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