Talk with many Napa Valley winemakers and they’ll tell you that Dave Phinney has the Midas touch when it comes to making wildly popular, edgy wines.
As examples, they’ll point to The Prisoner wine label that he sold in 2010 to Huneeus Vintners for a reported $40 million (six years later Huneeus sold the label to Constellation Brands for $285 million) or the Orin Swift collection of wines that he sold to E. & J. Gallo in 2016 for reportedly over $100 million. Now the golden-fingered winemaker has set his sights on distilled spirits — whiskey, bourbon, rye and tequila — opening Savage and Cooke Distillery on Mare Island.
“In many ways, this is no different than winemaking,” Phinney said. “We are converting sugars into alcohol that is aged in oak and then blending to get things to where we want them. More broadly, we have a lot of ideas about this place.”
Not content with crafting a collection of distinct 90-proof libations with artistic labels that lean heavily on his winemaking skills, Phinney and his team are also attempting to transform the Mare Island peninsula into a futuristic, artisanal community where people can live, work and play.
Understanding Dave Phinney
Phinney, now in his mid-40s, has a demeanor that is a mixture of a laid-back farmer dude blended with equal parts super-intense, always-on-the-phone business mogul.
Growing up in West Los Angeles he considered himself a “skate rat/punk,” he said. After eighth grade, he went to a boarding school in Lake Tahoe and then headed to Arizona for college. Eventually he found himself in the Napa Valley making some of the most popular wine blends and bottle art the world has ever seen. But what in this skate punk’s background provides the source of his success?
Phinney’s parents, both professors — his father a microbiologist who taught botany and his mother a psychologist who taught childhood development — through travel and education instilled their appreciation for art and different cultures in their son. They also gave him a print of Francisco Goya’s etching of “The Little Prisoner,” which would eventually become the inspiration and label image for The Prisoner wine brand. Today Phinney has been called the Andy Warhol of wine — effectively straddling creativity and commerciality.
In 1995, Phinney read an article in the December issue of National Geographic on sustainable agriculture. In his recollection the article included references to California vineyards owned by Gallo and Benziger. Now the owner of hundreds of acres of vineyards both in the United States and Europe, Phinney is a quiet, but passionate, advocate of sustainable farming.
Phinney’s longtime friend and current national sales manager, Tom Traverso, grew up in Santa Rosa, where his family was in the wine business. When Phinney was nearing the end of college and unsatisfied with his major of political science at the University of Arizona, Traverso called and offered him a spot in Italy for a semester abroad studying at the University of Florence in Tuscany. There, he gained enological inspiration.
Back in Arizona, Phinney helped plant a one-acre experimental block in Tucson while he worked at a local wine shop, learning about sales and furthering his wine education.
After graduating in 1997, Phinney sent out 50 resumes to wineries in Napa and Sonoma. One responded: the Robert Mondavi Winery. Working on the midnight-punch-down shift, he became hooked. After Mondavi, Phinney worked at Whitehall Lane winery under Dean Sylvester, who was known for crafting wines with robust aromatics and silky mouthfeel that are blended with the consumer foremost in mind as opposed to some winemakers who adhere to varietal and vineyard origins first and consumer desires second. There, at the winery’s tasting room, he also met his future wife, Kim Leonardini.
While at Whitehall he started his own brand, Orin Swift Cellars — a blending of his parents’ names.
Through his experiences, he learned that to thrive in the highly competitive wine business you must create something different and offer a superior product. One way to achieve both is through blending. As he told the Napa Valley Register in 2012, “The easiest way to get complexity [in wine] is to have multiple sources of grapes. It usually makes a better wine.”
There are other traits that have also influenced Phinney’s success — charity, irreverence, keeping friends close, a focus on quality and consistency, and staying out of the limelight — but his keen artistic eye, maintaining an emphasis on healthy farming techniques, an appreciation for wine’s diverse history and a clear understanding of the value of crafting compelling blends with the consumer’s preferences a top priority have been key to his success and have now become a part of his foray into distilled spirits.
Isla de la Yegua
The Savage and Cooke Distillery is located on Mare Island, a peninsula within the San Pablo Bay that is separated from Vallejo by a narrow stretch of water. The site has the advantage of being accessible both by a ferry from San Francisco and from nearby wine country.
Originally named Isla Plana by Spanish explorers in 1775, the island was renamed Isla de la Yegua after General Vallejo’s cherished white mare swam to shore after a shipwreck in 1835. When California became a free, nonslavery state in 1850, the peninsula became known as the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, making it the first naval base in the Pacific.
The shipyard grew in importance, servicing ships during the Civil War with Marines sent to protect the island for fear that Southern sympathizers might seize the shipyard. Employing more than 40,000 people at the height of World War II, it was on this tiny island that the internal parts for the atomic bombs that destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima were loaded aboard the naval cruiser Indianapolis.
Gradually, the shipyard’s prominence and work force shrunk, and after Congress approved the base realignment and closure report in 1993, Mare Island Naval Shipyard was officially closed in 1996. The loss of nearly 6,000 jobs had a ripple effect on nearby communities and is often cited as one of the factors of Vallejo’s bankruptcy in 2008.
In 1998, Vallejo contracted with Lennar Mare Island LLC (LMI) to develop more than 600 acres of the eastern portion of Mare Island into a multi-use community. The ambitious plan imagined the island as gentrified with its own university district, industrial zones and residential neighborhoods that would include 1,400 homes/condos and a vibrant commercial, retail and entertainment districts. Today, nearly 300 of those homes have been built, but the remainder of the plan is just now starting to gain momentum.
