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by Jerry D. Mead

There are a handful of wineries of which I can say..."If their name is on the it! can bet it will be good." Joseph Phelps of Napa Valley is one of them.

Phelps is not one the value wineries I love so much. Phelps gets top dollar for everything they produce, often more, in fact, than I care to spend. But for those who can afford them, they are worth the prices they command, at least to the degree that any beverage can be so valuable.

Last year, about this time, I reviewed the 1995 Joseph Phelps "Insignia" (a Meritage style red wine) prior to its release and gave it one of my few perfect 100 point scores for quality. When I suggested it might be even better than the widely heralded 1994 version, a lot of folks suspected me of indulging in hyperbole. Those who listened early and got their share have not been disappointed. The wine has received raves all year and is now selling for prices even higher than its $75 release. Insignia is Phelps signature wine, but it is not its only great wine.

The wines are available in most states, but are usually limited to sales in restaurants or wine specialty stores. For information on retail availability: Joseph Phelps, Box 1031, St Helena, CA 94574 (707) 963-2745.

Joseph Phelps 1997 "Napa" Sauvignon Blanc ($13.50) Light, delicate, crisp and very refreshing. Mostly grapefruit flavors, with a a little lime. Dry enough for oysters and raw seafoods like sushi and sashimi, but will also flatter a grilled swordfish. Rating: 94/84

Joseph Phelps 1997 "Los Carneros" Chardonnay ($22) A barrel-fermented wine utilizing fully one-third brand new French oak "barriques." But the wine is true to its cool climate fruit with lemon and crisp apple fruit and refreshing, even zesty, acidity. Which is to say the wood influence is there but does not dominate. Rating: 90/84

Joseph Phelps 1996 "Napa" Merlot ($30) Big, make that huge, Pomerol style. Extremely intense and concentrated black cherry flavor, with smoky, earthy after-flavors and a very long finish. As big as it is, you expect some tannin and toughness at the end, but it maintains a Merlot-like roundness when it takes its bows. A truly spectacular Merlot! Rating: 96/86

Joseph Phelps 1996 "Napa" Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) A fruit bomb! Gobs of intense black fruit, berry, cherry and currant, enrobed in fat, spicy, chocolatey, oak vanillin complexity. The finish goes on and on. Rating: 95/85


Joseph Phelps 1995 "Backus Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) A wine for "monster" lovers. On the verge of being "over the top," it is so intense, so concentrated, so showy and such an explosion of flavor in the mouth that it demands big points for quality. Cassis, ripe plum and bittersweet chocolate with lots of smoky, new barrel char complexity. Moderate astringency is balanced to fruit for tremendous cellar potential. I'd guess it will improve for 15-20 years. A good wine to lay away for children born in 1995 to enjoy when they reach their majority. If you must drink it now, match it with strong cheese at the end of the meal as a kind of no-sweet dessert. Rating: 97/82


It's a familiar story. An Italian emigrant works for others until he can save enough money to plant his own vineyards. For many years he sells his grapes to others, with the family finally building its own winery and selling its own 100 percent estate grown wines all over the world.

No, it's not the Sebastianis of Sonoma, it's the Voglino family of Maipo Valley in Chile.

I recently tasted through the entire line and we're talking quality and value. Because the wines are just now being imported here, your merchant may have to order them for you. You can inquire about retail availability through the importer: TGIC Imports, 17514 Ventura Blvd. #206, Encino, CA 91316 (818) 386-9877.

Santa Ema 1996 "Maipo" Merlot ($7) Typical black cherry fruit, aged in American oak and with a slightly bitter, but not unpleasant, finish. Rating: 84/85

Santa Ema 1996 "Reserve" Merlot ($10) French oak aging places loads of creamy oak vanillin on top of black cherry and cherrystone tartness. A better wine and a better value. Rating: 85/88

Santa Ema 1996 "Maipo" Cabernet-Merlot ($8) A blend of 60 percent Cabernet and 40 percent Merlot, it features dark cherry and red plum flavors with a round, supple mouthfeel. Rating: 86/90

Santa Ema 1995 "Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon ($10) Ripe plum, cassis, chocolate and anise represent the smells and tastes. Intense and concentrated. Rating: 89/93


Santa Ema 1996 "Maipo Valley" Cabernet Sauvignon ($7) Really big. In fact amazingly big for an inexpensive Cabernet. Big, ripe cassis flavors with a pleasant edge of bittersweet chocolate. Chewy and mouthfilling, but not astringent. Rating: 87/95


In the coming weeks we'll have results of the first major wine competition of the year, the New World International. And the good news is that several value wines were among the trophy winners.

For example, the wine judged overall best Merlot of the show sells for $7 and the best Cabernet is a $10 wine.

Not all of the top wines are bargains, of course, with many of the winners selling in the $20 to $40 price range. But the trophy-winning Sauvignon Blanc and Petite Sirah are both under $10 and the best Chardonnay is under $15. All in all, it looks like 1999 is going to be good for wine consumers. We'll begin announcing winners next week.

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Wines are scored using a unique 100 point system. First number rates quality; second number rates value.

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