The Dynamic David Phinney: A Napa Wine Legend Turns to Spirits

June 26 2018

Forbes Jun 25, 2018 @ 10:30 AM

David Rosengarten , Contributor I write about food and wine. Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

El Niño. The San Andreas Fault. And David Phinney.

Jeopardy question: Name three forces of nature in California.

El Niño may blow you away. The San Andreas Fault may swallow you up.

But David Phinney may make you blow a day’s pay on an incredible bottle of a California wine or spirit…pretty much guaranteeing you will swallow it up! And come back for more!

California-born Phinney, in fewer than ten years after his winery-work debut in Napa Valley in 1997, became one of the most successful winemakers ever to emerge from the Golden State. Now an elder statesman of the industry (at a mere 45 years of age), Phinney recalls how, (after falling in love with wine during college years in Florence) he maneuvered his way into working the harvest at Robert Mondavi (in 1997), then worked his way up the wine chain at that vinous holy of holies. The very next year, he started his own Napa Valley brand (Orin Swift Cellars), and wisely made his first act the purchase of some terrific Napa grapes…though he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with them. Soon, he figured it out….creating a rich, seductive, runaway best-selling wine called The Prisoner (an unusual blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Charbono)…eventually selling off his brands and assets to the tune of almost 300 million dollars! As if that weren’t enough, Phinney today produces wines from vineyards he owns in four European countries (France, Italy, Spain, Greece)…AND…..he now works for Orin Swift (the company he founded)…which he managed to sell in 2016 to E. J. Gallo (who can be very quality-oriented when they want to…and very cash-generous!)

And who’s in charge of production and winemaking today for the Gallo-owned Orin Swift wines, which are also runaway best-sellers?

David Phinney, of course. Force of Nature. A man recognized by all as a god-given talent roaring through their midst.

Margaret Pattillo

But believe it or not…in this account we have not yet come to the venture that takes up most of Phinney’s precious time these days…Savage & Cooke, a distillery he recently founded, set between San Francisco and Napa Valley, currently producing four spirits labels…but on track to becoming one of the most important distilleries in the United States.

That’s right. Though Phinney some years ago grabbed the biggest ring on the Napa wine carousel….his focus right now is on spirits!

Those who know how this wunderkind operates (the German terminology is still appropriate!) have no doubt that soon there will be a Savage & Cooke-branded spirit that will become, in its world, as dominant as The Prisoner was in its world.

The path to this result is ear-marked everywhere with Phinney characteristics. When asked how he does it, how he over and over again marshalls forces, details, people into brilliant projects that take on lives of their own….he responds with the hallmark modesty and humility that all colleagues know him for. 

Sporting a baseball cap and very casual clothes (of the jeans-and-sneakers variety…even though he’s about to address a few hundred people at a party celebrating his new distillery), Phinney is reluctant to sum himself up. With his easy, boyish charm, he first offers the thought that at 45 he still doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. But when he focuses, he cites luck, timimg, hard work, and, of prime importace, the willingness to take risks. Many a risk-taker, of course, ends up in financial purgatory…especially in wine…but not Phinney. “The thing is,” he tells me, “all of these characteristics have to be there at the same time that you’re taking risks.” He leads a group of 45 employees, world-wide, who constitute another element of Phinney’s game. “It is essential to spend a lot of time screening and hiring top-quality people. And it is essential to trust them,” Phinney says. Collaboration is intense and meaningful. “I’m perfectly fine with being ‘wrong,’ “ Phinney continues, “and I don’t need to be the smartest guy in the room. Everyone in my company knows this is a democracy.”

But the Phinney twist comes with the ironic, quietly uttered follow-up phrase: “until it isn’t.”

Phinney’s decision to move towards distillates demonstrates another part of the Phinney business world-view. “About 5-6 years ago”—just 5-6 years ago!!!—“our wine distributors stated telling us that a great deal of money could be made in distillates.” Phinney is emphatic that it was not this part of the deal that interested him. “I don’t believe that the making of money should be the prime motive behind any business venture.”

What counts for him, then?

“The drive to become better at what you day every single day. That drive in my company—which focuses every moment on the solution of hundreds of little problems in the best possible way—grows to become a company spirit, an ethos.”

In the literature about Phinney, no one ever calls him a “control freak”—I guess because the phrase has negative connotations. But you can’t help thinking it about Phinney—as long as you keep in mind that the “control” part is purely an exercise in creating quality. Sure, he likes to control things—but only because that yields a better product.

“I wasn’t set on the distillery project,” Phinney told me, “until I realized I could have an extraordinary degree of control over the basic elements that go into distillates, those elements not usually in the hands of distillers.”

A lot of whiskey starts with grain, of course. So Phinney bought wheat fields in nearby Yolo County which will be the basis of many Savage and Cooke whiskeys. Water is a key part of the process: “I found the purest, cleanest, most delicious water in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley,” he says. “Uncannily perfect for distillation!” So he bought the spring, and will use its exceptional output for all Savage and Cooke products. “And then, of course,” Phinney continues, “whiskey must be stored.” Obviously, with all the wine in Phinney’s world, there’s no dearth of barrels! Many an Orin Swift barrel that holds, say, Chardonnay this year—will be holding, say, tequila next year!

