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A Tale of Two Counties

For wine and food lovers, California's Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer distinctive experiences
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

(continued from page 6)

That's a product of low yields and strict selection, for even with corporate ownership pushing profits and production nosing into the millions, Beringer's best wines continue to be made in small batches. "I've fought for that for 30 years," Sbragia says. "The Private Reserve is a person-to-person thing, not mass-market."

In 1986, Beringer acquired the Bancroft Ranch. But apart from that and a few other parcels, most of the land Sbragia uses to source grapes was at his disposal when he arrived. He gets high-altitude fruit from Mt. Veeder, Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain and Howell Mountain. "A lot of pretty awesome mountain Cabernet sites," says Hook.

By now, they know what to expect from each, and how to tweak the different terroirs toward Beringer's house style. They run vast experimental programs, but use them only to make tiny changes in the product, like those futuristic cars you see at the auto shows that end up maybe influencing a dashboard shape on the commercial level. "With a winery as traditional as this one," Sbragia says, "you need to be careful."

Beringer isn't just coloring inside the lines; you might say it drew most of them to begin with. And with such success in the past, why change? "There's a reason why people want to drink Napa wine," says Hook. "There's a reason why the wineries have gotten such attention. It's not just a couple of years, it's a long history, a great history." With every vintage, Beringer keeps on writing it.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards: The Accidental Innovator
Joe Phelps never intended to revolutionize the wine industry. He just didn't want a wine of his to be labeled "Reserve."

In 1974, he and winemaker Walter Schug constructed a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with other varieties added. It tasted so good, they wanted to release it as a stand-alone wine. But they had no name. Phelps believed that the Reserve designation sounded fraudulent and he also liked the idea of separating out the best cuvée he had in each vintage. In another year, that might be Merlot, or even Riesling. So Reserve Cabernet simply didn't work.

The wine was bottled without a label. Finally, a name came to him during his morning shave: Insignia.

It was, as far as anyone can tell, the first proprietary blend in the history of American wine. Certainly none would affect an industry—or a place—like Insignia. "Joe's fond of saying that the road to success is still under construction," says Craig Williams, Phelps's director of winemaking, who has worked there since 1976. "But even he would have to acknowledge that Insignia was profoundly important."

Much of the cachet that Napa has developed in recent decades comes from wines—mostly Cabernet- or Merlot-based blends—that transcend their varieties and appellations. Today, fanciful names from Archipel to Zero Manipulation are attached to some of the valley's finest (and most expensive) bottlings. They're a way to differentiate your wine from the hundreds of others on the market. "Insignia is a brand, the way Joseph Phelps is a brand," says Bill Phelps, Joe's son. "That wasn't his intention, but that's what happened."

A successful contractor who saw an opportunity building wineries, Joe Phelps had come to California from Greeley, Colorado. He built what is now Rutherford Hill in Napa, and Sonoma's Chateau Souverain. Then he bought land, cleared away the cattle and horses, and built a winery for himself. From the beginning in 1973, he brought a new outlook, at once pragmatic and visionary, to what had been an insider's field. "Joe is very much a bottom-line person," Bill says. "He approached it as a stand-alone business that would make a profit. But he was able to take the long-term view."

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