Now in its 32nd vintage, Insignia sails through the seas of California’s Bordeaux-blend competitors with the aplomb and dignity of an admiral’s flagship reviewing the fleet. Launched in 1974, the Joseph Phelps Insignia remains among the best of the Golden State’s Old School cabernet sauvignon-based wines, along with Ridge Monte Bello, Caymus Special Selection, Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow, Beringer Private Reserve, Shafer Hillside Select — Shafer was founded in 1979, so just qualifies in this series as “old-school” — and Silver Oak Alexander Valley.

A contractor from Colorado, Joseph Phelps came to California in the early 1970s and was involved in the construction of several wineries, including Chateau Souverain and Rutherford Hill. At the same time, he invested in the Sangiacomo Vineyard in Carneros and purchased land east of the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley. That purchase, about 600 acres, became the site of Joseph Phelps Vineyards.

While JPV is renowned for its series of late-harvest dessert wines and its portfolio of Rhone-style wines, cabernet sauvignon has been the heart of its production. In addition to Insignia, the winery produced highly regarded cabernets from the Bacchus Vineyard (which JPV eventually purchased) and the Eislele Vineyard, now owned by Araujo Estate. The first winemaker for Phelps was Walter Schug, who was followed by Craig Williams in 1976; Schug founded his own winery, Schug Carneros Estate, in 1980.

In an episode that cast a sordid light on corporate practices, even in the supposedly rarefied world of wine country, Williams resigned in May 2008, along with Phelps CEO/president Tom Shelton, in a dispute with the Phelps family about compensation from their 40 percent shares in the winery. Shelton died of a brain tumor in July 2008. In Oct. 2008, Judge William Bettinelli in San Francisco ruled that the Phelpses had to pay Williams and Shelton’s family $24 million plus attorney costs.

Unlike the Bacchus and former Eisele bottlings, Insignia is designed to express a general sense of “Napaness” rather than the eloquence of a single vineyard. In recent vintages grapes for Insignia have come from the winery’s estate vineyards in South Napa, Stags Leap District, Rutherford, St. Helena and Oak Knoll. The percentage of cabernet sauvignon grapes in the blend has increased drastically over the years, from under 60 percent early on to close to 100 percent today. In fact, for 2006, Insignia consists of 95 percent cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent petit verdot. The wines age two years in 100 percent new French barriques.


Over the decades, the Joseph Phelps Insignia acquired the reputation as being the most refined of California’s great cabernet wines, but Insignia 2006, Napa Valley, fills the mouth as if it were taking over a country. The wine is packed with slate-like minerals and briery tannins, yet the succulence of its intense and concentrated black currant and black cherry flavors, tinged with cocoa powder and tar, is unassailable. Well, I say “unassailable,” yet this fruit comes behind high-toned austerity of impeccable and hard-earned pedigree; one feels the depth and geography of the Napa Valley in every sip. There’s a gentle unfurling of cedar and tobacco, a touch of lavender, an iota of walnut-shell. Mainly, Insignia 2006 is about impeccable tone and presence and elegant structure, with a great earthy, foresty undercurrent; try from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 through ’20. Excellent. About $200.

Notice the package. This must be what happens to all my old Tanqueray bottles.

A sample for review.