A Rare Vintage

This entry is part 11 of 21 in the series Fall - 2015

A Rare Vintage

By Tony Phifer

“Dad was someone who brought real business acumen to the industry and was viewed somewhat differently because of that. He very quickly became someone others looked to for advice.”

– Bill Phelps

Look around the Colorado State University campus, and the influence of Joseph Phelps is everywhere.

The original Lory Student Center. Morgan Library. Various residence halls. All were built by Hensel Phelps Construction, the company started by his father, Hensel. In many ways, Phelps helped shape the campus we see today.

Fittingly, CSU helped make Joseph Phelps (BS Construction Management ’51) the man he became during a truly remarkable and impactful life that ended April 15 at his home in St. Helena, Calif. He was 87.

“CSU was incredibly important to him in terms of building the company,” said his son, Bill. “Those projects, plus the Kodak project in Windsor, were huge in terms of helping the company become successful.

“He loved CSU and was always very proud and loyal to the University.”

With his company’s reputation for quality work established at CSU, Phelps helped turn Hensel Phelps Construction into a regional powerhouse. Dozens of projects around Colorado – Stapleton International Airport, the Tabor Center, the First National Bank Tower, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theater and Writer Square, to name a few – bore the Hensel Phelps stamp.

Phelps, though, was much more than a successful builder. A true renaissance man, he had numerous interests and passions, but none greater than his love of wine. Before long he would become a revered leader in the 1970s movement that established Napa Valley as the epicenter of American wine.

Bill Phelps, president of the Phelps Vineyards, remembers that a family friend from CSU introduced his father to wine, beginning a love affair that would last some 50 years. Soon, the bomb shelter constructed as part of the family home in Greeley was being filled with bottles and transformed into a makeshift wine cellar.

But it wasn’t until Phelps accepted a bid to build a winery in Napa, Calif., that his life truly changed. He fell in love with the Napa Valley and the winemaking life, and soon built his own winery, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, in 1973.

Like most everything else in his life, Phelps threw himself into winemaking with great passion, determined to be the very best. He was bold and unconventional in his approach to winemaking, and he almost immediately established his winery as a force in the industry.

Phelps wasted no time getting started, producing two wines in 1974. One was a syrah, the first commercial American release of its type. The second was Insignia, the first California blend of Bordeaux grapes produced under a proprietary name.

“If you asked a lot of his peers at the time, the recurring theme was that they were all making it up as they went,” Bill Phelps said. “They all came from different walks of life and just figured it out as they went. Dad was someone who brought real business acumen to the industry and was viewed somewhat differently because of that. He very quickly became someone others looked to for advice.”

Insignia was an immediate success, and is still considered one of the world’s great wines. Thirty-one of 37 vintages have been rated 90 or more points by various wine publications, including three perfect 100 point scores for the 1991, 1997 and 2002 vintages from Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate. The 2002 vintage of Insignia was also awarded “Wine of the Year” by Wine Spectator magazine.

Parker, a renowned wine expert who has been publishing The Wine Advocate since 1978, recently wrote that Phelps “was one of the great visionaries of Napa Valley. His legacy is one of extraordinary quality. He was one of the first to see the merit in blending, which his legendary Insignia, which first debuted in 1974, has proven year after year. Joe Phelps was a leader, and one of the greats of the wine world.”

Over the years, Phelps continued to expand his influence, adding properties in Napa and nearby Sonoma County. In addition to Insignia, his winery currently produces pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

Remarkably, Phelps became an industry leader in two distinct fields. Still, Bill said, describing him solely as a giant in construction and wine would not tell his father’s full story.

Phelps, who shied away from publicity, was very philanthropic in both Colorado and California. He contributed to the St. Helena Hospital and St. Helena Women’s Center, and donated land from his own ranch to create the River Ranch Farmworker Housing Center.

At CSU, he supported many causes but his most significant gifts came to the Department of Construction Management, where he established an endowed chair and an internship program with Hensel Phelps that has helped dozens of CSU students get started in the construction industry.

His final gift to CSU, though, perhaps best illustrates his love of family and his alma mater. He recently donated $50,000 to create the John Quincy Phelps Memorial Garden at Danforth Chapel. The gift honors his late brother, who died in a 1940 car crash while driving between Greeley and Fort Collins, where he was near completion of his freshman year at Colorado A&M.

“That was very much a late-in-life thing – something tangible he wanted to do for his brother,” Bill said. “It was a terrible family tragedy, and he was determined to honor his brother.”

Phelps leaves four children, eight grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and a legacy of hard-earned success.

“My dad was a guiding light and an inspiration for me, for our family and for our employees,” Bill told Wine Enthusiast magazine. “His passing will leave an immeasurable void in the lives of so many whom he touched. But this is also a time to be thankful for the amazing life he lived, and to celebrate his countless accomplishments. His spirit and drive will live on in the companies he built and the charitable organizations he nurtured and supported.”

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