Thirty Years of Phelps Insignia (1974 through 2004)

Tasted Saturday, October 13, 2007 by Dave Dalluge with 1,085 views

Introduction

Steve has already described the origin of the idea for this event and the setting at WA Frost. I'll just add that the food was amazingly good and the service was even better. Fresh stems were brought for each flight. Rumor has it that one person was brought in solely to wash and dry glasses for us. Drew our waiter provided world-class service. The pours were spot on. He even provided some operatic entertainment near the end of the meal.

Thanks to George Kautzman (who supplied the oldest vintages), Steve Sigmond (who supplied the newest vintages), and Chris Larson (who filled in the gaps) for all of their excellent work pulling this amazing tasting together. It couldn't possibly have gone any better.

Flight 1 - Old Soldiers Fighting: 1979, 1980, 1981 (3 Notes)

Chris had effectively lowered expectations on this flight and it showed far better than anyone expected. An impressive start!

  • 1979 Joseph Phelps Insignia 91 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Expressive nose featuring red and black fruits. Brooding and smokey. In the mouth this is more elegant than aggressive, with dark fruit and a strong minerality driving the flavors. Great balance. Gripping tannins. Great length. An awesome way to begin the evening.

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  • 1980 Joseph Phelps Insignia 92 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    The nose is a bit sweeter smelling than the 1979 with red currant, earth, and mineral. On the palate this has sweet (almost candied) red fruit. The flavors are great but more compact than I would have liked. A dose of acidity keeps this lively in the mouth. Tannins are fully resolved. The finish is long and "clingy." An excellent wine. My WOTF.

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  • 1981 Joseph Phelps Insignia 89 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    The nose is much less assertive than the other two wines in this flight, and gives a straightforward red fruit. In the mouth this comes across as being much more structured. What fruit there is is darker. The finish is very drying. Still a very nice wine.

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Flight 2 - Parker Imperfect?: 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990 (4 Notes)

Hardly imperfect. The 1987 and 1989 were most impressive.

  • 1987 Joseph Phelps Insignia 93 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Awesome nose dominated by dark fruit but complemented nicely with earth, mineral, mushroom and oak. Very complex and interesting. The taste is also very good with an expansive palate presence, plenty of complexity, great balance, and great length. Really impressive.

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  • 1988 Joseph Phelps Insignia 89 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    The nose is very straightforward with red fruit, mushroom, and mineral. The taste is very enjoyable but a bit compact on the palate. Good fruit. Drying tannins. Nice.

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  • 1989 Joseph Phelps Insignia 93 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Somewhat reserved on the nose, but excellent aromas of red fruit, mineral, and an interesting floral note. One of my favorite noses of the night. The taste was equally nice, with a seductive, palate-coating quality that I found very appealing. The fruit comes across as a bit sweeter. This has a lovely dash of acidity that keeps this feeling balanced throughout. The finish is very long. My WOTF.

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  • 1990 Joseph Phelps Insignia Flawed

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    This was definitely an off bottle. I felt it had a stewed fruit quality that had me thinking this had been heat damaged.

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Flight 3 - The Reagan Era: 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985 (4 Notes)

This flight was the weekest of the older wines, but all were very enjoyable. These showed more similarity than differences.

  • 1982 Joseph Phelps Insignia 91 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Slight VA on the nose mixed with dark fruit and mushroom. This is awesome on the palate -- featuring fresh red fruit and some earthiness. Lively on the palate and great length. An amazing showing for a 25 year old Napa blend. My WOTF.

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  • 1983 Joseph Phelps Insignia 89 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Awesome nose featuring dark fruit and mushroom. On the palate this felt plush with a sweet dark fruit profile. The finish was drying and shorter than most of the other wines poured.

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  • 1984 Joseph Phelps Insignia 90 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    The nose is an interesting blend of earth and dark fruit in a husky, brooding style. This started out compact and flat on the palate, but opened up nicely with air to become palate pleasing. Finishes rather abruptly.

