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Walnut Creek Magazine

Dave Phinney: Winemaker, Distiller, Visionary

Jul 30, 2019 05:04PM ● By Fran Miller

Dave Phinney photographed at Savage & Cooke by Margaret Pattillo

By Fran Endicott Miller 

Napa Valley vintner Dave Phinney is no ordinary winemaker. And now, he’s no ordinary distiller. Prolific in his creation of extraordinarily popular wine brands and labels, the original founder of The Prisoner and Orin Swift wines has set his sights on the spirits world, and he’s selected Vallejo’s Mare Island as his muse.

“I was fortunate to stumble on this amazing piece of our nation’s history and fell in love immediately,” said Phinney. “We were able to transform these historical buildings into a state-of-the-art distillery that perfectly fits our needs and allows us to control every step of the process including growing the grain, milling and distilling on site, proofing with our own spring water and finishing in our wine barrels.”   

Working within three historic and remodeled buildings on the former Naval base – the oldest west of the Mississippi – Phinney produces whiskey, rye, and bourbon, crafted in the style he most appreciates: complex, concentrated, with balanced oak influence and lushness. He also imports a high-end tequila from Mexico. Fittingly, each of these spirits is aged in Phinney’s wine barrels: Cabernet for the bourbon and whiskey, Grenache for the rye, and Chardonnay for the tequila. The venture is called Savage & Cooke – the moniker of which was selected by Phinney in honor of the two surnames he continued to encounter while perusing Mare Island’s archives and chronicles. 


“I typically don’t choose to appropriate when creating a brand,” said the hyper entrepreneurial Phinney. “But in this case, those two names of 19thcentury factory workers stood out to me as perfect representations of the brand’s vibe and the distillery’s landmark environment.”

Phinney’s yuppie style belies his edgy and intense creativity. His manor is soft and self-effacing – and sometimes self-deprecating. He often deflects acclaim and plaudits, directing praise instead to the team of 45 creatives that he’s assembled worldwide and in whom he places implicit trust. He knows that his success is derived from a group effort, yet this team would most definitely attest that it’s Phinney’s creative vision that powers and propels every project they undertake.

He attributes much of his innovative nature to his parents, who, when Phinney was young, insisted on touring him while on vacation through some of the world’s greatest museums. “My mom and dad made me and my brother trek through museums in the morning before catering to our more youthful interests in the afternoons,” said Phinney, whose art appreciation was reflected in the Goya etching he selected for The Prisoner label. “At the time, we didn’t like it very much, but now, I do associate that early exposure to art with my active imagination and desire to create.”

Phinney sold his Prisoner label and Orin Swift brands in recent years, yet he continues to produce wines from vineyards that he owns in France, Italy, Greece, and Spain. He travels frequently to each, waxing especially rhapsodic about Maury, a small village in the south of France within the Pyrenees-Orientales mountain range where he owns and operates 300 acres of old vine Grenache which he bottles under the label Department 66. 

At the moment, his efforts and interest are focused on the Savage & Cooke distillery and tasting room, and on Mare Island itself. His ‘second glance’ whiskey, ‘lip service’ rye, ‘the burning chair’ bourbon (each bottled in provocative, opaque black bottles), and ‘Ayate’ reposado and anejo tequilas are available to taste and purchase, and the vast, artisan distillery is open for tours.


Phinney would one day like to own Mare Island outright; he’s got a team actively studying the possibility. His dream is to turn it into a desirable destination – a grittier and edgier Yountville if you will, accessible by bridge and ferry, with restaurants, a winery and wine tasting rooms, a coffee roastery, retail, and artisan studios that reflect the area’s historic and cutting-edge duality. The bones are there; it’s vision that’s required – and vision is a Phinney specialty. 

Photos by Margaret Pattillo