Orin Swift Cellars

By Sunny Brown on November 3, 2008

Category: Winery of the Month

"He's the man, the man with the Midas touch." With apologies to Shirley Brassey for the lyrics and Ian Flemming for the inspiration, Dave Phinney of Orin Swift Cellars is the new Goldfinger. Not in the creepy, German-accented, trying to take over the world sort of way, but in the sense that everything he touches turns to gold. Take for instance the latest Orin Swift creation Papillon, a Bordeaux-styled blend sourced from Vince Tofanelli's famous vineyard on the north end of Napa Valley. Perhaps never before have we seen such a perfect storm of quality grapes, expert winemaking and slick packaging.

Packaging you ask? Yeah, that's right I said packaging. Now before all of you wine purists out there start slamming your mouse in disgust for the mere mention that something as trivial as packaging could play a role in the overall popularity of a wine, remember that 27% of all wine is purchased without knowing a single thing about the contents inside the bottle. Be it on the recommendation of the server, a wine dude or a friend we often grab wines that we are unfamiliar with. Even more often we reach for a wine based solely on the gasp label art. It is a common fact that in the last ten years there has been an explosion in the research and development budgets of wineries, but not just for developing better wines, or for researching more suitable vineyard locations, but in the R & D of label art.

Wine consumers today are faced with a vast array of wines from hundreds of grape varieties grown from all over the planet. They may be sold by country, region, town, grape variety, style or even a fictitious proprietary name. Some wine stores have grown to the size of Wal-Marts, with thousands of choices lining what seem like endless rows of vino. So the consumer is naturally drawn to the label that stands out, one that catches the eye or grabs the attention like a great bottle of burgundy. Here Phinney is at the top of his game.

But as they say, the proof is in the pudding, and a great label may reel you in for a sample, but only a truly superb bottle of wine will have you hooked for a lifetime. Sure the packaging of the Orin Swift wines is awesome, with incredible labels adorning heavy-gauge glass bottles that just scream of quality, but it is the profound nature of the wines that continues to draw fans back like a moth to the flame.

Papillon may not be a wine that you are familiar with, in part because production was low and demand through the roof. However, Orin Swift Cellars also makes a little wine called The Prisoner. You may have heard of it. Just in case you haven't, and you simply aren't anyone if you haven't, it is a hedonistic blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Charbono, a Kitchen Sink, Grenache and a steering wheel from a '68 'Cuda. Just kidding with the "anyone" comment, but I must say in all my years in the wine industry I have never come across a wine that has developed such a buzz about it so quickly, so completely and so justifiably at the mid-$30's price point that The Prisoner commands. $37 wines just don't have customers lining up to buy cases of them. People buy cases of Two Buck Chuck and Black Cat Riesling, not a $37 red blend from Napa that was practically unknown until a couple of years ago.

But what else would you expect from a guy that convinced his professor to let him grow grapes in Tuscon? Phinney got his start in the wine industry after spending a semester studying abroad in Florence. His roommate at the time suggested he try his hand at wine since the unseemly side of politics didn't appeal to Phinney's laid back nature. When he returned from Florence to the University of Arizona where he was studying Political Science at the time, he immediately began working in a wine shop, and spent the next year growing grapes in the desert.

After graduation came a stint at Robert Mondavi Winery, where Phinney gladly started at the bottom staining barrels, cleaning bins, and proudly working "as the only white guy on an all-Mexican night shift crew. It was hard work, but we had a blast," says Phinney. Stints at Whitehall Lane and Bennett Lane followed, but during all this Phinney had quietly started making wine on his own under the moniker Orin Swift, combining his Grandfather's first name with his Mother's maiden name.

The first two vintages, 1998 and 1999 he made Zinfandel and Cabernet, but it was not until 2000 that his claim to fame was born. As many know, 2000 was not the greatest vintage in California. Cool and rainy weather took away some of the weight and ripeness that Phinney looked for in his wines. He found, however, that he could still find quality fruit from some of the more esoteric varietals such as Syrah, Petite Sirah and Charbono. Phinney knew he did not want to make several mediocre wines from each variety, so instead he used only the best fruit to create the first Prisoner. Success came quickly, but production remained low since Phinney was committed to only creating wine from the best possible vines he could. "The demand was there," he explained. "But if we can't find that quality of fruit we just won't make it."

