Behind the Edgy Look of Orin Swift Wines

On the surface, vintner Dave Phinney of Orin Swift Cellars is just a t-shirt and jeans kind of guy.  But beneath the casual exterior is a visually creative person whose aesthetic was shaped as a child by his parents, two professors who lived in different cities around the world, exposing him to a myriad of sights and instilling imagination in him wherever they could. Melding the influences of classic Europe to the exotic Ottoman Empire to the streets of LA, Phinney communicates the message of his wines with a personal nod to the past, with minimum words and maximum impact.

The Classics

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Though the brand was recently sold, it was The Prisoner wine that launched Orin Swift and defined the look.  The Prisoner label looks like a creepy allegory for this "captivating" Zinfandel blend, but it’s based on an etching, The Little Prisoner, by one of Spain’s most famous painters Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), depicting the atrocities of war between France and Spain during the artist’s time.  Phinney’s parents gave him the etching at the impressionable age of twelve and it hung on his wall for years.

World History 101

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Perhaps it was seeing so many Roman ruins, relics and statues in his youth, or maybe it was the influence of his archaeologist grandfather, but Phinney sees life in old things.  Like this tiny, broken porcelain doll (above) that Phinney found at the Bone Room in Berkeley, a remnant of an excavated doll factory outside Berlin. He knew immediately that its delicacy and blush color would be the perfect look for his China Doll rosé wine. 

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Photo Vincent J. Musi

This photo of a real Capuchin priest that appears on the Palermo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was one of a series of images taken by National Geographic photographer Vincent J. Musi in the womb of a 16th century catacomb in Palermo, Sicily.  The stark, powerful image captures the essence of – and Phinney's reverence for – the Cabernet Sauvignon in the wine.

Letters and Sciences

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The mere sight and sound of words and letters hold great impact for Phinney, possibly because he grew up around so many books.  The letter “D” on the French Grenache-based wine D66 – the code for the French region where the wine is made - was taken from his father’s honorary degree from the Sorbonne ca. 1959.

Fine Arts

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Snapshot of Mannequin. Photo by Greg Gorman

The image of female busts on the label of Orin Swift’s Chardonnay-based Mannequin wines could have been influenced by his student days in Florence where he spent a lot of time at the Uffizi Gallery and Boboli Gardens. Instead, he says he got the idea when he heard the word "mannequin listening to a song on the radio, setting off an image of mannequins spread out in the middle of the desert.  He called his friend LA photographer Greg Gorman who, with his Hollywood contacts, was able to find scores of old mannequins slated for scrap.  Gorman took 540 shots from different angles but it wasn’t until they were done and pushed the torsos off to the side that Phinney found just the right shot.

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On the desktop: An “abstract” collage of historic and pop figures, a Mao statue, Hula girl, eye chart and old map of Southwest France

Based in Napa Valley, Phinney spends a lot of time during the growing season in the rugged landscape of Maury in southern France where he makes brooding, powerful Grenache wines from old vines.  He continues to travel, spending at least one month a year in Italy, taking his own kids on that great adventure called life.

Orin Swift Cellars' new tasting room is open daily 11 a.m. – closing. 1325 Main Street, St. Helena

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