Orin Swift Cellars was started by winemaker David Phinney. David has a long history of winemaking at high end wineries in Napa Valley including Robert Mondavi Winery and Whitehall Lane. He paid tribute to his parents with the name of this winery; Orin is his father’s middle name and Swift is his mother’s maiden name. He started this winery when he was working for other wineries and as a result started small and worked part time. When combining excellent wines with creative labeling, a wine brand is bound to grow fast; for many years Orin Swift was Phinney’s primary focus.
The “Prisoner” label was their flagship wine; in 2010 Dave sold just the Prisoner label to Huneeus Vintners, the same company that also owns Quintessa Winery in Rutherford. In April 2016 The Prisoner label was again sold, this time to Constellation Brands who opened a new dedicated hospitality center to the The Prisoner wine and related brands in November 2013 along with an artisan community on site called The Makery. And in mid 2016, Orin Swift (the brand, remaining inventory and the tasting room in St. Helena) was purchased by E. & J. Gallo Winery. As of our latest update to this review, founder Dave Phinney continues to be involved in a consulting role.
Before Dave sold this label 75,000 cases were being produced annually (up from merely 385 cases during their first vintage!). Production now under Gallo ownership has grown significantly. The label is an etching of a prisoner drawn by the famous artist Goya; Dave’s parents first gave him a print of this image as a Christmas present. The grapes for this wine are sourced from high quality vineyards throughout Napa Valley. When owned by Orin Swift, this label was typically a five varietal blend including Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Charbono and Petite Syrah.
Orin Swift’s Mercury Head is a wine that people go crazy for. It is released in May and quickly sells out of wine shops often within a week’s time. Some of the Cabernet Sauvignon for the early bottlings of this wine was sourced from the well-regarded Morisoli Vineyard in Rutherford (next to Scarecrow Vineyard). One winemaker we met with had to wait over 4 years just to acquire a small block of fruit from this vineyard. Grapes are also sourced from additional premium vineyards mostly in Rutherford and Oakville; the best barrels are selected once this wine has aged and are used to create the final blend.
Dave is known for his clever, catchy and creative labels. As a child he used to collect coins including the silver winged Mercury Head dimes. It takes one to think outside the box to create a wine bottle where the label is merely a silver dime that is no longer in circulation. This coin was minted by the United States Mint from 1916 to 1945. Orin Swift constantly scours for sources of these dimes from brokers, coin dealers and from recycled bottles. Their bottles typically use Mercury Head dime coins from the late 1930s and early 1940s.
At the time of this review they produce about 2000 cases of the Mercury Head wine annually. And their standards for this wine are held very high; they do not make it every year; recent years in which they did not produce this wine were 2010 and 2011.
The 2013 Orin Swift Cellars Mercury Head was young at the time of our tasting; the nose is voluptuous and full of fresh and lively fruit tinged by secondary tones of toasted oak including mocha and vanilla. It shows ripe blackberry, cherry and black currant leading to a soft rounded entry on the palate that quickly gains in complexity showcasing a “Napa boldness” often found with this variety produced from the region. The finish is long both with fruit and robust long lasting tannins containing a perceptible sediment quality.
Papillion is one of their most sought after wines and and is instantly recognized from the memorable label. A photograph taken by the famed celebrity photographer Greg Gorman graces the front of the bottle; the label is an image of human hands with the word Papillon showing. And these are farming hands – the hands of one of the nicest old school vintners in Napa Valley one will ever meet, Vince Tofanelli. Incidentally Greg Gorman learned a bit about wine making from Dave Phinney and for a number of years operated his own wine label called GKG Cellars.
Papillon is always a Bordeaux variety based Cabernet Sauvignon dominated blend. The 2013 Orin Swift Cellars Papillon shows bright lively aromatics with hints of mocha on the bouquet. The palate has a broad appeal with notes of cherry and blackberry. The tannins are refined for such a young wine and are well integrated yet linger for some time on the long finish.
While a number of their wines are from Napa Valley they also source fruit from over 100 vineyards throughout California. In 2007/2008 Dave was introduced by a distributor/friend to a property and winery in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France (South West, bordering Spain). Ultimately he purchased 300 acres of vines – planted to Grenache (up to 100 year old vines), Carignagne and Sryah. The property is called D66 or Department 66; this winery and property is no longer associated with Orin Swift Cellars. For more information about Department 66, visit our review of The Crane Assembly on this website.
