Napa Valley Wine Pioneer Joseph Phelps Dies

A pioneering force in California, Phelps died at 87, after more than four decades in the wine industry.

The man behind the iconic, eponymous Napa Valley winery, Joseph Phelps passed away on April 15 at the age of 87 in St. Helena, surrounded by his family.

“My Dad was a guiding light and an inspiration for me, for our family, and for our employees,” said Bill Phelps, son of Joe Phelps and President of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. “His passing will leave an immeasurable void in the lives of so many whom he touched. But this is also a time to be thankful for the amazing life he lived, and to celebrate his countless accomplishments. His spirit and his drive will live on in the companies he built and the charitable organizations he nurtured and supported.”

A native of Missouri who spent most of his youth in Colorado, Phelps’s father founded a successful construction company, a calling his son shared. After serving in the Navy as a lieutenant during the Korean War, Phelps joined the family construction business, leading the Hensel Phelps Construction Company to become the biggest in Colorado and expanding it further across the United States.

After establishing an office in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1966, Phelps started taking on winery construction projects and poking around the Napa Valley and Sonoma County. By 1973, the wine bug bit him, and Phelps started his own winery, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, on a former cattle ranch along the Silverado Trail. His first winemaker was Walter Schug, who helped Phelps plant dozens of vineyard acres across the Napa Valley and produced the first wines.

Some 40 years later, the historic winery is right now under renovation, set to re-open this May, with the goal of incorporating its expansive vineyard views into every aspect of the building and tranquil outdoors.

“My father had just visited there a few weeks ago with [Joseph’s son] Bill, and I know they had talked about getting him and Joe together for dinner,” said Axel Schug, Walter’s son.

“He was a great man. He helped put me and my two sisters through college and we even had our first jobs at the winery. He was a great collector of wine, which inspired the work that he and my father achieved together. But what I’ll remember most about him was his inspiring me to take up fly fishing, which is my passion to this day.”

His father Walter Schug added, “Joe was not only one of the hardest working men in the Napa Valley, he was truly a pleasure to work for. I plan to to honor his memory by opening one of my last bottles of Insignia, a 1974.”

Within a year of starting the winery, Phelps and Schug created two wines that would signal years of success to come: a 1974 Napa Valley Syrah, the first varietally labeled Syrah in California; and the 1974 Insignia, a proprietary Bordeaux-style blend, which at the time was quite unusual, released for the first time in 1978.

“Phelps contributed a lot to this business,” noted Richard Arrowood of Amapola Creek Vineyards & Winery. “He was always a gentleman and he did some remarkable things, with Insignia and some of the first Syrahs. The guy was ahead of his time, an icon in the Napa Valley.”

Phelps was also active philanthropist, helping to fund St. Helena Hospital, the St. Helena Women’s Center, the Land Trust of Napa County, and as well as donating land from his home ranch to Napa County for the creation of the River Ranch Farmworker Housing Center.

He is survived by his four children, Leslie, William (the current president of Joseph Phelps Vineyards), Laurie and Lynn, as well as eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Plans for a memorial celebration will be announced soon.

Published on April 17, 2015
Topics: Califo, Napa Valley, Wine Trends
About the Author
Virginie Boone
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

Contributing Editor Virginie Boone has been with Wine Enthusiast since 2010, and reviews the wines of Napa and Sonoma. Boone began her writing career with Lonely Planet travel guides, which eventually led to California-focused wine coverage. She contributes to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Sonoma Magazine, and is a regular panelist and speaker on wine topics in California and beyond. Email:

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