Wine mogul Dave Phinney poised to transform Mare Island with distillery

January 10 2018

By Esther Mobley

January 6, 2018 Updated: January 7, 2018 6:00am

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If Dave Phinney has his way, Mare Island, once the largest naval base west of the Mississippi River, may soon become the Bay Area’s newest adult playground.

Phinney is a winemaker — more accurately, a wine entrepreneur. He created mega-hit wine brands like the Prisoner and Orin Swift, both of which he has sold for hundreds of millions of dollars, and the Locations line of wines, which he still owns. But it’s spirits, not wine, that’s calling him to Mare Island, off the shore of Vallejo, where he’s building a distillery called Savage & Cooke.

 “The minute I came down here, it was hook, line and sinker,” Phinney says of the island. With long-term leases on seven of the island’s historic buildings, he is getting into businesses he never imagined. In addition to the distillery, Phinney has plans for a winery, a fried chicken restaurant, a public park, a rooftop bar, a boutique coffee roaster, artists’ studios and more. He’s planning on starting a leather goods business, furnished by cattle whose meat he will also sell. And he’s getting into the “artisanal” shotgun business. (Yes, he’s serious about that.)

Looking at it through Phinney’s eyes, the Vallejo island’s appeal is obvious. There is ample space, a colorful history and a location right between Napa, where Phinney is based, and San Francisco, whose residents can travel to the island by ferry.

“It’s not rocket science, geographically, why this makes sense,” Phinney says.

But more importantly, Mare Island wants Phinney, and has been friendly to the ambitious Savage & Cooke project in a way that development-averse Napa County would likely never be. After three years of work, Savage & Cooke will open to the public in late spring or early summer, whereas “if this were Napa,” Phinney says, “I might be halfway through the permit process.”

Napa is saturated with tourist magnets. Mare Island is trying to get some.

“We see the opportunity,” says Ed Moser, a spokesman for developer Lennar Mare Island, which leases Phinney his spaces, “and I think Dave Phinney does as well, for people to come to Mare Island by the ferry, have a cocktail, taste some wine, walk along the waterfront promenade and then take the ferry back to San Francisco.”

Phinney’s arrival on Mare Island comes at a pivotal point in its history. The island — actually a peninsula — was named Isla de la Yegua in 1835 when General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo’s prized white mare swam ashore after a shipwreck. It soon became a hub of activity as a naval shipyard, and supplied ships during the Civil War as well as World War II. At the height of its industry, in the 1930s and 1940s, employment on the island exceeded 40,000 workers, including 9,000 women — “that whole Rosie the Riveter thing,” as Phinney puts it. A golf course, built in 1892, remains the oldest golf course in the western United States.

“It was at Mare Island on Dec. 7, 1941, that an urgent transmission came reporting the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor,” The Chronicle’s Patrick Hoge recounted in 2006. “And it was there that the guts of the atomic bombs that destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima were loaded aboard the cruiser Indianapolis.”

As the Navy downsized many of its shipyards in the latter part of the 20th century, Mare Island’s energy began to wane. It was merged for a time with the Hunter’s Point shipyard, to cut costs, yet remained the second-largest Navy yard in the country throughout the 1980s.

When it was announced in 1993 that the Navy would close Mare Island — in a widespread program of military base closures following the Cold War — the shipyard employed nearly 6,000 workers.

Since the 1996 closure, Mare Island has been in the process of converting to civilian use. And it’s been a slow road. Developer Lennar Mare Island, in an unusual partnership with the city of Vallejo, is executing a plan that involves commercial, residential and educational uses. So far, Touro University has put roots here. A prefabricated housing company and a boat manufacturer have come; so has a brewery, Mare Island Brewing Co. Eventually, Lennar — whose longterm goal is to sell these properties — hopes to build 1,400 residential units.

But so far just 280 residences exist, and a high-profile tenant, the electric car company Faraday Future, pulled out of plans to relocate here. For now, 21 years after the shipyard closure, Mare Island still feels starkly empty.