The 2014 Department 66 Fragile is their first ever rosé from this property. It is a Grenache based blend. Aromatically it is floral showing notes of dried rose petal; it feels somewhat creamy on the palate with a surprising amount of flavor for a wine of this style including notes of strawberry, citrus and red currant. It is a balanced wine that is easy to drink.
Wineries that are involved in charities often donate some bottles, are involved in charity events or donate a percentage of sales to charities. Orin Swift takes their charity involvement a step further with the production of Veladora, a Sauvignon Blanc. This wine is a tribute to the Hispanic farm workers in the wine industry. 100% of this wine’s profits are donated to “Puertas Abiertas” – or Open Doors. This is a charity organization that provides dental services, counseling and health screenings for farm workers.
Another creatively packaged wine is the Abstract; this bottling is typically a Grenache, Petite Sirah, and Syrah blend from select Northern California vineyards. The label for this wine is images of people with the words, ‘Vandalism is Beautiful’ scrolled across. The 2013 Orin Swift Cellars Abstract shows a sweetness of fruit and oak influence on the bouquet along with notes of baking spices. The palate is complex and layered with the tannins showing more on the front of the palate rather than the back.
Their office and limited appointment only tasting room was located upstairs in downtown St. Helena (where we first met the team behind Orin Swift Cellars) in the historical Odd Fellows Lodge constructed in 1885.
In August of 2013 Orin Swift Cellars opened a narrow tasting room in downtown St. Helena almost across the street from their old office and right next door to what was St. Helena Wine Center and more recently, The Bottle Shop. In 2022, Orin Swift took over the space that the Bottle Shop vacated in 2021 and currently uses both spaces with a connecting door between. In the process, the entrance was moved from 1325 Main Street to 1321 Main Street. As of our latest update to this review, tastings of Orin Swift wines are also held inside a spacious barrel room at Louis Martini Winery (a three minute drive from Orin Swift’s tasting room in downtown St. Helena).
The focus here is on the wine; the interior features minimal decoration and distraction. Wine making takes place at several wineries in the southern part of Napa Valley. Back when Phinney still owned Orin Swift the tasting salon staff used to refer to this space as the, “Orin Swift World Headquarters” The interior décor is minimalistic with bare walls and iron (from an old battleship) with an elegant bar, a host and the wine. What might appear to be a cast for an oversize Mercury dime shows in the steel in the back of the tasting room but it is just a coincidental shape that formed within that particular piece of iron.
Besides the wine, only a limited number of other items for sale including at the time of one of our visits, vogue looking skateboards and prints of the Papillion image. Guests can choose from two tasting flights – appropriately titled one as ‘Heads‘ and the other as ‘Tails‘. Can’t decide on which one you want to try? Simply flip a coin for your 50% odds. Orin Swift has an impressive customer following; their wines appeal to a broad spectrum of palates and visitors range in age from 21 (sometimes here to celebrate being of legal drinking age) to those much older.
The wines are reasonably priced by Napa standards; sometimes a few of the wines are only available for tasting and purchase here (production is extremely small).
Dave Phinney is a busy guy with involvement in numerous businesses including Savage & Cooke Distillery based on Mare Island in Vallejo. Dave also is co-owner in the Napa based Crane Assembly, showcasing one of Napa Valley’s two oldest commercially producing vineyards (dating back to the 1880s), the other being Canard Vineyard in Calistoga.
Dave and a group of wine industry based friends began The Splinter Group Spirits Company with their first product release, the Straight Edge Bourbon offered in late 2014. Used Mercury Head barrels from the Orin Swift program were used to age this spirit and water from aquifers on Dave’s own property in northwest Napa Valley were used. A second product followed, the Slaughter House Whiskey (aged in used Papillon barrels from their Orin Swift wines). Both products are sometimes found at Sunshine Market (just down the street from their tasting room). And today, the Splinter Group Spirits is a partnership between Vintage Wine Estates and several other individuals.
In addition to his beverage ventures, Dave is involved in fashion; he produces a limited number of Mercury Head denim jeans. And with a name such as this, as expected a Mercury Head dime is found on each pair affixed on top of the center fastener.
It seems like Dave has no shortage of projects; as of our latest update one of his brands, Locations was purchased by E. & J. Gallo Winery in 2018. This brand features wines crafted from numerous locations around the world spanning 4 continental regions.
Orin Swift is internationally distributed with select markets in Europe, Japan, China and the Caribbean. For more information or to join one of their wine clubs, visit: www.orinswift.com
Tasting Room, St. Helena
IOOF Building, St. Helena
Savage & Cooke Distillery, Mare Island
Department 66, France