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  • 1985 Joseph Phelps Insignia 89 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Starts strongly, with an intense nose featuring rich dark fruit, mineral and oak. On the palate this gives dark fruit with a strong iron/mineral flavor profile. A bit compact and simple from attack to mid-palate, but finishes strongly.

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Flight 4 - The Redwood Legends: 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977 (4 Notes)

This flight alone was worth the price of admission!! Too bad about the 1976, because I think it would have fit right in. Is it sad that the best Insignia is the first one? Probably not, because the track record -- as demonstrated by this tasting -- shows remarkable high quality thoughout the 30+ years. An absolutely awesome flight. Thanks again George!

  • 1974 Joseph Phelps Insignia 97 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    The nose is exhuberant and Graves-like featuring red fruit, licorice, smoke, mineral, and caramel. Really impressive stuff -- I could smell this for hours. If anything this wine steps it up a notch on the taste. The texture is plush and seductive with a great core of fruit yet it also feels structured. Flavors are rich and complex. Still tannic. The finish is long and deeply satisfying. I am extremely thankful to George for affording us the opportunity to taste this pristine bottle that he has been holding for all these years. A monumental wine. WOTF and WOTN.

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  • 1975 Joseph Phelps Insignia 93 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Much different than the 1974. The nose is more funky and brooding with dark fruit , mushroom, mineral and funk. In the mouth this is plush and vibrant. Flavors feature rich red fruit intertwined with a strong minerality. Still tannic. Beautiful finish. An excellent wine.

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  • 1976 Joseph Phelps Insignia Flawed

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Sadly this was slightly corked. It did taste pretty darn good though with a blast of red fruit and a big tannic finish.

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  • 1977 Joseph Phelps Insignia 96 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    The nose is an intense expression of dark fruit, tobacco, and mineral. Complex and beautiful. Reminiscent of left-bank Bordeaux. The red fruit and tobacco carry through stongly to the taste which is expansive and palate pleasing. Great balance. Excellent finish. This is a really, really impressive wine.

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Flight 5 - Napa "Elegance"?: 1986, 1991, 1998, 2000 (4 Notes)

The 1986 was my favorite vintage of the 1980s by quite a bit. An awesome wine. The 1991 was a disappointment given how good this vintage should be. 1998 and 2000 reminded me of the Harlan tasting -- wines unworthy of the name.

  • 1986 Joseph Phelps Insignia 95 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    The nose gives a delightul melange of fruit flavors (black raspberry, red cherry, and other red fruits), with mineral and cedar. Awesome. On the palate this was amazingly youthful showing deep, concentrated fruit in a light, expansive, seductive style. Perfect balance. Great length on the finish. A most impressive showing. My WOTF by a mile!

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  • 1991 Joseph Phelps Insignia 92 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Brooding nose with dark fruit and mineral. The taste is dominated by concentrated dark fruit with some earthiness. Tannic. Great finish. This showed very youthful.

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  • 1998 Joseph Phelps Insignia 87 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    The nose is a clumsy blend of black fruit, oak and vanilla. The taste is liquor-like with dark fruit and a heavy oak treatment. Still extremely tannic. I'm not optimistic for the future of this one.

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  • 2000 Joseph Phelps Insignia 87 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    The nose is a very similar to the 1998 featuring black fruit, oak and vanilla. Clumsy. The taste simple with dark fruit tons of oak. A little hot on the finish. I'm not optimistic for the future of this one either.

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Flight 6 - The Prodigies: 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 (4 Notes)

This was an awesome flight. However, this is also where the wines started showing too young. I have had the 1994 six times with the last bottle about a year ago. It changed considerably over that time, and last year I thought it was showing fairly old. However, this flight really showed me how youthful it really is. I first had it in 1999, and it was an epiphany. The smell and taste rattled around in my head for a few days. I couldn't believe how good it was. Based on this tasting, I would say the 1994 has many years ahead of it, and could continue along a trajectory like the 1974. Regardless I look forward to the experience.

