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Delhi Wine Club

Posted: Friday, March 12 2010. 10:43

Freestone Winery: The New Insignia from Jo Phelps

Robert Baxter, the export manager of the iconic Napa producer Joseph Phelps acclaimed for its Insignia label, was in India recently to introduce wines from their new insignia, the Freestone winery in the Sonoma Coast, with its vivacious Fogdog  and wines including Insignia. Subhash Arora who had a private tasting with Baxter, reports. 

Photo By:: Adil Arora

Freestone is the prime example of how a wine estate can suck in a lot of money before one can expect any return. ‘Jo Phelps and his family started investing money in this new project at the cool-climate Sonoma Coast AVA in Freestone in 1999.’ The winery was ready just in time for the 2007 harvest, the Fogdog Chardonnay and pinot Noir of which Baxter had brought along for tasting.

Freestone may not be California’s answer to Burgundy but known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Jo Phelps had bought around 100 acres of vineyards in this area. Of course, Phelps is known for the iconic Insignia, a Bordeaux styled blend of around 85% Cabernet, 11% merlot and the balance equally between Petit Verdot and Malbec.

No to the Paris Judgment 1976

‘When Steven Spurrier came looking for premium wines from Napa in 1976, he asked Jo for his wine too. Phelps had bought the winery in 1972 and had already bottled Insignia in 1974, but was not too confident on how it would taste and regretted to enter his wine-the first one was released only in 1978,’ says Bob, sharing the historic moments. Of course the Napa Valley Cabernet based on similar blend but for easier consumption has been a great seller ever since the first vintage was bottled in 1973 (and might have changed the results of the Paris Tasting in 1976 if Jo had felt more confident.

Firm in the Saddle

The family run winery was being successfully run professionally by Tom Shelton as the President since 1995. He had the vision to make Insignia penetrate the top level hotels in several countries in the world when it could have been consumed within the US because of high quality and appreciative following. He also helped develop a following from the winery visitors who still form a third of the market.

Tom died unexpectedly in July 2008. As is the case with many Californian family wineries where the next generation is not ready or willing to take control- wasn’t the company a target of takeover by the corporate prowlers  as in the recent case of Stag’s Leap Cellars or even Chateau Montelena-both the protagonists of the Paris Judgment 1976?

‘It might have been the case. But Jo’s son Bill who was a lawyer in Chicago came back and took control with 80-year old Jo still available as an advisor. He is 55 and his 21 year son is also taking interest in the winery. So from that point, we are very strong and will continue to do so,’ says Bob with confidence.
Freestone and Fogdog

The 100 hA vineyards with 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay plantings, do not aim to ape Burgundy but give the expression of the cool Sonoma Coast with minimum intervention, says Baxter. But keeping Bordeaux in mind, the first wine is labeled as Freestone while the second wine is Fogdog, because of a lot of fog and mist in summers being close to the sea and even the letters on the label fading away. As in Bordeaux second wines, it is meant to be drunk younger.

‘Thirty five fermentation small capacity tanks; no sugar, no acid, not even yeast is added, fermentation is in temperature controlled steel tanks, the filtration is minimal too; so the hygiene has to be super good,’ says Baxter adding, ‘we even use medium toasted oak- of course French barriques.’

‘Sonoma coast is hilly, more expensive’, says Robert. ‘And Jo has been 10 years in the waiting with some wine available for selling only in 2009. Thanks to the financial backing we have been able to bring out fine quality wine- relatively less oaky and with good balance. We are looking for new world answer to Burgundy whites.’

Taste and Toast

Fogdog Chardonnay 2007 was definitely fresh and fruity and full and weighty on the palate. But the oak notes make it a definite food wine, though complex, age-worthy and. powerful. We had to order a plate of chicken tikkas to try with food that went deliciously well with the wine with oak well tamed on the palate and yet adding an extra dimension to the flavour.

Fogdog Pinot Noir ’07 shows the heralded vintage. Quite juicy, fresh with crisp acidity with a lot of red fruit on the palate. The well balanced wine makes you want to take the next sip- immediately after the first one has barely disappeared. You can drink now slightly cooled, but it appears that it will age well during the next 2-5 years. Light toast on the barrel and 8-9 months in the bottle have made this lighter bodied wine well rounded.

Though Fogdog is the second label, it does not come cheap at the retail price of $35. But elegance, complexity and quality costs money- including higher vineyard costs of the sloppy vineyards defends Baxter.

The last two wines- Cabernet Napa ’06 from the classic year was a masculine wine with a lot of sunshine in the bottle and the resulting higher alcohol of 14.5% even though the year was cooler. The tannins were sweet and juicy but not over-ripe. It is still a bit rough on the edges but definitely will improve with age and mellow down too.

Insignia 2006 had mainly Cabernet Sauvignon (95%) and a small proportion of Petit Verdot (5%) in this vintage. Very juicy, structured wine with a strong back bone. Still quite a young wine, not ready to drink now, this will age for minimum 10 years.

Joseph Phelps may have a new insignia in the Freestone winery, but it will take deeper pockets and more sophisticated consumers in India to appreciate the Sonoma Coastal quality the new range has to offer. Obviously, these are not retail wines-but when in a restaurant in good mood, willing to splurge on a premium and delicious wine, go ahead and order a Fogdog or Freestone-with food-even vegetarian. You won’t be disappointed.

Subhash Arora


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