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.