That is, except for the seven buildings that Dave Phinney is rehabilitating, which are full of construction workers, makeshift offices and, in one case, piles of enormous, spalted black walnut trunks. (Their wood is for those artisanal shotguns.)

“We really wanted to lock up this block,” Phinney says of the area that his buildings inhabit, directly abutting the island’s ferry terminal. All seven structures are under historic preservation regulations, and two in particular — known as buildings 45 and 65 — are among the oldest on the island, dating to 1865.

History like that is marketing gold. Building 45, which will become the Savage & Cooke hospitality center, was once a bunker and a storage facility for highly classified military documents, Phinney says. Recently, construction workers discovered beneath Building 65 some old brick water cisterns — inside of which Phinney hopes to eventually install a speakeasy-style bar. The distillery’s very name, Savage & Cooke, refers to two men who once worked at the shipyard’s electrical building, though Phinney doesn’t know anything more about them.

Walking among these buildings, Phinney rattles off his plans and dreams with the limitless optimism of a child writing his Christmas list to Santa. This corner will become an outdoor tasting deck; that area, a general store. That building will be a communal kitchen, a metalworker’s shop, a barrel showroom. The former electrical building, Building 101, will become a winery dedicated to Pinot Noir, though Phinney isn’t sure which of his wine brands will be made there.

If it feels like Phinney is making an outsize wager on Mare Island becoming a booming tourist destination, he doesn’t see it as quite so risky. “We need the production space either way,” he says. “The direct sales aspects, if they come, are a bonus, but it’s not how we pay the bills.”

How he plans to pay the bills, of course, is by selling bottles of booze.

Ayate Tequila is one of the spirits that will be featured at Savage...

As of now, Savage & Cooke has released two Tequilas, añejo ($95) and reposado ($65), which are made by distiller Rosendo Ramirez in Guanajuato, Mexico and finished in Phinney’s Chardonnay barrels. (Like Champagne, Tequila is a protected geographic term and can only be made within certain regions.) Two whiskeys joined the lineup this fall: Second Glance, an American whiskey ($38), and Burning Chair, a bourbon ($55). More whiskeys are still to come, including one called Cistern, a reference to Building 65.

These current whiskeys are made negociant-style, with Phinney buying barrels of whiskey from other distilleries, then blending them and finishing them in his own Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. Within two years, however, the Savage & Cooke brown spirits will be made entirely on-site. Water, a crucial component of spirits, will come from a spring at Phinney’s Alexander Valley vineyard. Heirloom grains — and corn, for bourbon — will come from a 300-acre farm he’s secured in Yolo County. A friend of his is even growing heirloom sugar cane, which Phinney eventually hopes will supply a rum program.

Phinney isn’t much of a spirits drinker himself. As he speaks, he seems driven more by the prospect of pioneering a new place and business plan than by the way the products taste. Then again, Phinney has always put business before pleasure when building brands. “If I’m making Pinot Noir, I can’t make an 11.8 percent wine with screeching acid, even though that’s what I’d like to drink,” he says. By the same token, “If I were to make Scotch, I couldn’t just make a peat bomb.”

“It has to be something that is commercially relevant, but also something that I can get behind,” Phinney says. “And once we establish a style, we have to be consistent.”

One could imagine Phinney saying the same of Orin Swift, which he sold to E.&J. Gallo for an undisclosed sum reportedly in excess of $100 million, or of the Prisoner, which Phinney sold to Huneeus Vintners in 2010 for a reported $40 million. (Huneeus later sold the Prisoner to Constellation Brands for $285 million.)

Both succeeded on their commercially relevant styles — perhaps above all, on their consistency. Leave it to Dave Phinney to try to replicate that for Tequila and whiskey. “To most people, I guess this would have been a little daunting,” he says.

Then he shrugs. “I’m in so deep that I couldn’t get out if I wanted to.”

Esther Mobley is The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine, beer and spirits writer. Email: Twitter: @Esther_mobley Instagram: @esthermob