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2006 Orin Swift Cellars "The Prisoner" Red Wine, Napa

winetheprisoner85x320.jpgI wish I knew how many wineries in Napa started as "just a guy who decided he wanted to make wine one day." There must be dozens of them. Maybe hundreds. These numbers shouldn't be allowed to devalue the effort and vision it takes to create a successful winery, but sometimes I scratch my head in bemusement at the audacity of so many people who simply decide to throw their lives into the wine business. While we don't really hear about the ones that don't make it, there are enough of them that have become wildly successful that "the guy with the dream" is a well established cliché at this point in the history of wine.

Dave Phinney was one of those guys, and his ascendency to the proprietorship of one of Napa's great success stories is a textbook case of seeing where his nose led him.

Mid way through his college career, and after a somewhat disheartening summer internship as a congressional aide, Phinney began trying to think about what to do with the rest of his life. At the time, he was studying abroad in Florence, and his roommate at the time apparently came from an old wine family in Sonoma County. At a certain point, the roommate suggested that perhaps Phinney could take his personal love of wine and turn it into something more, and apparently, that was that.

Or at least, that was the idea. The first thing Phinney had to do was figure out how he was going to get from the middle of nowhere (at least as far as wine country is concerned) Arizona to some place more conducive to growing grapes. Not content to simply relax once he had made the decision, Phinney apparently spent his last two years of college working in a wine store and, while he wasn't at work or in class, trying to convince a professor in the Agriculture department to let him mess with the one-acre plot of experimental vineyards that the university had recently planted.

Once he escaped the desert to more Mediterranean climes, Phinney threw himself into the wine business with an abandon that seems common to those trying to break into any major business. While there are lots of different roads to success, in the wine business, like the film business or the advertising business (to just name a few comparable industries) no matter what other options exist, there is always the option of starting at the rock bottom and climbing your way to the top. For the wine business, and for Phinney in this case, that meant being the only sweaty white guy on a team of Mexican vineyard workers.

Apparently there's nothing like starting with the hardest, dirtiest, and most thankless part of the business to teach you how things work. By the end of his first year as an intern at Robert Mondavi winery, Phinney had figured out how to get his hands on two tons of Zinfandel grapes, and Orin Swift Cellars was born.

A combination of elements from his parent's names, Orin Swift Cellars sounds like it's the life's work of a master winemaker. That's about right, except the winemaker's name is Dave (there is no Orin Swift) and he is only in his 7th vintage.

I've watched the evolution of Orin Swift Cellars for the past four years with amazement and admiration. The path from that first couple of tons of Zinfandel to an emerging iconic brand in the matter of seven or so years is truly phenomenal. When I first encountered The Prisoner, the wine that evolved from Phinney's early obsession with Zinfandel, it was a cute little boutique project that had a catchy name and a cool label. Now it is the centerpiece of a 20,000 case production portfolio of wines, and ended up as #17 on last years Wine Spectator Top 100 list of wines (for the 2005 vintage). Phinney has recently purchased nearly 50 acres in Soda Canyon, above the Oakville appellation of Napa Valley. The word juggernaut comes to mind, yet the winery is anything but. Phinney only recently quit his day job to run the winery full time.

This wine, with its eccentric blend of Zinfandel (51%), Cabernet Sauvignon (23%), Syrah (12%), Petite Sirah (6%), Charbono (6%) and Grenache (2%) defies the logic of most wine blends, and would scandalize the wine appellation police in many countries. But there's not a lot about Orin Swift Cellars that really seems intent on following accepted practices when it comes to wine. I don't know much about the winemaking for the wine, or the specific vineyard sources for the grapes, which Phinney doesn't disclose. The blend changes a little bit each year but generally keeps to the same flavor profile that has made the wine a raging success among its enthusiastic fans (I've reviewed only one vintage of the wine previously and it is still one of the most often searched for wines on Vinography).

No matter how many times you see a heck of a lot of work pay off in the service of a dream, it's still quite impressive.

Tasting Notes:
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine has a strong, jammy bouquet of blackberries and espresso that with a little air open to include semi-sweet chocolate. On the tongue it is smooth, and reasonably well balanced with a decent acidity that rides on the waves of fruit that the wine offers: blackberry, plum, chocolate, and a touch of savory leather. The finish is moderate and brings in elements of spice (cardamom?) that give an extra kick to the wine along with the barest hint of dry tannins. While perhaps not as complex as it might be, the wine achieves lush fruit without utter bombast, making it worth hanging out with for as long as the bottle lasts.

Food Pairing:
This is a great candidate for grilled meats of all kinds, especially those that contain more complex spices, like these grilled spiced lamb chops with cucumber mint sauce.

Overall Score: 9

How Much?: $35

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.

Comments (27)

Ron wrote:
02.01.08 at 10:10 AM

It is always good to hear the story of under dog makes good. We get enough negative fed to us daily. This is living proof that sometimes what you dream can come true.....of course there is always going back to your.......9-5 and everything that gets you. Great blog and good for Phinney

Julian wrote:
02.01.08 at 10:22 AM

Just tried a bottle of this recently - what a great wine!

Remy Charest wrote:
02.01.08 at 12:44 PM

The Prisoner is a fantastic wine, indeed. A rare occasion where such an unusual blend comes together in such a convergent way. I've loved it so much that I've collaborated in importing it in Quebec.

Orin Swift's sauvignon blanc, Veladora, is also exceptional, with a great balance and freshness I've rarely seen in the varietal's Californian incarnations.

Brian wrote:
02.03.08 at 11:39 AM

I liked the 2006. The 2005 was too sweet, though. Have you tried their monster Cab, the Merus?

