Toast the memory of late winemaker Joseph Phelps


The domestic wine world lost one of its leading lights last month when celebrated California winemaker Joseph Phelps passed away at age 87.

For more than 40 years Phelps remained at the forefront of Napa winemaking with his Bordeaux- and Rhone-styled blends, and his single-varietal bottlings. Along with other legends, including Robert Mondavi and Chuck Wagner, Phelps helped established Napa as a world-renowned wine producing region.

Born and raised in Colorado, Phelps expanded his family’s successful construction business to San Francisco in the 1960s, winning the opportunity to build a winery in Napa. He became enthralled with wine and, recognizing the region’s potential, established the Joseph Phelps’s Vineyards in 1973. His winery became a breeding ground for innovation and winemaking talent. Many of his former winemaker employees have moved on to their own well-regarded ventures in the United States and abroad.

And while Phelps never made a kosher wine, the imprint of his California wine work is indelible. To toast the memory of this innovative, pioneering and generous wine legend, we selected a special kosher Napa wine.

The Covenant Napa Valley Solomon Lot 70 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (the current 2011 vintage goes for about $150), is just now reaching its potential. Produced from two of Leslie Rudd’s finest vineyards, this dense dark berry and cherry-flavored, full-bodied beauty is well integrated with layers of mocha, cassis, tobacco and some spiced oak at the end. An archetypical Napa Cab in so many ways, it is a fitting bottle to honor the memory and history of a classic Napa personality.

Spirits-wise, we note the sudden criminal excitement in the world of bourbon with a bit of, well, bemused indifference. Less than a week ago, according to news reports, a Franklin County, Ky., grand jury indicted “nine members of a criminal syndicate that collaborated to promote or engage in the theft…and illegal trafficking” of booze from two different Kentucky bourbon distilleries: Frankfort’s Buffalo Trace Distillery, and the nearby Wild Turkey Distillery.

Part of the buzz is that Buffalo Trace also produces the increasingly astronomically priced Pappy Van Winkle brand, and thousands of dollars’ worth of Pappy was stolen in 2013 – allegedly by this same crime ring.

Prosecutors allege that the criminal scheme was spearheaded by rogue distillery workers and had gone on since 2008 or 2009. Of the nine individuals named in the indictment, two worked at Buffalo Trace and one worked at Wild Turkey, the news reports say.

While the investigation of the stolen Pappy in 2013 seemed to have gone cold, the recent arrests followed discovery five barrels of bourbon behind a shed on the property of one of the accused. Each barrel was full of Wild Turkey bourbon, weighed more than 500 pounds, and was worth roughly $6,000 each. Apparently hundreds of thousands of dollars or stolen booze, in barrel and bottle, was recovered.
According to the news reports, Assistant Franklin County prosecutor Zach Becker indicated that this crime syndicate also was linked to thefts of “over 20 cases of Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, 50 to 70 cases of Eagle Rare bourbon, nine additional stainless steel barrels of bourbon from Buffalo Trace stolen in the winter of 2014, and numerous other wooden barrels that have yet to be recovered.”

Based on all the reports so far, the criminal activity was all fairly casual, with cases and barrels walking out of the two distilleries all the time. While we obviously roundly condemn all such theft and criminal activity, we can’t help but note that both distilleries obviously need to do some internal house-cleaning and tightening of security measures. We don’t blame the victim, but it’s hard to sympathize with wealthy companies who can’t keep their own affairs in order.

We ponder all this with a tot of “Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 10-Year-Old Bourbon” ($35; 45 percent abv), developed by Wild Turkey Distillery’s Master Distiller Jimmy Russell and his son Eddie. This is a wonderfully sweet and soothing, elegant whiskey, with tantalizing aromas and rich flavors of honey, caramel, pecans, cotton candy, light maple syrup, orange zest, coconut, stewed pineapple and creamy vanilla. Think of it as a more tame yet balanced and refined expression of Wild Turkey, minus a little of the alcoholic strength. L’Chaim! 

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