Joseph Phelps Insignia, 99pts! – The Original Cali Cult Wine

Most wine drinkers lean either toward Old World or New World.  If you’re at all a New World drinker, then Insignia should be iconic.  Joseph Phelps was running one of the largest construction companies in the U.S. (building a launching pad for NASA, for example) when in the early 70s he won bids to build a few wineries in Northern California.  He quickly made the transition from builder to owner and winemaker.  Five decades later, his flagship wine, Insignia, is recognized as one of the world’s great wines and has a dedicated following among wine enthusiasts and collectors.  Insignia pioneered Napa Valley’s ripe and rich signature style.  At a time when varietal labeling was the norm for the American wine industry, Phelps’ use of a proprietary name was meant to indicate a house blend and style, in somewhat the same way that French property and place names (e.g. Chateau Margaux, Cheval Blanc) instantly conjure a certain character of wine.  Insignia was Napa’s first Bordeaux style blend, and its success in pursuit of uncompromised quality inspired a high-end brand concept that was subsequently copied by others such as Dominus, Opus One, Bond, Screaming Eagle etc. 

The winery owns eight vineyards on prime soil throughout the Napa Valley in districts such as Stag’s Leap, Oakville, Rutherford, Carneros and St. Helena.  The grapes for Insignia come from the best pickings from these plots and as such constitute a kind of ultimate expression of general Napa Valley terroir.  As with so many of the better producers, they employ organic, sustainable and some biodynamic viticultural practices.  Thirty-one of thirty-seven vintages have been rated 90 or more points by various wine publications, including three perfect 100 point scores for the 1991, 1997 and 2002 vintages from Wine Advocate.  We just got in the 2018 – see reviews below. 

If in younger days you grew up, wine-wise, on California reds before moving on to the shaded intricacies of the Old World, then Insignia will put you in touch with your youth.  It’s a modern wine even an Old World wine drinker can love.  And, says Robert Parker, “It remains one of the world’s finest Cabernet Sauvignon dominated blends.”

Joseph Phelps Insignia 2018
Retail Price: $299.99
Sale Price: $283.97

James Suckling, 99pts. – “Blackberry and black chocolate with mint, conifer and clove. Sweet tobacco, violets and flowers, too. Some graphite. Cool and complex. Full-bodied with ultra fine, dusty tannins and a wonderful, extremely long finish. Savory and refined. A classic-styled 2018. This needs time, but is so approachable and gorgeous. One of the best Insignias ever. Alive and changing all the time. Leave this for five or six years, but so wonderful now.”  (4/2021)

Wine Advocate, 97+pts. – “Deep garnet-purple colored, it comes storming out of the glass with powerful notes of blackcurrant cordial, stewed black plums and boysenberries, plus hints of cedar chest, graphite, menthol and wet slate with a fragrant waft of clove oil. The medium to full-bodied palate already demonstrates remarkable balance at this youthful stage, featuring a firm backbone of fine-grained tannins and bold freshness to support the tightly wound, crunchy black fruits, finishing long and spicy.” (7/2021)

Joseph Phelps Insignia 2016
Retail Price: $279.99
Sale Price: $249.97

Wine Advocate, 99pts. – “The 2016 Insignia is a blend of 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc and 1% Malbec, aged for 24 months in 100% new French oak barrels. Deep garnet-purple colored, the nose is a little reticent to begin, needing a fair bit of coaxing to reveal beautifully beguiling notions of wild blueberries, warm blackberries, black currant cordial, cloves and cedar chest with nuances of camphor, yeast extract, charcuterie and candied violets. Medium to full-bodied, the palate has fantastic elegance and depth, revealing loads of subtle floral, black fruit and earthy layers with a firm, very finely grained texture and seamless freshness, finishing with epic length.”

James Suckling, 98pts. – “Lovely density and intensity with dark berries, blueberries and inky undertones with hints of spice, chocolate and walnuts. Medium to full body, fine tannins and a flavorful finish. The texture and length are fantastic here. Complex. Hints of smoky wood at the end. This needs three to five years more in bottle age. Exciting wine. Try after 2022.”

Joseph Phelps Insignia 2014
Retail Price: $224.99
Sale Price: $199.97

Wine Advocate, 97+pts. – “. . . Coming from six vineyards and reared for 24 months in 100% new French oak, the 2014 Insignia Proprietary Red Wine has a deep garnet-purple color and nose of crushed blackberries and fresh blackcurrants with touches of cigar box, sandalwood, dried lavender, beef drippings and mocha plus a waft of wild thyme. Medium to full-bodied and incredibly elegant and fine in the mouth, the lively fruit is well structured by grainy tannins and seamless acid, finishing long and earthy.”

Joseph Phelps Insignia 2013
Retail Price: $224.99
Sale Price: $199.97

Wine Advocate, 98+pts. – “The wine offers a stunning inky blue/purple color, a gorgeous nose of blueberry and blackberry liqueur, pen ink, graphite, new saddle leather and barrique. The wine has fabulous concentration, a full-bodied, multi-layered mouthfeel, and tremendous finish with moderate tannin. It’s interesting to note that the Phelps winemaking staff had been gradually reducing the amount of Merlot in this wine over recent vintages. The 2013 should hit its peak in 5-7 years and last for 35-50.”

Joseph Phelps Insignia 2012
Retail Price: $210.99
Sale Price: $188.97

Jeb Dunnuck, 97pts. – “[A] sensational 2012 is the Cabernet Sauvignon Insignia, which is 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Petit Verdot, Merlot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc. Aged two years in new barrels, this is a decidedly opulent, sexy wine that has loads of crème de cassis, roasted herbs, lead pencil, lavender, and exotic spice. With a massive, expansive, broad, yet also weightless texture, it has a stacked mid-palate, no shortage of structure, and a blockbuster finish. It’s an incredible Cabernet that can be drunk today with incredible pleasure or cellared for two decades or more.”

Past Cellar Selections:
Barolo 2016 Vintage
Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva 2014
Quintessa 2018 – 99pt(!) Bordeaux Blend from Napa
Chateau Fombrauge 2018 – Right Bank Value
Vajra 2017 – Three Variations on Barolo
Saint Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2019 – 97 & 99 pts!
Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey – Burgundy Royalty
Don Melchor 2018 – 100pts!
Domaine Fontaine-Gagnard 2019
Dalla Valle Collina 2018
Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2018
Il Censo Praruar and Njuro – School of Bea
Bordeaux 2009 – A Legendary Vintage
Clos i Terrasses “Laurel” Priorat 2018 - Homage to Garnacha
Canon la Gaffeliere St. Emilion '15 & '16
La Rioja Alta “890” Gran Reserva Rioja 2004

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