  • 1992 Joseph Phelps Insignia 93 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    The nose is extremely expressive and offers a complex blend of black fruit, mushroom, mineral, and smoke. I'd even say a touch of brett. Intense and nice. The taste offers a concentrated dark fruit. Well balanced. Mildly tannic. Great length on the finish. Very impressive.

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  • 1993 Joseph Phelps Insignia 94 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Awesome nose. Complex and sweet with black fruit, mineral, and pepper(?). The taste is even better featuring dark fruit with an enticing blend of licorice and cigar ash. Maybe not as expressive as it could be, but impressive flavor concentration, good structure, and a very nice finish. A great showing.

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  • 1994 Joseph Phelps Insignia 96 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    The nose is mature and elegant, giving a complex blend of red fruit, dried herbs, and earth. Beautiful. On the palate this is mouth coating without being heavy giving red fruit, licorice and mineral. The tannins are well integrated and the wine is perfectly balanced. Smooth and sexy. This is a special bottle of wine.

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  • 1995 Joseph Phelps Insignia 92 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    A nice nose of mainly dark fruit with a hint of VA/paint thinner that blew off in time. Very impressive on the palate with concentrated dark fruit and a heavier/oakier personality. Perfect balance. Very tannic. Should develop nicely with additional bottle age.

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Flight 7 - The Best Since 1974?: 1996, 1997, 1999, 2001 (4 Notes)

I liked the 1996 and 1997 a lot. They are still youthful, and should develop nicely. I have had the 2001 twice, and it is a nice wine, but nowhere near the wow for me that the 1994 was at a similar age. It could just be me, but I suspect it is much more concentrated fruit and heavier oak.

  • 1996 Joseph Phelps Insignia 93 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Impressive blend of red and black fruit on the nose. Concentrated fruit with some oak dominate the taste. Very youthful. Very tannic. Good length on the finish. Should develop nicely.

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  • 1997 Joseph Phelps Insignia 94 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Expressive nose of dark fruit and mineral. Extremely concentrated fruit augmented with some oak. Expansive and interesting on the palate. Very tannic. Needs time, but should develop into something special. MY WOTF.

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  • 1999 Joseph Phelps Insignia

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Reserved nose. Lots of oak and vanilla to go with the concentrated fruit. Should be fine with additional bottle age.

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  • 2001 Joseph Phelps Insignia 92 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    A husky nose featuring dark fruit and oak. The taste is syrupy with concentrated fruit, oak and vanilla. Needs lot of time.

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Flight 8 - Mercy (1 Note)

I'm not sure who's idea it was, but somehow a wine list appeared in my hands. Diane and I looked over the options and -- after soliciting input from the group -- ordered a 1990 Grand Dame. As described in my note below, I can't tell you what relief this was. After twenty seven amazingly homogeneous wines, the Grand Dame was like a drink of water after a long day in the dessert. I thought I would be able to handle this marathon tasting. I held on for quite awhile, but in the end I couldn't quite make it.

  • 1990 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Champagne Brut La Grande Dame

    France, Champagne

    Ordered off the list near the end of the Insignia vertical, and wow was this a much needed change of pace! Showed positively brilliantly with crisp citrus fruit, good minerality, a hint of bread dough and wave after wave refreshing acidity. Great, long finish. Ruined me for the last flight of Insignia, but at this point I didn't really care -- I needed this.

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Flight 9 - Young Guns: 2002, 2003, 2004 (3 Notes)

I tasted through these but took no notes. At this point in the night I had trouble distinguishing much of anything about them. It's sad, because I was really looking forward to my first taste of the 2002.

Closing

I was very impressed with the wines. Phelps has been producing a wine of consistent high quality since the inaugaral vintage of 1974. The older wines (say through 1990) had a wonderful homogeneity about them, yet all possessed some level of vintage uniqueness that shone through. Most impressive!

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