Food, Wine and Design
by Hans Baldauf
For several years while my sister, brother and I were in grade school my mother used to entertain us for the Columbus Day weekend by taking us up to the Napa Valley to pick grapes for the day. This may seem odd today, but for my mother who grew up on a working cattle ranch, it was a way to expose us to the joys and hard work of agricultural life. This was in the time before vines were trained on wires and there was a real art to finding the clusters beneath the overgrown vines. We learned to both appreciate the hard work involved in a harvest, and also how delicious wine grapes are. We could never really enjoy table grapes after those harvest days.
Growing up in northern California in the 1960’s and 70’s one had a ring side seat to the explosive growth of the premium wine industry in the Napa and Sonoma valleys, and there were always trips that we were included in to visit wineries and learn about wine making. On one of these trips I made my first visit to the Joseph Phelps Winery with its magical setting in Spring Valley just off the Silverado Trail. I remember even then being impressed by the winery building designed by John Marsh Davis, with its dramatic trellis that signals the entry point between what was then the fermentation building and the barrel storage building.
My next memory of the winery was a visit in the early 1980s when I went with my family to a Chez Panisse birthday party. It was an amazing affair with a hot air balloon that you could go up in tethered in the upper parking lot.
This past Friday evening I was privileged to attend the 40th anniversary celebration of the winery and appropriately Chez Panisse provided the dinner, recognizing a collaboration that has gone on over the years.
I attended with Don Brandenburger and his wife Jean (Pictured here with Bill Phelps, center). We are collaborating on the transformation of the old winery building into a visitor’s center. Wine production moved down the hill several years ago.
I could not resist going into the kitchen to see Chef Samantha Greenwood’s (pictured above with Nicole Boutilier, VIP, Trade and Phelps Preferred Hospitality Manager) preparations for the celebratory dinner. We talked about the fire at Chez Panisse this past week and she made the poignant observation that Chez Panisse was fortunate to have insurance that was paying all the staff while reconstruction was occurring- but that they missed the cooking and it was great to be able to be back in the kitchen cooking.
Joseph Phelps Vineyards is a family owned and run corporation. Bill Phelps is the president, his father Joe founded the winery and lives up the hill but is no longer involved in day to day operations, so it was wonderful to see him at this celebration. I enjoyed learning about his purchase of the property, collaboration with Davis on the design, and the pieces of magical thinking that has lead Phelps to its position in the wine world today. Joe Phelps was a contractor prior to becoming a winemaker and is a unique bridge between architecture and wine making as he understands both intimately. He is currently enjoying watching the addition of a solarium to his house be built. He is acutely conscious of the twelve weeks it is taking to produce the window shop drawings in Italy.
The making of things, whether a building, a great wine or a dinner should be a joyous endeavor and Friday’s dinner epitomized the Phelps Family’s attitude toward the making of things. Samantha Greenwood was given a selection of wines that epitomized the production of Joseph Phelps vineyards over the last four decades. The pairings were amazing. A particular standout was the squash tortellini and black trumpet mushrooms in brood which was served with the Joseph Phelps Pinot Noir, Quarter Moon Vineyard, Sonoma Coast 2010.
Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon, Eisele Vineyard, Napa Valley 1982 (my favorite wine of the evening- an incredibly dramatic wine that I cannot begin to do justice with words)
Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon, Backus Vineyard, Oakville, Napa Valley 1991
Joseph Phelps Insignia, Napa Valley 2002, which was Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year.
We were then given the opportunity to taste a younger (2005) Insignia which was served with Vermont Verano and truffled Moliterno cheeses with preserved quince.
The dinner ended by taking us the furthest back in time, Joseph Phelps Johannesburg Riesling, Selected Late Harvest, Napa Valley 1979- this wine now dark in color is still delicious and altogether fitting to celebrate the creation of the winery by a man who fell in love with wine as a college student in Colorado- and the first wine he fell in love with was a Riesling from Chile.
Below was the menu for the night.