'The Prisoner' wine creator Dave Phinney opens Vallejo distillery as first step toward large redevelopment

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Hopping the ferry an hour and a half north of San Francisco to the mostly abandoned former naval shipyard at Vallejo’s Mare Island, you may not expect to find a distillery.

But that’s exactly what Dave Phinney, who founded the Savage & Cooke distillery in 2016, built there, and he hopes that it’s just the beginning.

Phinney stresses he is not a distiller but a winemaker by trade.

Last year he sold the Locations, a multinational imported wine brand to nation’s largest vintner, E. & J. Gallo Winery. His past successes in the wine trade have included Orin Swift and The Prisoner brands.

He said he said he was looking for a location for a winery when he stumbled on the site of the former Naval shipyard.

There is a distinct feel to the repurposed naval offices that house Savage & Cooke’s tasting room, offices, and barrel room.

A glass case full of thousands of bullets — They’ve had the gunpowder taken out — sits by the bar. Busts of horses and the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong sit on shelves nearby, creating an eclectic but focused feel.

Throughout the building rows of tan barrels emblazoned with the company’s logo sit mostly empty, ready to receive the whiskey, rye, or bourbon the facility pumps out at 160 barrels a month.

The process of building the distillery goes back about a decade. Phinney said the idea first entered his head when his wine distributors began to lobby him to go into spirits “to make a lot of money.”

“I don’t do anything to make a lot of money. That’s the last box we check,” he said.

Still, the idea stuck with him. When he realized an Alexander Valley property of his in Sonoma County wasn’t suitable for a vineyard, he turned his attention to a natural wellspring on the property that pumps out 30 gallons of water a minute.

Phinney said he had the water tested and it came back with excellent mineral qualities and flavor to use as a base for spirits.

“So that was the first box that I checked. I was like alright now we’re getting somewhere towards the story,” he said.

The company draws water from the spring on an as needed basis and plans to deliver about 3,000 gallons every month or two once the facility goes into full production later this month.

The “second box” to check: At the time few producers were finishing bourbon in former wine barrels, something the company experimented with to determine the impact of different varietals on the spirits.

“It was an experiment, and some were better than others,” Phinney said of placing the spirits in wine barrels.

He doesn’t want to finish everything in the wine barrels, and the company experiments each year.

“We’re getting to where we’re pretty comfortable with certain barrels for ryes certain barrels for bourbon, certain barrels for whiskey,” he said.

Another crucial part of the formula for Phinney was to identify local growers to supply the rye and corn used in distilling his products.

Phinney also said Savage & Cooke grows the vast majority of its own rye and corn, contracting with a nearby grower for the grain that will become The Burning Chair bourbon, Second Glance American whiskey and Lip Service rye whiskey.

The facility focuses on producing burbon and rye. The Burning Chair and Second Glance were released in fall 2017, while Lip Service came out this past spring.

Phinney also produces Ayate reposado and Anejo tequila, which were released in spring 2017, and he’s not done yet.

He also plans to produce a vodka as well as a gin using botanicals local to Mare Island. The company frequently experiments around the holidays making unusual items like limoncello.

According to Phinney, his venture into spirits originally began as a three-way partnership to produce Straight Edge bourbon.

He already had the capital to go ahead with Savage & Cooke around five years ago and offered to buy his Straight Edge partners out. One agreed, but the other wanted to continue with Straight Edge and ended up buying out Phinney’s interests in that brand. Since that time, the “by-appointment” tasting room opened.

“It’s by appointment, but if you walk up you have an appointment,” Phinney said.

And by his measure, it has been a success.

“On the weekends we see quite a few people. We have a lot of people that have come, and now they’re bringing their friends,” he said, noting the tasting room experience included a tour. “When we opened, there was a lot of curiosity. It’s been really consistent. It’s way, way better than expected.”

But Phinney’s plans are not limited to building and expanding his distilling operation.

Phinney and two other investors formed a company called the Nimitz Group after Vallejo, of which the island is a part, put out a request for qualifications in 2017, seeking development of the northern portion of the island.

Phinney said Nimitz is currently negotiating to purchase the entire island with the exception of Touro University California, the existing residential areas owned by residents, and other state and federal land.

Phinney, along with investor Gaylon Lawrence Jr. and Sebastian Lane who owns Depiction Wines, said in all the company is looking to purchase 1,000 acres of land from Lennar Mare Island, an affiliate of Miami-based homebuilder Lennar Corporation that has been redeveloping the former shipyard.

He said Nimitz closed a deal for the golf course on the island in June, which he estimated to be about 170 acres.

He said the northern part of the island is roughly 157 acres with industrial and commercial areas making up the rest of the acreage.

On July 31, the Vallejo City Council approved the transfer of 500 acres between Lennar and Nimitz, according to the Times Herald.

Phinney said while his group had been courted by the likes of technology companies, he wanted to avoid creating a “monoculture” on the island.

“We want diversity. We want different businesses. We want different demographics. We want different ages because we want it to be a community.”

Asked what his group planned to do with the land if they succeeded in purchasing all of it, Phinney said “responsible development.”

“This is not a quick return on investment. This is for our grandkids. You know, this is a 50-year plan,” he said. “The idea is to build a sustainable city that can last for the future.”

Staff Writer Chase DiFeliciantonio covers technology, banking, law, accounting, and the cannabis industry. Reach him at chase.d@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257.

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