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 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 (southwest, bordering Spain). Ultimately, he purchased 300 acres of vines – planted to Grenache (up to 100-year-old vines), Carignane and Syrah. 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
Andrea Fedewa says
Papillon is my absolute favorite wine with The Prisoner close behind. I have a couple of cases in my basement and it is always a treat to share a bottle with family or a good friend.
I heard that Orin Swift is coming out with something possible this fall, with Grenache grapes. Can you tell me anything about this? I would love to know more about anything Orin Swift is doing.
Tasha hill says
Could you please send me a list of all your wines ! You by far have the best wine I have ever tasted !!! Prisoner is my #1 choice I was told that you have one that has a gold top but I can’t recall the name ! Could you please help me !! Thanks yours truly Tasha
I was unaware that Dave owns The Prisoner label anymore. I thought this wine with Saldo & others were sold to Quintessa
Allowing Dave to purchase the property in France.
Dave sold Prisoner. And he did buy a winery in France. Had the privilege of having dinner with him and his wife and other friends and family while in Napa. He more recently came out with Locations.
By chance, does anyone know where or why the name Prisoner came about?
Dave Haines says
If Andrea Fedewa likes Orin Swift wines than make me a “Prisoner” and take me to the cellar.
Hope to visit in July!
Andrea Fedewa says
Dave Haines and I are visiting Sonoma, Napa, and St Helena. Looking forward to our wine tasting at Orin Swift. Excited to try a couple of wines we have not sampled yet. Always happy to have a little Papillon (my favorite). Sad that the Prisoner has gotten away from Dave Phinney 🙁
Andrea and Dave – you both have good taste in wine obviously 🙂
If you ever need any other Napa winery recommendations do let me know. With well over 1,100 unique producers making wine commercially in this always changing valley, and despite Napa producing only approximately 4% of the state’s entire wine production – there is no shortage of excellent wine for visitors.
Hope your latest trip to the valley was productive, and you had the opportunity to meet Dave Phinney.
John Glenn says
Recently tried Fragile – excellent! And we consider ourselves big red drinkers. Also got our hands on 6 bottles of Locations TX, which existence is a well kept secret. Even here in West Texas wine country (and bottled in Lubbock) we had to be very enterprising to find a few bottles. Hopefully more will be released next season.
Nice write up. We have been visiting Orin Swift since the tasting room was in the IOOF hall (I think it was an IOOF hall) across the street. Overall we have always had a great experience and love their wines. We make it a point to stop into the tasting room every time we swing through Napa. We were lucky enough to get a hold of 6 bottles of 2012 Mercury Head. It was well worth the wait, it is easily one of the best wines I have ever enjoyed. the 2013 is sitting in the shippers waiting to be opened! If you get a chance to grab a bottle of 2012 or 2013 Machete you won’t be disappointed either! Keep up the good work.
Tim – interesting timing you have on your comment. I was visiting with Rob, the manager at the tasting room about an hour ago and was just finishing up some updates to this review when your comment came in. I met Dave briefly a while ago – at some point I need to sit down with him and hear some of his stories about how he started all this.
Yes they still have their IOOF office across the street – apparently they are doing some remodels on that and should move back in soon (as they moved into another office close to their tasting room in the interim). Next time I pop into their tasting room, Ill be sure to try the Machete, thanks for mentioning that.
From a satisfied customer … Hi, my fiance and I are huge fans of Prisoner – it is really my favorite wine! John recently purchased some of the big bottles in your series with the amazing photo collage on the front. Is there a way to order a poster size of this? He keeps mentioned how much he’d like it framed so I thought I’d try to get it for him for Christmas. Thank you so much! best, Tami
Jose Remo MD says
Tried Pappilon, Mannequin (Chardonnay), and some Location wines. They are exceptional and infused with care and personalized touch. I’ll search for the Mercury Head bottle as a treat for the holidays.
Jose Remo MD says
Exceptional series, well worth the price. I started drinking Prisoner by chance at the Ritz in Saint Thomas, USVI not sure if the ambience made it great but wherever I go now, that has become a favorite. Location wines are great for a fraction of cost . The Chardonnay Mannequin is excellent. Pappilon is bold and full. Will need to find the Mercury Head.
Jose – thanks for stopping by the most popular review & page (by far) of our 818 Napa wineries I’ve visited and reviewed to date. Interesting you saw the Prisoner at the Ritz in St. Thomas – I recently stayed there and just posted this on my other site ( http://www.davestravelcorner.com/journals/destination-caribbean/sweet-st-thomas-stay-usvi/ ) and was impressed by the Napa wines on their list as well as throughout good restaurants on the entire island. Joseph Carr is also one Napa vintner who has very good distribution throughout the Caribbean – I keep seeing his wines all over the islands. At some point I’ll take another trip to France and visit Dave Phinney’s ‘new’ property in the southern part of the country. Stop by the tasting room in St. Helena next time you are in Napa and say hi to Dave, Rob and all the good folks there 🙂
Tami – I just dropped you an email with the answers to your questions. Sorry for the late reply!
Pauline Behan-Roullier says
Do you happen to sell prints of the Abstract Vanda!ism is beautiful label??? My neice that lives in CA would love a print for her home. Thank you!!!!
