“I never made a wine I liked,” says Dave Phinney, world-famous winemaker-turned-distiller.
If you don’t know Phinney by name you probably know The Prisoner wine. This Zinfandel blend is a testament to Napa wines that also put red blends on the map. Phinney, ever the perfectionist, toiled away at The Prisoner, creating a few hundred cases in 2000. Ten years later, he was making more than 80,000 cases.
“I know all the things we could’ve done better,” said Phinney, who’s up for Wine Enthusiast’s Winemaker of the Year.
The Prisoner was the cornerstone of Phinney’s Orin Swift Cellars, propelling the brand to stardom. After years of hard work and well-deserved fame, Phinney, now 45, sold Orin Swift and his other wine brands and assets for a cool $300 million.
The catch? An eight-year-long non-compete agreement preventing him from making another delectable Zin blend.
“The success is great, but it comes at a price, which meant not spending enough time with my family,” said Phinney who was married with two young kids at the time of the sale. “So, the non-compete portion versus the monetary aspect … it was much more important that I was gonna get my life back.”
Of course, with his long history in the wine world and relationships with various growers, he got the Zin-making itch about halfway through the non-compete. The aptly named 8 Years in the Desert marked the end of this restriction in 2016.
“We take every aspect of a project hyper-seriously,” said Phinney, discussing the details put into the everything from the grapes to the label to the marketing. “It wasn’t just that the wine had to be good.”
Unsurprisingly, 8 Years has been a huge hit, despite this remarkable follow-up to The Prisoner being mostly found in a pricey set of eight. Luckily, the 2017 is a bit more readily available solo.
But how did Phinney go from wines to hard liquor? To quit wine while he’s ahead? To chase higher ABVs than his already potent wines?
Mostly, because the universe willed him to do it.
Years of not-so-subtle suggestions from his distributors, the discovery of a natural spring on one of his properties, and the purchase of an old naval yard that was just better suited to a distillery led to the opening of his Savage & Cooke. Nestled in Vallejo, this San Francisco distillery sits on the first U.S. Navy base in the Pacific Ocean.
“We’re fortunate and sort of guilty of having too much space,” said Phinney about the sprawling property, easily capable of doubling production. “We have a rather large tasting room and then [on the production side] we have the space to grow. It’ll just be dictated essentially by the market.”
His self-critical eye and deep knowledge of wine have mostly kept Phinney from drinking his wines. But in this world, Phinney gets to step back from the process and let Jordan Via, master distiller, work his magic.
“Where we would stand apart in spirits is the fact that we’re growing our own grains and finishing in our wine barrels,” said Phinney about their process, which starts with crops like heirloom varietals of corn or Hawaiian sugarcane (the latter of which will turn into some small batch rum in the near future).
Savage & Cooke is also banking on the iconography of their bottles, which are sure to stand out at any bar, especially the whiskeys. The distillery currently makes two agave spirits, a bourbon, and an American whiskey — Phinney’s favorite.
“We don’t set out to be disruptors,” said Phinney. “We just set out to apply our ideology to any given brand. Hopefully, people will gravitate towards that feeling.”