Napa Valley’s Finest: A Visit to Joseph Phelps, the Home of the Iconic ‘Insignia’

by Zoe Bowker

We spend a morning wine tasting at Joseph Phelps, the birthplace of the original Napa Valley red blend.

Nestled in the scenic Napa Valley, Joseph Phelps Vineyards has grown from a cattle ranch into a premier producer of world-class wines, with 525 acres of vines across 11 estate vineyards, including St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville, Stags Leap District, Oak Knoll District, South Napa, Carneros, and Freestone. Central to their legacy is the iconic Insignia wine, first created in 1974 as California’s pioneering Bordeaux-style blend. At that time, the practice of blending the best grapes from various vineyards into a single wine was uncommon in Napa Valley, owing to the fact that any blend had to be labeled as “red table wine,” which was (obviously) seen as quite the disadvantage. However, Phelps, undeterred by this stigma, bundled up his very finest grapes and named his blend “Insignia” to allude to its superior quality in an attempt to break the negative perception associated with the term “red table wine.” Over the decades, Insignia has earned much acclaim, including multiple 100-point scores and “Wine of the Year” honours, cementing its status as one of the world’s finest wines. Whilst it’s a label we haven’t personally come across in the wild yet in Dubai (Insignia is currently out of stock on the MMI website retailing at 1680 dhs a bottle), expect to see it a lot more often now that the the certified Napa Green Winery has been acquired by LVMH.

The premises of Joseph Phelps Vineyards are beautiful, offering sweeping views across the valley of vines for those who opt for an outdoor tasting experience. Indoors, the elegance continues with a homage to the vineyard’s rich history, featuring bottles signed by Joseph Phelps and his friends, large foudres previously used in winemaking, and a kitchen for special lunch pairing tasting sessions. Kitchens are rare in Napa Valley vineyards due to regional regulations designed to prevent competition with local restaurants and bars, but Joseph Phelps’ kitchen is grandfathered in. Additionally, there’s a lecture room for more educational tasting sessions.

Joseph Phelps vineyard visit wine tasting review insignia

The Private Tasting Experience

Napa Valley vineyard tastings don’t work like the wine regions we’re used to in Australasia; it’s probably most akin to Champagne, where tastings need to be booked and paid for in advance and formally organised. At Joseph Phelps, there are a few different experiences on offer for the thirsty wine enthusiast to choose from:

The Founder’s Tasting

A relaxed, seated tasting on the vineyard’s terrace overlooking the picturesque valley of vines, this tasting features a selection of current release Napa Valley and Sonoma Coast wines, including Insignia. Allow 75 minutes for this alfresco tasting, which will set you back $120 per person ($20 for those not drinking, which honestly we find to be a little bizarre). This one is available for parties of 1-8, so if you’re flying solo, this is your best option.

Collector’s Tasting

This is the tasting we enjoyed on our visit. Held in an elegant indoor setting, this 90-minute seated tasting offered a curated selection of their finest Napa Valley and Sonoma Coast wines, including the revered Insignia (we were lucky enough to taste three vintages). Elena, our wine educator, was wonderfully fun and personable, making our experience even more relaxed and enjoyable. It’s suitable for parties of 2-8 and comes in at around $200pp including some small bites paired to the wines being poured. The tasting is offered daily at 10:30am and 2:15pm.

We tasted the…
  • 2017 Ovation Sparkling Wine, Sonoma Coast
  • 2021 Chardonnay, Pastorale Vineyard, Sonoma Coast
  • 2021 Pinot Noir, Bootlegger’s Hill Vineyard, Sonoma Coast
  • 2021 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Merlot, and
  • 2019 INSIGNIA, Napa Valley
  • 2014 INSIGNIA, Napa Valley
  • 2018 INSIGNIA 50th Anniversary Series, Napa Valley

Our journey began as we were greeted on entry to the vineyard with a glass of the 2017 Ovation Sparkling Wine from Sonoma Coast, a delightful blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that commenced production not long ago, after Joseph Phelps had passed. This was followed by the 2021 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Pastorale and Bootlegger’s Hill Vineyards respectively, each showcasing the distinct terroirs of Sonoma Coast. We especially loved the Chardonnay…but of course!

The highlight of our tasting was, unsurprisingly, the trio of Insignia vintages, which included their 50th Anniversary edition (2018). We also tasted the 2019 and 2014 vintages, each a stellar representation of what makes Napa Valley blends so sought after. While tasting the wines we suggested the wine might pair beautifully with steak and mushrooms – and we all had a good laugh when the accompanying snack was a flat bread with…steak and mushrooms! (And we must say, it was rather divine.)

Taste of Place & Chef’s Culinary Menu

Joseph Phelps vineyard visit wine tasting review insignia

If you’re keen to explore the foodie aspect of the tasting further, and we recommend you do, you can take your visit to the next level and book in for the Chef’s Table experience with paired wines, available for $350 per person at 12pm Wednesday to Monday. On selected weekends an extended experience is available with limited release wines and gems from the Joseph Phelps cellars, priced at $450 per person.

To book your private tasting experience and explore the finest wines Joseph Phelps Vineyards has to offer, visit

Heading to California Wine Country? Read more articles here.

Related Articles