By any standard, Napa Valley's Joseph Phelps Vineyards is one of the most successful wineries in the world. Phelps is making consistently outstanding wines like Insignia, Backus, Le Mistral and Ovation, acquiring and developing fine vineyards and being an effective leader in the complex business, social and environmental issues that affect the wine industry.
Over the past decade, the key to this emphatic success is the winery has "grown by getting smaller." This seeming oxymoron is not voodoo vineyard economics or a crafted pr spin -- it's a fact. When Tom Shelton took over as president and CEO in 1995, the winery was annually producing in excess of 120,000 cases of wine; now production is slightly under 90,000 cases. But because of a very focused strategy on advancing quality, dollar sales have more than tripled -- an unusual result in today's marketing schemes.
"This strategy was a team decision, that enjoys the full support of Joe Phelps, Bill Phelps, Craig Williams, our winemaker, and the entire team from vineyard to production," says Shelton. "We were very sure that in order to remain both very independent and very successful, we had to find a distinctive niche. We all agreed that our niche would be at the top of the luxury wine segment and in that rarified niche, to be the benchmark winery in that niche. Once we determined that was to be our goal, then we could focus on every effort it would take to get there and stay there."
Although Phelps already had great vineyards in 1995, the winery essentially doubled its acreage. This was by acquiring two vineyards in Napa -- Soscol, for cool climate Cabernet, and the great Backus Vineyard, which is just now coming in to full production. It also purchased a fine vineyard in Monterey for the winery's Rhone program. The newest vineyard project in Freestone, in the Sonoma Coast appellation, is for Chardonnay and the winery's first Pinot Noir in decades. A new, small winery also is in the near future.
Shelton continued, "These vineyards in widely varying places gives us the opportunity to strongly emphasize regional wine styles and identities. These excellent vineyards strongly dictate the marketing plan; we are fully production driven, not market driven."
The Backus Vineyard project was a prime example; the winery had leased the vineyard since 1977. Shelton notes, "Backus has a unique terroir and steep western facing slope; we produced a special vineyard designated wine from it that already was a very high scoring wine and a favorite with collectors. When the vineyard owners decided to sell in 1996, we had to buy it, but more than that, we put two years of work and an extraordinary amount of money into the optimum development of Backus in order to make an outstanding wine even better.
"Vineyard acquisition and development is just a start in our plan. We are constantly refining crop management and our farming techniques and then do very careful selection to keep raising the bar on wine quality. For example, in a good year we may make 20,000 cases of Insignia, as we did in 1997. In a year that is difficult, we may only produce 8,000 cases, but even in a difficult year, Insignia will be among the highest scoring wines because of our stringent selection process. Making outstanding wines in difficult vintage years is the true measure of a great winemaker like Craig Williams.
"Our experienced team also allows me the luxury of working on behalf of the wine industry in general, especially important issues in the Napa Valley. I love the political process, trying to get things changed for the better. With the Phelps family's great support, we pushed for better farm worker housing and continue to advance improved trade relations and stronger environmental standards."
Joseph Phelps Vineyards, founded in 1973, is located in the Spring Valley near St. Helena, off the Silverado Trail. The winery has its "home" vineyard in Spring Valley, as well as vineyards in the Stag's Leap District, Rutherford, Oakville, Carneros, Oak Knoll and Monterey and a recently developed vineyard in Freestone, Sonoma County for the production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.