Article was published in the Beverage Industry Enthusiast 2019 Wine Star Award Winners

A creative thinker, iconoclast and tirelessly hard worker, Napa Valley-­based winemaker Dave Phinney may not be a household name among wine drinkers, but many of his wines sure are.

Originally from West Los Angeles,­ Phinney fell in love with vines and wine while studying in Florence, Italy, for a semester during college. It didn’t take long for him to switch his focus to agriculture once he returned to the states.

He would go on to plant experimental vineyards while still in school, and, after graduating, worked as a harvest intern at Robert Mondavi Winery and then Whitehall Lane, both in the Napa Valley.

After just one year in the field, in 1998, he launched his own brand, called Orin Swift Cellars, a combination of his father’s middle name and his mother’s maiden name. Devoted to blending across varieties, appellations and vintages, the company proudly uses the California appellation.

It follows Phinney’s guiding philosophy that geographic diversity is the easiest and best way to create­ complexity.

The year that really changed everything, however, was 2000. That’s when Phinney unleashed another experiment to the world: An edgy, Francisco de Goya-­labeled rich red blend called The Prisoner.

It was to be among his boldest and most inventive claims to fame, a statement to the wine industry that quality and creativity can indeed be conjoined.

“I’m just doing what I like,” says Phinney. “And if you like it, that’s great. And if you don’t, I totally understand. [The wines] are what they are, telling a story.”

In this case, that story includes a memorable set of unique labels for every Phinney-­produced wine, which Phinney designs himself.


He ended up selling The Prisoner Wine Company to Huneeus Vintners in 2010 (Huneeus later sold it to Constellation Brands) and spun off Orin Swift to E. & J. Gallo Winery in 2016, though he would remain the brand’s winemaker.

A self-proclaimed dirt farmer, Phinney is a major reason why Gallo would later buy Stagecoach Vineyard: He was among its most prolific buyers of grapes.

In June 2018, Gallo also bought Phinney’s next act, Locations,­ a 90,000-case brand of wines. Its focus was to be the best possible wine from locales around the world—France, Spain, Italy, Argentina, New Zealand, Portugal, Corsica, Texas, California, Oregon and Washington—that are nonvintage, nonvarietal and without appellation. Phinney continues to make the wines and own vineyards in many of these regions.

Never one to stop at one or two projects, Department 66 is the name of his vineyards and winery in the Roussillon region of France, where he blends 80- to 100-year-old vines to make wines from Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and Mourvèdre. He describes the vineyards as among the oldest and steepest he’s ever seen. Starting with 40 acres, he now has more than 300 under vine here.

In recognition of his ceaseless innovation, risk taking and keen sense of the consumer, Wine Enthusiast is proud to name Dave Phinney as its Winemaker of the Year. —Virginie Boone