Margaret Pattillo

Phinney was born in northern California, made his fortune and his reputation in Napa Valley, is making agriculture deals all around northern of course the Savage & Cooke distillery would have to be in this area. Four years ago, he came across a place that’s “halfway been San Francisco and Napa Valley, northeast of the city” as Phinney tells it—or, as some describe it, the southernmost tip of Napa Valley. It is called Mare Island, named for General Mariano Gaudalupe Vallejo’s beloved white mare in 1835—when the animal swam to the island after a shipwreck. Mare Island wasactually an island then…but got connected to the mainland at one point, and is now a peninsula. No name change. It is at the head of San Pablo Bay, and had important U.S. military significance for over a hundred years. Mare Island was, in fact, through much of the 20th century, the site of the largest U.S. Naval Base west of the Mississippi! History took place here…such as the loading of atomic bomb parts, headed ultimately for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, onto the Indiannapolis, which steamed them westward to Asia. It was also a shipyard…providing ships to the Navy from the Civil War through World War II.

There was also abundant manufacuring on Mare Island in the 19th century, with seven pristine factory buildings still standing. These are now the basis of the Savage & Cooke property; in fact, Phinney decided to name the whole company after two relatively unknown workers at the 19th-century factories—one named Savage and one named Cooke. They are lending their names to the 21st-century glory of Mare Island—though no one knows much about them.

Margaret Pattillo

As a kind of paean to California’s recent past, force-of-nature Phinney has plans to make the island a riveting tourist destination. Always working with luck, timing and risk—Phinney will build a winery here as well, possibly in its first go-round as the fermentation site of Pinot Noir grapes Phinney is already growing in the nearby Santa Rita Hills. But wait. Phinney wants to open a restaurant here, possibly focusing on fried chicken. What else? A boutique coffee roaster. A rooftop bar. A large and beautiful public park. Studios for artists. And maybe a leather goods business, material provided by cattle that Phinney will raise…selling the meat through a Mare Island butcher shop. Who will come to the relatively isolated Mare Island? Lots of people. Urban center Vallejo is just across the water, and ferries are already running to bring San Franciscans to Mare Island and back.

And the distillates?

Savage & Cooke is already selling whiskey and bourbon, distilled elsewhere but currently being finished in barrels on Mare Island. The two most important things about five-year-old Second Glance American Whiskey ($38), and four-year-old Burning Chair Bourbon ($55) are:

1) There’s a strong connection to Phinney’s winemaking; both of these spirits are aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels from Phinney’s wine projects; and

2) Soon they’ll both be distilled on Mare Island, using the local elements Phinney has put into production!

I tasted both spirits, on my recent visit to Mare Island, and was very impressed with the quality. But the mountains that Phinney moved to bring two Tequilas to the market (both made in Mexico, of course), threw me back even further!

“I met a guy in L.A. with whom I was working on a deal,” Phinney says. “The deal didn’t go through…but we did become friends…and he did tell me about his cousin…who owns a great tequila distillery in Mexico…way up in the mountains…where the high-altitude agave brings out a crisper, clearer taste in the tequila.”

So what did Phinney arrange to do? Well, he went down to Jalisco, of course, trekked up the mountain to meet the Ramirez family…and made a deal to bring Ramirez’s tequila in barrels across the border…to Mare Island, where Phinney finishes the tequila! But not just any barrels: they made the trek in Phinney’s once-used Chardonnay barrels that Phinney shipped to Mexico before shipping them back!

The brand name is Ayate, and I also tasted the pair of Phinney tequilas now available. Wow! The Ayate Tequile Anejo ($95)—which, as with all Mexican Anejos, is the longest aged—beautifully shows its sojourn in Phinney’s barrels. A lovely amber in the glass, the pure smell of agave rises up to the nose, cut, perhaps, with something suggesting fresh-made metal. It is round and elegant on the palate—as Anejo is supposed to be, but is rarely this round and elegant.

Margaret Pattillo

But my favorite is the one with a little less age. I think you get even more agave theatrics in the Ayate Tequile Reposado ($65)…this time counterpoised with something like celery seed, which seems crazily appropriate. There is spice and vanilla too, both on the nose and in the palate…leading to a super-elegant Reposado, which may be even less sharp than the rounded Anejo! At this price…the Reposado is an incredible bargain in high-quality tequila.

If these four products are any indication—and I’m sure they are!—Savage & Cooke will become among the greatest of American distillers. Remember Phinney, the hidden Control Freak: as he cranks up his control on everything (they’re currently designing a bottling line!), these splendid liquids, already lofty, have no place to go but further and further up. And remember Phinney the force of nature: it’s as if he’s wrapping his huge arms around northern California, squeezing, and bringing It all together in a few exquisite drops.