The Nimitz Group
Gaylon Lawrence Jr., a Memphis billionaire investor with more than 200,000 acres in land holdings, seven Southern community banks and Napa Valley’s Heitz Cellar, has joined forces with Phinney and Sebastian Lane, a real estate broker and owner of Napa’s Depiction Wines, to form the Nimitz Group, with the expressed goal of advancing and improving LMI’s 20-year-old vision to transform Mare Island.
“The idea is to transform what is a historic place into a vibrant hub that can service and support a community but also be a draw for commuters and visitors,” said Nathan Bergeron, chief operating officer of the Nimitz Group. “With four or more ferry trips a day to San Francisco, we see this potential solution for reducing traffic as just one of the many benefits.”
Although the ink on the deal with LMI is not completely dry, the group is moving forward with the renovation of many of the historic buildings and is envisioning wineries, restaurants, public parks, rooftop bars, grocery stores and coffee and tea shops but also artists’ studios, a Montessori school modeled after St. Helena’s and just about anything else that a mind like Phinney’s might dream up. From custom metalwork to handmade shotguns, nothing seems off-limits.
With the new group has come a surge of new interest, with the likes of Mare Island Brewing Co.; Vino Godfather wine tasting room; Film Mare Island, which makes Paramount and Netflix productions; modular high-density housing manufacturer, Factory OS; i-Mod, a modular classroom designer; train manufacturer Alstom; Mare Island Dry Dock Co.; Lind Marine/Moose Boats; metal fabricator Fog Fab; Earthquake Protection Systems; the Mare Island Museum; and the private medical school, Touro University.
Savage and Cooke Distillery
Located on what remains a working shipyard dock, the newly opened distillery stands as an example of the Nimitz Group’s envisioned transformation of the island. Hewn from dilapidated industrial warehouses, the newly renovated space has a distinctly Phinney aesthetic — at once cold and harsh but with a confidence and charm that entices.
Inside the lofty tasting room visitors can sample the current offerings ($15) — whiskey, bourbon, rye and tequila. Those who venture into the bowels of the cavernous building can pay $40 to enter the oak-barrel aging cellar, visit a secret chamber that once held spy photos but is now an echoey blending room and stand in front of a towering copper distiller, all the while having the internal workings of the distilling process explained, possibly even hearing from master distiller Jordan Via.
“Dave really comes at this from a winemaker’s perspective,” Via said. “We use locally sourced heirloom grains, the water comes from one of his vineyards and after aging in new oak barrels (as required by law) our spirits spend additional time in oak barrels in which he made either Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Grenache. It’s amazing how these different wine barrels influence the flavor and textural profile of the final product. It gives us a lot of options when blending.”
In the bottle
Each of Phinney’s bottles is something to behold. The images are provocative and the shape of the bottles is distinctive — be it the black rhombus-shaped whisky bottles or the square, Herculean-heavy bottles for tequila.
“When I was making the prototype bottles, because no one made them, I spray-painted the bottles black,” Phinney said. “There was a study done at UC Davis, and it found that if a customer picks up a bottle that’s the one they are probably going to buy.”
The grains are grown in Yolo County and use heirloom varieties, two of which are named “The Bloody Butcher” and “Howling Mob,” which seems to fit the Phinney ethos.
The combination of imagery and the potential for quality make nearly all the bottles made by Phinney the ones that are “picked up.”
Often, the label art is both provocative and oddly disconcerting, as highlighted by my favorite of Phinney’s new offerings, Lip Service, a 3-year-old rye whiskey ($32 per bottle) that has the image of a woman with her lower lip stretched out, revealing the tattooed word “never.”
The aromatics of Lip Service reveal a hint of the Grenache barrels in which they were aged, with aromatics and flavors of Christmas spice, black tea, honey and candied ginger. Rich in the mouth, the wonderful mix of smoothness and bursting flavors will make any mixologist giddy.
Second Glance Whiskey ($38 per bottle) and The Burning Chair Bourbon ($55 per bottle) are aged four years and are finished in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. Both are rich and complex, slightly sweet, with creamy textures, dark fruit aromatics, and spicy-caramel-peanut-brittle flavors, and each finishes with smoky oak — the whiskey leaning more toward citrus and the bourbon having a distinctly roasted-meat savoriness.
Because tequila is a protected geographic term that can be made only within certain regions, the “Ayate” tequilas are made by Rosendo Ramirez Senior in the highlands of Guanajuato, Jalisco. The Reposado ($65 per bottle) is aged four months in new American oak and then an additional four in previously used Chardonnay barrels, which provides a buttery-citrus note to the crafted agave wonderfulness.
The Añejo ($95 per bottle) is aged two months in new American oak, four months in used French oak and six more months in ex-Chardonnay barrels, with the extra oak treatment proving distracting and adding little except, well, oak.
The future of Mare Island is now linked to the success of Phinney and friends.
Whereas historically, Mare Island has been valued as a protected area where the craft of war and military defense were the primary concern, now the marshy and historic peninsula might gain a new worth — a place where innovative businesses and a vibrant community might flourish.
“We are attempting to do something that hasn’t been done before,” Phinney said. “I’m comfortable with that.”
“We are attempting to do something that hasn’t been done before. I’m comfortable with that.” Dave Phinney