Vision of Mare Island’s future distills from drive to build from ground up

August 27 2018

Daily Republic By Todd R. Hansen

VALLEJO — Dave Phinney spent much of his youth in the past, but is driven by the future.

“I like to be busy. I enjoy having multiple projects,” the 45-year-old Phinney said in an interview while sitting on a concrete wall outside Building 45 of the historic south Mare Island waterfront area, the future location of his Savage & Cooke Distillery hospitality center. He plans to open in October.

It is the challenges of any project that intrigue him, and creating and building something he can see when it is finished, Phinney said. He added that he never goes into a project thinking about profits first.

Not long ago, for example, he purchased some land on which an old walnut orchard had to be cleared. Now he is aging the burls from those trees with the intention of building his own high-end shotguns, a project that is closely linked to other interests in life.

“I own more shotguns than I will ever shoot,” said Phinney, who sees them as works of art as much as tools of his hunting hobby.

He also raises cattle, which is supported by some of his other agricultural interests, but one he has also turned into a business to produce leather products – all steps linked to personal interests.

“Usually it is something I enjoy, and then I figure out how to make it into a business,” Phinney said.

For example, the cattle ranching was actually started from his desire to just own a very large, wide-open expanse of land. He said there just weren’t many other uses.

His parents, both university professors, emphasized the need to enjoy the work first, Phinney said. It is a lesson cured through his try-first attitude that guided him away from a legal profession and politics.

Phinney studied political science at the University of Arizona, with a minor in history. He interned in a public defender’s office as he considered becoming an attorney. It was interesting, he said, but he realized he did not want to be an attorney. He also was an intern for a congressman, which taught him he did not want to live in that world, either.

That left him with no discernible path to his future, but a year in Italy had planted an interest in the wine industry.

“I started as a temporary harvest worker in 1997 for Mondavi Winery,” Phinney said.

He then jumped in to learn everything from the ground up. The next year, he started the Oren Swift Winery – aided by a number of growers with a desire to help – and Phinney’s expanding empire had its beginning.

In a nearby building, the actual distillery will produce whiskey, bourbon and rye, and he said he may “play around” with some brandy and rum. He has already produced under the brand some whiskey and tequilla, which he blended from other products in his own barrels.

Phinney has options to purchase seven buildings and intends to exercise all those when the transactions can be completed.

But it is on the north end of Mare Island where Phinney’s penchant to explore, expand and create could deliver his Vallejo legacy.

He and his wife, Kim, have two children. They live in St. Helena, neighbors of U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson. He said they share a love of old trucks.

Phinney jokes about how he and his wife argue whose roots run deeper in the state. Each is a fifth-generation Californian.

Nimitz Group sets sail

It wasn’t actually Phinney who launched the Nimitz Group, and ironically, he has never had much of an affinity for having partners. He has two now.

Phinney brought his friend Gaylon Lawrence Jr. to Mare Island to see the Savage & Cooke project. It was Lawrence – the new owner of Heitz Cellars in Napa County, a Southern banker and a farmer with expansive land holdings – who took notice of a north island development area for which the city was seeking proposals.

“And he said, ‘Why don’t we go after that?’ ” Phinney said.

The third man involved is Phinney’s longtime friend, Sabastian Lane, a real estate broker and owner of Depiction Wines, who had introduced Phinney to Lawrence.

The Vallejo City Council awarded the group the exclusive negotiation rights for the 157-acre property owned by the city.

Well publicized is the group’s intention to build a 600,000-square-foot SHM/Film Mare Island studio on up to 75 acres of the property.

“I think with the Film Mare Island, for instance, they are just good guys and we share a vision about what kind of businesses should be on the island,” Phinney said.

Under the proposal to the city, 24 acres would be set aside in a conservation easement for open space, and 12 acres for a community park.

Another 15 acres would be used for wine production and sales, with grapes being brought onto the island. Phinney is the founder of Oren Swift Wine and the Prisoner brand, both of which he has sold.

He also owns 300 acres of vineyards and a winery in a small village in southern France.

In addition to the North Bay Media Campus, the concept includes approximately 75 percent of the 1.2-million-square-foot development for winemakers Joel Gott Wines and Safe Harbor Wine Partners, the city announced.

Two sections of 20 acres apiece are proposed for manufacturing/industrial and for a mixed use of office and retail space, while 10 acres are designated for the first phase of office space development.

Phinney said that the technology and medical sectors are likely targets for possible tenants, and hinted at a known clothing manufacturer that is looking to bring its operation back to the U.S.

“But we have six months of hard diligence (ahead),” Phinney said.

He said he would know better, then, about what the full project could look like.

“We are not coming in blind. We know what the bogeys are,” he said, addressing such issues as environmental concerns with the island’s history as a naval base.

Phinney also acknowledged that he is always looking to expand his footprint, so if new opportunities arise on the south end of the island, he is open to explore them. But he said he is not actively seeking any specific project or land purchase.

Moreover, he said it will take decades for the entire north island project to be built out.

“We will not see this finish in our lifetimes,” Phinney said. “It is a 50-year project. It has to be.”

Back to history

Phinney’s grandfather was an archeologist who took him around the globe – and with those experiences grew his love for history and the desire to preserve it.

He said he has discussed the possibility of helping with the historic Mare Island Naval Cemetery, and the whole of the preserve, whether its historical aspects or the natural splendor.

He said rumors that he is looking to add part of the preserve to his project area is not true.

“My parents met in the Sierra Club, so it is just natural for me . . . So, yes, I have offered up whatever assistance we can do,” Phinney said.

His relationship with Rep. Thompson may play a critical part moving forward.

“It’s not from a developmental standpoint; it’s from a preservation standpoint,” Phinney said.