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Leading Napa Winery Joseph Phelps Acquired by French Luxury Conglomerate

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French luxury conglomerate Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) has acquired Joseph Phelps Vineyards, one of Napa Valley’s leading wineries. This is the fourth Napa winery for LVMH, which also owns Domaine Chandon, Newton Vineyard and a majority stake in Colgin Cellars. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Joseph Phelps is best known for his Insignia wine, first produced in 1974 and widely credited with legitimizing California’s Bordeaux-style red blend category. The company has grown considerably over its nearly 50 years, now owning 425 acres of planted vines in Napa Valley and 100 in Sonoma County, where it operates a second winery in the unincorporated community of Freestone.

The winery was founded in 1973 when Joseph Phelps, a Colorado construction executive, moved to the Bay Area. Phelps loved wine, especially French wine, and his company got a job building a winery. He decided that he wanted a winery of his own. Phelps purchased a 670-acre cattle ranch in an area of ​​eastern St. Helena known as Spring Valley. That is still the home of the winery (although not the entire surface is planted with vines). Representatives for the Phelps family declined to comment for this story.

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The first vintages of Joseph Phelps wines, made by winemaker Walter Schug, marked a significant departure from Napa winemaking conventions at the time. The winery produced a Syrah, a grape from the Rhône Valley in France that was rarely made into a varietal wine back then. And Insignia, considered the first American blend of Bordeaux grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, with a proprietary cuvee name.

Bill Phelps of Joseph Phelps Vineyards serves wine at Auction Napa Valley in 2012.

Bill Phelps of Joseph Phelps Vineyards serves wine at Auction Napa Valley in 2012.

Erik Castro/Special To The Chronicle 2012

Both Insignia and Syrah paved the way for other California wineries to make Bordeaux-style proprietary blends and adopt Rhone grape varieties.

In the 1990s, Phelps expanded into Sonoma County, planting two vineyards on its western edges with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the traditional grape varieties of the Burgundy region of France. Although relatively unproven at the time, this coastal area, which recently gained appellation status as Sonoma West Coast, has since become one of the most respected areas for Burgundy wines in California. Once again, Phelps was ahead of the curve.

Since Phelps’s death in 2015, family members, including his son, CEO Bill Phelps, have run the winery.

LVMH operates around 60 brands in various industries. Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Tiffany & Co., Sephora and Christian Dior are among its best-known holdings in fashion and beauty. Its wine and spirits portfolio includes some of France’s most prestigious estates: Dom Perignon, Ruinart, Chateau d’Yquem, Chateau Cheval Blanc, Krug and Veuve Clicquot, in addition to its namesake brands, Champagne’s Moet & Chandon and Cognac’s Hennessy.

The luxurious Joseph Phelps Winery was built on a former cattle ranch in St. Helena.

The luxurious Joseph Phelps Winery was built on a former cattle ranch in St. Helena.

John Storey/Special to the Chronicle 2018

The same year that Phelps founded his winery, Moet & Chandon started his own project in Napa, Domaine Chandon. The success of the Yountville-based sparkling-wine-focused producer sparked a wave of investment in California by champagne houses. Champagne Taittinger founded Domaine Carneros, G.H. Mumm opened Mumm Napa Valley, and Champagne Louis Roederer founded the Roederer Estate.

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