region.

He also was one of the first of the so-called “Rhone Rangers,” a group of California vintners who were making red blends from grapes historically connected to another growing region of France: the southern Rhone Valley.

Grenache. Syrah. Mourvedre.

Phelps called his Rhone red “Le Mistral,” and it opened my eyes to new combinations of aromas and flavors… and those combinations opened up a whole new world of food pairing possibilities as well. Life doesn’t get much better than having an expertly prepared leg of lamb with a glass of “Le Mistral.”

One of the fascinating things about the world of wine is how specific varieties or combinations of varieties can taste quite distinct depending upon where they’re grown and who is making them.

Besides in the Rhone and now in California, cuvees of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre also are made in Australia, where they’re known simply as G-S-Ms.

My palate has long found the Rhone Valley versions to be on the earthy side, showcasing the unique “terroir” of that part of France. The G-S-Ms from Down Under tend to be all about the fruit — big “gobs” of it, with the wines fairly high in alcohol.

And then there’s “Le Mistral,” which typically splits the difference, deliciously marrying the fruit notes of the grape varieties with the “terroir” of Monterey County — long the source of the grapes for this special bottling — all complemented by just the right amount of oak barrel spice.

Beginning with the 2007 vintage, “Le Mistral” separated from the Phelps winery, becoming its own entity under the Ventana Vineyards umbrella, but with the same growers and winemaker involved.

Now, the man who brought to California a taste of the Rhone and made it his own is gone. R.I.P., Joseph Phelps. I may not have gotten to meet you, but my palate will never forget you.

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