I love the Mercury Head 2012. But it is so difficult in Switzerland to grab a bottle. I got 5 bottles. Two of them are already drunk…
Is there a wine in Napa where is comparable to Mercury Head?
Cant wait for my first Napa Visit next September! Switzerland is so far away but we have a lot of great Pino’s 🙂
Thank you anyway for the great website!
Michael – please reach out to me directly before your trip to Napa in September – happy to meet up. If you get a chance re your question, try the Venge Vineyards Scouts Honor.
Thank you for your reply! I have the Scouts Honor already in my cellar but didnt try it yet.
I will let you when Im in the states!
Thank you so much!
Is the 2014 prisoner as good as prior vintages? Concerned since the name was sold.
Lindsay Lee says
I work in wine sales at a customer base level. I love talking about Orin Swift/David Phinney wines! I have a whole section just dedicated to his wines. I appreciate the true art of his wines inside and out. Visually and the taste profiles. Truly takes wine to a new level.
Tom Livengood says
We’ve just recently purchased a bottle or the “P” Portugal from our local wine store. It was AWESOME. This is not our first experience with Orin Swift. We received a bottle of the 2013 Mercury Head for Christmas in 2015. Our son gave us a bottle a few years earlier and was so blown away that when he gave us the bottle this past Christmas we’ve stuck it in our wine fridge and saving it for a special occasion.
Now that we’ve taste the location wines we can’t wait to try all of them.
The next time we’re in Napa, Orin Swift will be one of can’t miss stops. Thank you and keep up the good work!!!
What’s your opinion regarding the recent purchase of Orin Swift by E&J Gallo? I’ve always loved the start up story of David Phinney and how he has personally created this brand. David’s wines have always been terrific, but I now worry that a large corporation will taint his personal expression of his wine. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Kelly Wright says
Love legacy Orin Swift Prisoner!
Why are we seeing so much Generic label Prisoner Wine company bottles out there that restaurants and box stores are giving away as bargain purchases? Are they knock-offs or Gallo version labels capitalizing on Prisoner brand recognition??
Prisoner is made by The Prisoner Wine Company… which is owned by Gallo.
I have two Mercury head dimes in great condition I’d love to donate to ORIN SWIFT or/ and for the makers of mercury cab! Email firstname.lastname@example.org ****Im HUGE fan and in the industry low level
Carl Kruse says
Ran into what is labelled as an “Orin Swift Cellars” wine called Disciples 2014. 97% zinfandel from supposedly crazy old vines, 3% Petit Syrah. Wine is also attributed to “The Crane Assembly,” which I am assuming in honor of Mr. Crane who planted the first zin vines?
Love, love, love Disciples. What is the relationship between Orin Swift Cellars and the Crane Assembly?
Cheers, (and keep doing great work!)
Dave Phiney is the winemaker of “The Crane Assembly”.
Kevin Fox is the winemaker for The Crane Assembly! Dave Phinney is co-owner, along with Kevin Fox, Bryan Sandoli, and Darryl Browman.
Urban legend is Mercury Head will stop being produced when the dimes run out. I pried them off my last three bottles and would like to send them back to the vineyard. Where should I mail them?
So when was the last Prisoner br Orwin Swift produced? Is the 2015 I am seeing in stores now, not blended by OS? Will it be as good mi I get forward
The last vintage of The Prisoner made by Phinney before he sold the name is the 2013 vintage. It has 44 percent Zinfandel with 20 percent Cabernet and 16 percent Petite Sirah, and the rest Grenache and Charbono. The alcohol content is a hefty 15.2 percent.
The new home of The Prisoner is the former Franciscan Winery and the site of The Makery, an experiential rich space.
Michael Wolfe says
Love all your wines and Mercury Head is one of my favorite Cabs. 8 Years in the Desert is spectacular. Please tell us about Aftermath. Sounds like it is between Palermo and Mercury Head. Looking forward to trying it.
Michael Wolfe says
Love all your wines both white and all the reds. Of course Mercury Head by far is my favorite. Just tried 8 Years in the Desert. All I can say is spectacular. I wanted to know about Aftermath and when it might be available in the Florida market. Sounds like a cab between Mercury Head and Palermo. Look forward to trying it and hope to meet you one day.
ruou ngoai thanh nien says
Frankly, question the veracity of the 5 star reviews.
Decent enough flavour but hidden behind far too much ‘burn’ for a £100 bottle.
Many, many, many better options out there. Accept “better” is a subjective term for a drink, but really do believe this should rest down low in any bona fide lists of top likes.
1.5 stars because of daft price for what you get.
ruou ballantines gia says
This was a present for my 40th birthday from my much loved father-in-law. We have always enjoyed the Scottish malts yet never ventured into this price range. Well what a surprise, the full body and complex nodes that accompany this beautifully crafted scotch took our minds into heaven. It certainly will be savoured, shared and replaced. Wow what a treat.
So many products!
Just visited Savage & Cooke – didn’t appear to be open on the weekends. Maybe an appointment is needed. Next visit for us to a Dave Phinney related project is a stop by Department 66 in France. May 2020.
Elvera Vinsan says
Super cool review. Just stumbled upon this page by accident. Looking forward to visiting when I can make it out to the Napa Valley 🙂
Elvera – happy to have you visit, the tasting room is right in downtown St. Helena 🙂