02.03.08 at 1:11 PM

Hi Alder,
I first heard about this from a client that owns Organic Spa Magazine in New York, New York. She was out here to do a piece on the Gaige House out in Glen Ellen. I got into a conversation with her on wine and she wanted names of Organic growers which of course I know a bunch. She was very impressed and said something like well I bet you don't know where to get, "The Prisioner"! I said as a matter of fact I do not but I will find out. I went home did some searches and came up with Orin Swift and two wines, the Prisoner" and "The Mercury Head Dime" his Cabernet. I was pleased with myself and added this place to by huge winery list for Napa and Sonoma.
Funny part is I have yet to taste the wine!

karenp wrote:
02.04.08 at 11:37 AM

My boyfriend just bought the '06 as an addition to the Prisoner vertical he started in '02. We love the stuff and our biggest disappointment is the price inflation that inevitably comes with increased demand (even at 20k cases).

karenp wrote:
02.04.08 at 11:38 AM

My boyfriend just bought the '06 as an addition to the Prisoner vertical he started in '02. We love the stuff and our biggest disappointment is the price inflation that inevitably comes with increased demand (even at 20k cases).

karenp wrote:
02.04.08 at 3:33 PM

My boyfriend just bought the '06 as an addition to the Prisoner vertical he started in '02. We love the stuff and our biggest disappointment is the price inflation that inevitably comes with increased demand (even at 20k cases).

Dale Cruse wrote:
02.04.08 at 6:26 PM

I keep seeing The Prisoner at my favorite little local wine shop. Now I'll have to pick some up.

02.07.08 at 10:22 PM

I am drinking this right now and it is always worth it... even though I usually opt for cheaper wine. Love every year I've tasted!

03.02.08 at 5:51 AM

Great wine. Can serve is up casually, or at a formal dinner. Nice blending, interesting depth and charcter. Nice work Dave Phinney. Dinner with Friends at Linwood, adn 2 bottles later, the nice I am on line trying to learn more. We found the wine by accidentially.

JD wrote:
06.12.08 at 10:36 AM

I haven't tried the 05, but the 06 was way too sweet and the high alcohol content seemed to cause a medicine type taste. I was sorely disappointed. There are plenty better wines out there in that price range. Nonetheless, Dave Phinney is a Univ of Arizona guy, so he has that going for him... Go Cats!

Mara wrote:
10.05.08 at 9:53 PM


Chad wrote:
12.31.08 at 4:15 PM

100% Agreed. This is an excellent wine. I have been trying to find more Zin based blends. I also like Duck Horn Vineyards Paraduxx. The Prisoner seems jammier, and could be paired extremely well with my Sumac Steak and Pomegranate reduction. Excellent wine, and at $35 it competes with other wines 3-4x its cost. Pick a case up and throw it in the cellar for all your big red friends.

Gary Knowles wrote:
01.14.09 at 1:00 PM

Sounds like a delicious wine! Wish I had a bottle today for a farewell toast to the great Secret Agent and Prisoner of BBC TV series...
Patrick McGoohan who died today at 80!

Gary Knowles wrote:
01.14.09 at 1:02 PM

Is it distributed in Wisconsin? By whom? Stores?

Gary Knowles wrote:
01.14.09 at 1:03 PM

Sorry - forgot to hit yes to get follow-up comments!

Crispin Campbell wrote:
02.02.09 at 7:40 PM

We just discovered the Prisoner- a bottle of the 2005 was left by someone at our house- we can't remember who! What a great gift. Got a bottle of the 2006, not as stunning, but still excellent. I will look for the Duck Horn Paraduxx as well- just had their 2006 Desert Wind vineyard Syrah, which we loved.

larry wrote:
07.13.09 at 2:03 PM

My daughter bought me a bottle (2007) for Father's Day. As a long time Beringers White Zinfandel admirer, this blend packs a real punch. I will definitely add it to my favs

Blackstone wrote:
07.23.09 at 2:12 PM

This is one thick bloody fat ass bottle of wine, very very special indeed, drink it all alone w/a friend or with a 5 mushroom soup like I had (with a friend) One the best wines EVER.


Lu Lacourte wrote:
10.17.09 at 9:02 PM

Thanks Alder. Just tried this tonight with my wife and our two week old sons Dante and Marco in the background... every opportunity for 30 quiet minutes over a good meal and bottle is a special occasion right now... great wine... Great write up. Thanks for the notes!

Hugh wrote:
10.29.09 at 8:16 PM

Good stuff...have been keeping the Prisoner in jail for a long while and just enjoyed it tonight. Wow...very nice!

Becca wrote:
12.27.09 at 10:40 AM

I love Prisoner, but Papillon will knock your socks off!!!

Tracy Hof wrote:
01.12.10 at 6:19 PM

If you love zinfandel based blends - try Infante by Malloy-O'neill vineyards in Paso Robles. It has the generous fruit with a lot more structure and layers.

Nancy Lewison wrote:
03.02.11 at 6:00 PM

Had this last night at Capital Grill in Tampa. A great pick.

Mike B. wrote:
08.01.11 at 6:49 PM

I got hooked in 05, Now I collect and drink Orin swift.. You Must try Mercury head, Papillon, Machete, palermo, and abstract...all are great. Had to order some from cali, not available on the eastcoast. Its very rare i come across a wine that has that flavor factor and reminds me of orin swift.

11.22.14 at 8:05 PM

Hi there, just became alert to your blog through Google,
and found that it is really informative. I am gonna watch out for brussels.
I will appreciate if you continue this in future. A lot of people will be benefited from your
writing. Cheers!

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