Growing up in Napa Valley surrounded by grapevines, Will Phelps did not envision his future working in the family wine business. At an intimate library dinner at the Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes, Phelps, who charmed the audience with his good looks and friendly manner, said, “I was the most rebellious. I wanted nothing to do with this predestined life when I was a child.”
Despite his childhood objection, Phelps is carrying on the family tradition as the third generation at the winery. For the past 3 1⁄2 years, Phelps, grandson of winery founder Joe Phelps and son of winery president Bill Phelps, has been a sales representative for his family’s winery. But he was not handed the position just because he wanted it. Once he decided he wanted to work at the winery, he had to spend his time earning the position.
While Phelps was a student at the University of San Diego, he spent summers at the winery, from working on the bottling line to pouring in the tasting room. During those years, his father would give him bottles of wine to drink. But as a college student, cheap beer was what he more commonly consumed.
Phelps graduated from college in 2008 and decided to work harvest in France to kill some time as he figured out his next steps. He was working at E. Guigal when, at age 23, he was bit by the wine bug. He was learning about wine under Philippe Guigal and at night, as there was nothing else to do in the ancient village of Ampuis in the Côte-Rôtie, he said that he read the encyclopedia of wine, page by page.
Phelps returned home to Napa Valley and told his father that he wanted to work at the winery. Bill Phelps, a lawyer for 20 years, did not come to Joseph Phelps until he was in his 40s and suggested his son get experience somewhere else first.
Phelps went to work at other wineries, including one in South Africa. In 2012, his father agreed that it was time that he work for the family business. Will joined as sales representative, focusing on sales and marketing of the wines, and during that time he also studied for his MBA.
At the dinner Will hosted at Terranea, the 29-year-old shared his story as we tasted through the library wines, the 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2011 Insignia.
Insignia, the wine Joseph Phelps is most known for, was the first proprietary wine ever produced. Insignia was created in 1974 by his grandfather, Joseph Phelps, a man with great vision and with great business acumen. Working in construction, he had come to Napa to build other wineries and started Joseph Phelps Winery in 1973. Joseph Phelps Insignia is a benchmark wine that has won many awards, including wine of the year.
As we enjoyed each of the wines, Phelps invited us to raise a glass to toast his grandfather, Joseph Phelps, who passed away last year. He fondly recalled learning about wine from his grandfather as a child and spoke about how is grandfather taught him how to decant old wines by candlelight.
Joseph Phelps’ visionary spirit built the winery, and his grandson is helping to continue it.