Joseph Phelps Vineyards are in my opinion, the top red wine producer in the United States. Their signature wine, Insignia, is a testament to the quality that California is capable of. Insignia is on a level that it will easily show and possibly out-perform the First-Growths of Bordeaux.
A few weeks ago, I reached out to Damian Parker, the long-time Director of Winemaking at Joseph Phelps and asked if he would tell us a bit of his story. He is quite an interesting guy, heading-up a team that has produced these magical wines and has never had an Insignia rated lower than 90 points during his reign. One would think that a man at the helm of one of the greatest red wines in the world would enjoy those grapes most of all. As you will find out in the interview, that is very far from the truth.
Damian Parker of Joseph Phelps
What is your job?
Director of Winemaking of both Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Freestone Vineyards.
Where is your winery?
St. Helena (Joseph Phelps) and Freestone (Sonoma)
Why did Joseph Phelps chose your sites?
In 1973 Joe was looking for a site to build a winery in Napa Valley and found the Connolly Polled Herford Ranch east of St. Helena and as they say, the rest was history.
He purchased our Yountville vineyard in1979 and after that in 1983 purchased our vineyards in Stags Leap and Rutherford. The Barboza vineyard in Stag Leap was leased in 1997 and the Backus vineyard has been leased since 1977, and then purchased in 1996. In 1999 we purchased the Suscol vineyard southeast of the town of Napa.
For Freestone, Joseph Phelps Vineyards had been make Chardonnay sourced from the Carneros District and in the late 1990’s Joe started to look for a cooler site and that search leads us to the Sonoma Coast. Things progressed from looking for a grape sources to a new winery dedicated to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. That is how Freestone came into being.
How many employees do you have?
At both wineries including vineyard and winery employees, about 125 employees.
Why did you choose wine?
It just fell into my lap. I was going to school and was kind of bored, so in 1977 my brother suggested I apply for a harvest job at Chateau Souverain in Geyserville. I loved it. I worked harvest, got laid off and re-hired a month later to help bottle. I stayed at Souverain for four years and then came to Phelps the summer of 1981. I still love it and I can’t think of doing anything else.
Describe your wines in one word?
What is your favorite varietal?
One of my favorites is Chardonnay.
What was your favorite wine that you produced and what set it apart from your other wines?
2002 Insignia. It was the first wine Ashley Hepworth and I made together.
What was your greatest ever wine experience?
First would be a bottle of 1975 “Eisele Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon from Joseph Phelps. Second would be a bottle of 1982 Cos d’Estournel I had at the chateau in 2006.
What is your favorite meal to pair with one of your wines?
Provencal roasted chicken with our 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
What does “terroir” mean to you?
Everything that influences the growing and making of the wine.
Besides your own wines, who would you say is your favorite wine producer?
What do you hope for the future of Joseph Phelps Vineyards?
I hope to assist the Phelps family with the transition to the next generations. To continue to learn and develop the best that our vineyards and production can deliver through respecting tradition and embracing innovation..
What is your favorite thing to do outside of wine?
Outside of wine, my favorite things to do are spend time with my family, play golf, traveling and gardening.
What challenges do you see moving forward regarding regulations or economic restrictions and what are you currently doing to adapt?
Access to our customers, whether through the 3-tier system or direct shipping is always the number one challenge. We continue to support the different organizations that support and lobby for better access to sell wine.
Second, is to build as strong as possible relationship with our distributors and our direct costumers, through quality wines, fair pricing and service.
If you were not into wine, what would you do?
I would teach elementary school.