Over the years The Prisoner has gone from small-batch cult wine to a nationwide phenomenon. Production is still relatively low and demand high, so it is never available year round. Thankfully, Phinney dutifully releases the next vintage of The Prisoner each year on Halloween, and the latest vintage had fans of Orin Swift wines whipped into a veritable frenzy searching for the reproduction of Francisco Goya's The Little Prisoner which adorns the label.

Orin Swift Cellars is hardly a one trick pony, and over the years Phinney has also created a rich and robust Cabernet called Mercury Head, the aforementioned Papillon and a Sauvignon Blanc called Veladora. Through it all he has remained focused more on the quality of his fruit than on any one specific place in Napa Valley. This is not to say that Phinney doesn't completely believe in California terroir, a subject he jokingly calls "hokey," but he believes that the true quality of a vineyard can to a certain extent be controlled. "There are lots of subtle differences in making wine," explains Phinney. "But it is finding the vineyards, making sure that they are farmed properly, and knowing when to pick."

"I just want the vineyards to make good wine."

And good wines they do! The 2007 Veladora Sauvignon Blanc is also sourced from Tofanelli's famous old-vine, dry-farmed vineyards located just a mile south of Calistoga on the north end of the Valley. This wine makes no apologies for its richness and unctuous feel, yet still offers harmony and fresh acidity along with the tropical fruit flavors and mineral nuance. The label features Our Lady of Guadalupe, better known as the Virgin Mary who appeared to a humble villager in 1531 just outside of what is now Mexico City. The proceeds for this wine go to an organization called Puertas Abiertas (Open Doors) which provides dental and health care services to the many migrant workers who toil away in the vineyards of California.

The 2007 The Prisoner is up to its usual standards, as wave after wave of rich, dark fruit mingles with notes of spice and dark chocolate. This is what I would call a "full-throttle" wine as it seems to hit the palate at break-neck speed, races around and around your mouth for what seems like 500 miles after you have swallowed, and leaves your taste buds in a wash of power, intensity and excitement. There are few wines that I have come across that are as crowd-pleasing as this one on such a grand scale. Young men like it, old ladies like it, even my Mom who only drinks Riesling likes it, though it is much closer in style to a dry and spicy Zin than anything with residual sugar.

If you can find it The 2006 Prisoner was perhaps even bigger and bolder than this year's version. The chains on the Goya print that graces the front of the bottle could barely restrain the fruit and decadence of this chewy and savory red. Blackberry and Hershey's syrup run through the mid-palate, before a spice and herb-laden finish swings into the picture and hangs out for like a week.

Another wine to keep an eye out for is the 2005 Papillon, a bordeaux-styled blend that is out-of-control good. Primarily Cabernet, but all sourced from some of the oldest and grarliest vines on the Tofanelli estate, it is all the balance, structure and complexity one would expect from a deftly constructed blend of grapes grown by one of Napa's master craftsman. But there is one slight difference- better make that a huge difference- it is as if some one cranked the volume knob on this wine to well past ten. To like 27. It is just that big and jammy and juicy and enjoyable. It is also packaged in probably the heaviest glass bottle I have ever seen. If I were walking down a dark alley and someone tried to mug me I could simply drop this bottle on the would-be robber's foot. The label consists of a black and white photo of Vince Tofanelli's grape and mud smeared hands with the word Papillon written across his knuckles. There is nothing else to denote the wine or grape breakdown on the front of the bottle. The photo was taken by photographer of the stars Greg Gorman who has made his name by snapping black and whites of everyone from Al Pacino to Iggy Pop. Über-cool indeed.

Last but not least is the 2005 Mercury Head Cabernet Sauvignon. Made from 100% Cabernet sourced from two of the best vineyards in all of Napa (the Morisoli Vineyard in Rutherford and the Taplin/Lewelling Vineyard in St. Helena) this is California Cab at its best. Big, rich and round, with gobs of red and black fruit, currant, cedar and complex notes that range from earthy (pencil lead and scorched earth) to leathery to smoky. Just a well made wine, and one that will stand the test of time. While the tannins are rich and luxurious now, a little time in the cellar will certainly only add detail to what is already a masterpiece. Another heavy bottle, the front is graced with a solitary Mercury Head dime as the only indicator to the riches that lay within.

When asked what his secret was to winemaking, his response was as simple as his wines are delicious: "Spend more time in the vineyards." If it were only that easy everyone would make wines this good. Unfortunately they don't so grab these wines while you can.