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Phelps: A Winery Makeover

January 13, 1994|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

Six years ago, winemaker Craig Williams faced up to a series of dilemmas that had left his Joseph Phelps Winery just another good Napa Valley winery without much of an identity--and with a list of wines longer than any other major premium winery.

Phelps made Chardonnays that were soft and awkward, lacking focus. The Napa Valley Zinfandel was good, but the Sonoma County Zinfandel, made from purchased grapes, was even better. The flagship Cabernet Sauvignon was hard and astringent and rife with curious aromas. The Riesling was soft and appealing, but how many people buy Riesling? Put simply, Phelps made too many wines in too many styles, including a number of red wines from Rhone grapes that were so erratic that from year to year no one could predict what they'd be like.

Today, after taking steps to solve problems in the winery and vineyard, and after making major changes in production, the Phelps winery stands on the threshold of a new era. The current wines are better than ever, and the soon-to-be-released wines are even more impressive.

Even two years ago, no one would have put money on this turnaround occurring, not with some of the odd wines Phelps had made. Moreover, with the long list of wines Williams was asked to make, there was little time for experimentation to make the necessary improvements.

This hurt the image of the Phelps winery, which was founded in 1973, when Joe Phelps bought a 200-acre parcel of land off the Silverado Trail. The winery immediately made headlines for its fine wines; in the 1970s and 1980s, the image of the winery was high. But in the last few years it has declined. In fact, a Los Angeles-area merchant once told me, "No one has come in and asked for a Phelps wine in two years."

Today, Williams, who inherited the head winemaker position from Walter Schug a decade ago, admits he's been through a transformation. He has trimmed the line of wines to a manageable number--though it is still larger than most fine wineries--and he has begun to focus on bringing more character to the remaining wines by making huge changes in production.

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"It started with changes we made in the vineyard," says Williams. Too much grape production from some vineyards was leaving the wines hollow, so he planted test blocks of grapes on special "devigorating" rootstocks, which cut grape production by as much as 25%. He found that better wine resulted, so by 1988, he was tearing out older vines and planting more and more of Phelps' acreage with roots that gave a smaller but better-quality crop. It was expensive, but it would pay dividends down the road.

Another step was identifying that a few of Phelps' red wines, including the vaunted Insignia, a Cabernet-based blend, had a problem called brettanomyces. The horsey/leathery aroma in the wine was liked by some, but Williams knew it was like a ticking time bomb. He also knew that getting rid of "brett" wasn't easy and would be expensive.

But winery owner Joe Phelps, a successful contractor from Denver, is in this game not so much for profit as to make great wine. He agreed to the rigorous cleanup campaign. It required the mass discarding of expensive French oak barrels and the implementation of a rigid cleanliness program to make sure the wines were protected from any form of spoilage.

Phelps also bought new equipment--a gentler crushing machine and a device that chills grape juice before fermentation--leading to better control over the wine. Williams and assistants Gary Brookman, Lisa Bishop and Damian Parker began to crush fewer tons of grapes per day. "We got rid of the panic days of harvest," says Williams.

Winemaking changed too. There was less handling and processing of grapes and juice. Williams stopped adding sulfur dioxide to the grapes at a stage where once it had been considered mandatory. He stopped adding acid to the wine and instead altered picking dates to ensure that the wine would have enough acid off the vine. He kept press wine separate from "free run" juice and used it sparingly in final blends.

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He also solved the Syrah riddle that had plagued the winery for 15 years. Joe Phelps loves the variety, as he does all the red wines of the Rhone Valley. He has made Syrah since 1974, but some were strange and aged poorly.

In the early years, Williams says, the source of grapes changed often, from western valley floor to eastern valley floor to foothills. Only in the last four years has Williams found the grapes to make the best Syrah. Today Phelps' "Vin du Mistral" wine, called "Le Mistral," is a sublime example of a California/Rhone red with style, fruit, power and grace.

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What follows are tasting notes of wines that carry the Phelps name; a few also carry the Rhone-ish brand name of Vin du Mistral:

1991 Vin du Mistral Viognier ($25)--An intriguing aroma of flower blossoms and peaches, hints of nutmeg and cardamom, and a creamy finish. I feel this is the best Viognier in California.

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