Reporters are always at their best when being wined and dined, and so it was a congenial group who had gathered at Joseph Phelps Winery where the assignment, this day, was to experience the launch of the winery’s new culinary program.
As an editor, I’ve come to cringe every time I get a press release that uses adjectives like “legendary” and “iconic” to describe everything from mayonnaise to shampoo. As a writer, however, I have to admit there are some — just a few — things that deserve these words, and one is Phelps. The winery, founded in 1973 by Joseph Phelps, was known for its innovation as well as its excellence. Not to mention its Insignia, the wine first made in 1974, which for many (including me) represents the pinnacle of what Napa Valley can produce. If I had to take one bottle of wine to a desert island, I’d be hard pressed to choose between a bottle of sparkling wine and Insignia, but it might be Insignia.
What is not so well known is that Joe Phelps, the Colorado builder with a love of fine wine, was also devoted to food. As he was building his Napa Valley winery in the eastern hills in 1973, he joined a partnership to purchase the Oakville Grocery so he could find cooking supplies closer to home.
He also became a long-time friend and supporter of restaurateur Alice Waters, and made house wine for her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, which would lead a food revolution in California. Phelps died in 2015, but his son, Bill, and now a third generation of Phelps, is keeping his — yes — iconic and — yes — legendary winery thriving.
The opening of the new hospitality center and tasting room in what was the original winery signaled it was finally time to create a culinary program. As a space created of wood and windows, it looks out at vineyards, hills and oak trees, and contains multiple spaces for tasting, including a dining room with a long table and a fine view.
Here is where we gathered after a first stop on the deck for a glass of Phelps sauvignon blanc and appetizers.
Bill Phelps, Joe’s son, now the winery president, joined the group, along with his son, Will, who is director of marketing at the winery. “My dad loved food. He and my mother were known for their dinners and parties.”
Another third-generation Phelps now working at the winery is Allie Phelps, part of the culinary team that has created the program, which includes a wine and cheese pairing, Playful Plates, a food and wine pairing, and a multi-course Bountiful Table lunch.
She joined Joseph Phelps in the summer of 2016 as a wine educator after a decade in San Francisco where she earned a culinary arts degree from the Art Institute of San Francisco, worked as an event planner and taught cooking classes at Cavallo Point in Sausalito. This spring, she made the move into the kitchen to help launch the winery’s culinary program.
Executive Chef Brian Sutton, a native of Colchester, England who graduated from the Colchester Institute of Culinary Arts, worked at the Calistoga Ranch before coming onboard at Phelps last spring to lead the new program. Along with Allie Phelps, Ryan Seal is sous chef at Phelps. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, he worked at Morimoto Napa, Carneros Resort and Calistoga Ranch, before joining Phelps this summer.
What did they serve?
First, a Grassy Bar Oyster with a yuzu granita served with the Phelps 2016 sauvignon blanc made from grapes harvested just outside our window. Everyone was relieved to hear from Will that the 2017 sauvignon blanc had all be brought in, ahead of the blistering heat wave about to hit the valley.
Next, we had a fresh, crisp chardonnay (2014) from the Sonoma coast Freestone vineyards with a fennel-cured halibut, on a bed of avocado, with toasted coriander, and a garnish of a radish plucked from Bill Phelp’s garden and other succulents.
Two Sonoma Coast pinot noirs from the Pastorale and the Quarter Moon vineyards, (2014) accompanied a positively decadent dish of foie gras tortellini, with tiny new chanterelle mushrooms and a touch of mushroom bacon. I’d call this pairing the Enchanted Forest, without feeling the need to apologize for hyperbole.
What do you serve with the Phelps 2014 cabernet sauvignon and the new release of the 2014 Insignia? Duck two ways. A serving of duck confit with a generous slice of Liberty Farms duck, a bit of pear, greens, turnips and truffles. This is how you forget, for a few minutes, about the calamities — floods, heat waves, Trump — unfolding beyond the windows; or, at least, you feel fortified to think about them.
The meal wrapped up with a dessert of Bera Farms Peaches, with ivory chocolate, lemon verbena and almond. The Bountiful Lunch had earned its name.
“I wonder why we waited so long,” Bill Phelps said. “My dad lived life to the fullest, and part of that was gathering family and friends at home for great wine and food that he had prepared for everyone to share. Our family is pleased to welcome winery guests in that same spirit.”
Joseph Phelps Vineyards Culinary offerings
— The Bountiful Table, described above, begins at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesdays and lasts three hours. The cost is $275 per person.
— Wine & Cheese Pairing: Learn how food and wine interact with one another and discover your own pairing preferences. A guided wine tasting and pairing of local and regional cheeses along with house-made delicacies is $100 per person for a 90-minute, seated tasting, offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of each week at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
— Playful Plates: An interactive food-and-wine pairing experience includes a flight of five Joseph Phelps Napa Valley and Sonoma Coast wines, including Insignia, paired with seasonally inspired bites. A wine educator leads the tasting, inviting each person to share their experiences in relaxed convivial conversation. The cost is $195 per person. This two-hour event is offered each Tuesday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Further details and reservations are available through the winery’s website at www.josephphelps.com/pages/culinary or by calling 800-707-5789.