‘The Prisoner’ wine creator talks about his restless pursuit to craft the next cult libation
Dave Phinney needs to consciously tell himself to slow down.
Phinney, 49, is the mastermind behind the cult wine The Prisoner, which was sold to Constellation Brands in 2016 for $285 million. He sold the Orin Swift Cellars brand to E. & J. Gallo Winery the same year for $300 million then sold the Locations brand to Gallo two years later for an undisclosed sum.
But his latest endeavor being the Savage & Cooke distillery located on the former Mare Island Naval base in Solano County’s largest city, Vallejo.
Part of his never-ending quest for the next exciting project could be because he describes himself as being undiagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
He bought a 1959 GMC truck in the spring to restore it. “There was no real reason to do it other than it sounds like fun,” Phinney told the Business Journal.
One of his escapes is going with his family to their lake home in northeast Vermont. He calls it “one of my happy places.” Cell service doesn’t exist there. Still, it’s hard to turn off his creative juices.
“Two days after I get rest and a good night’s sleep I’m already thinking of new projects,” Phinney said.
While he likes to have fun at work and in his spare time, Phinney is contemplating how to help others, to leave a legacy beyond adult beverages. He’s a big believer in the Montessori education philosophy and hopes to bring it to more people in the Napa Valley where he lives.
The following is an interview with Phinney that has been edited for space and clarity.
How did you come up with The Prisoner, which is a blend of zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, petite sirah, and charbono?
It was a happy accident in 2000, which was a very challenging vintage. I had a lot of small lots of wines that I didn't want to bottle separately so I just threw them all together and that's how we made The Prisoner.
Having created a cult following with The Prisoner, do you hope to do the same with one of your spirits being made at Savage and Cooke distillery?
Absolutely. I think it's already starting with The Burning Chair (bourbon) and, well, all three of them because they're very similar. It’s kind of hard to re-create The Prisoner.
It still amazes me the success it has after 20-something years, so that may be a little bit of a tall order. You can't plan that. If you're trying to plan to be cool, you're not going to be cool, you're going to lose.
If you're planning on coming up with a cult line that's going to have an emotional effect on people and you're trying to go through the playlist, there's no playlist. You have to listen to the customer, see what people like, and be really thoughtful about it.
Even though you sold Orin Swift Cellars to Gallo in 2016 for $300 million, you are still very much involved in its operations. What are your responsibilities, and why do you continue to be part of the company?
The sale was much more like a partnership, and it's been amazing. It's allowed me not to worry about a lot of the sales and the day-to-day, banking, and lines of credit.
I get to do the fun stuff and be out in vineyards, strategize on labels, come up with new ideas. It's been almost a second act.
I'm curious about the business side of the wine business, but that's not what gets me excited. What Gallo has done is let me go back to the fun things.
How are the wine and distilled spirits industries alike, as well as different?
They're alike because we're selling alcohol, and it requires a three-tier system. (After Prohibition, beverage alcohol distribution between the states largely required three independent players: producer, wholesaler and retailer. That has been changing since a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for interstate direct-to-consumer sales, if allowed by state law.)
You’d think after all these years, I wouldn't still be surprised, and that's not exactly the right word, but you can make an amazing vodka in a week, less than a week. The idea of not having to wait for harvest to have product and need more; we can just make more. That still blows my mind.
Savage & Cooke operates out of three buildings on Mare Island, which was the first naval shipyard on the West Coast. How does that history play into your business model?
We try to be really respectful of a friend of mine, Kent Fortner, who has Mare Island Brewing Company. He really plays into the history of Mare Island and the island itself. Other than Savage and Cooke being named after some former Navy men that worked in the yard, we really try to be respectful of Kent because that's kind of his story. He got there first, and he's really leaned into that.