The Wines of Orin Swift Cellars: Inspired By Increments of Life
Listen to Uncorked Monthly’s exclusive featured interview with Dave Swift Phinney.
Featured Interview Written By:
Uncorked Monthly Contributing Writer, Kim Brittingham
Dave Phinney wouldn’t call himself an artist by any means, but I might. At least I’d say that he sees the world through an artist’s eyes. Who else could pair the weathered hands of a farmer with a child’s offhand remark about a butterfly, and transform them into a brand of wine?
Phinney is a winemaker and founder of Orin Swift Cellars in Saint Helena, California. Aside from spending as much time as possible in the vineyards of Italy, Spain, Portugal and Argentina – and of course, Napa Valley – he’s also the creative brain behind the names, concepts and labels for Orin Swift’s wines.
And those labels are pretty darn striking. Striking enough that Orin Swift actually sells skateboard decks sporting the imagery from some of their wine labels. (And they always sell out.)
Maybe those artistic sensibilities stem from growing up with two academic parents with wanderlust. “We spent a lot of time traveling,” Phinney said of his upbringing, “and (my parents) would sabbatical in different parts of the world. They were both very interested in art, so as a kid I was dragged around to all these museums all over the world.” He added, “I was exposed to a lot of stuff visually. I guess some of it must have clicked at some point.”
I asked Phinney to share the stories behind three of his wine labels: China Doll, Papillon, and Trigger Finger.
The label: A photograph of a porcelain doll, of the type they would have called a “frozen Charlotte” in the 19th century. It has a broken leg.
While visiting his mother in Berkeley, California, Phinney discovered a whimsical shop called The Bone Room. (According to The Bone Room’s website, they “specialize in natural science and all things once living,” including “real human and animal skulls and skeletons, genuine fossils…framed insects, and all manner of weird and wonderful things.”) Said Phinney, “They’ve got all kinds of crazy stuff and the kids just love it.” There he noticed a large glass jar filled with china dolls, including “some really creepy ones with half the face knocked off.”
The dolls came from Berlin, Germany, where an excavation to dig the foundation for a new building uncovered the broken leftovers from a long-gone doll factory. Phinney bought ten or twelve broken German dollies and took them home, and in time, he’d look at one legless doll in particular and see the label for an Orin Swift rosé. Hence, China Doll.
Phinney was carrying her on his shoulders through a vineyard when she pointed to a butterfly with a tiny chubby finger and identified it en Francais. “Where did you learn to speak French?” he laughed.
And later, when it came time to name and label a new red, Phinney was reminded of an image he liked and had filed away in his mental Rolodex: a pair of gnarled man’s hands with a word tattooed across the knuckles. And at the same time, he recalled his little girl and the “papillon” – eight letters, just enough to spell out across two sets of four knuckles. “Also, I liked the juxtaposition of that gritty look with this really pretty name on it.”
And so Papillon was born. The Orin Swift website tells us it’s “a dense shade of crimson” with “subtle aromas of cedar wood and rose petals mingled with hints of well-seasoned oak.”
In my interview with Phinney I tried to describe the wine label as I saw it: “Looks like a 1950s photo of a guy, maybe wearing a Lone Ranger hat? With a holster and gun.”
Phinney laughed. “That’s exactly what it is,” he said, then shared that the man in the photo was the uncle of Orin Swift’s general manager, Bryan Sandoli. The photo was indeed snapped in the 1950s, capturing Sandoli’s Uncle Bobby in a playful moment. The uncle suffered from Down’s Syndrome.
When Uncle Bobby eventually passed away, Sandoli returned from the funeral with a collection of Uncle Bobby stories and a pamphlet from the funeral service with the “Lone Ranger” photo on its cover.
Phinney made a casual comment, “That picture would be such a cool label.” While traveling in France, the idea grew on him, and he returned to California to find that Sandoli had put Uncle Bobby’s picture on a wine bottle. Then and there, Phinney was sold. But, as he said to Sandoli, “Out of respect for your family and Uncle Bobby, I don’t want to do anything disrespectful.” A phone chat with Sandoli’s Aunt Barbara back in Philly convinced Phinney the idea was a good one. “She thought it was actually quite the…homage to him. So it’s turned out to be a really cool thing.”
One great way wine enthusiasts can get acquainted with Orin Swift’s wines is to visit their tasting room in St. Helena, California (and upgrade your skateboard while you’re there). But for the rest of us outside of Napa Valley, there’s another way: join one of Orin Swift’s two cool wine clubs.
Cool Wine Clubs
The bigger of the two is called Milk Run. Members are guaranteed six or twelve bottles of any one of Orin Swift’s wines a month or so before it’s released to the public. (As a non-skier, Phinney had to explain the name to me: “The ‘milk run’ is when you know someone working at the ski mountain or the ski patrol and you go up early before the lifts open on a powder day and get to ski the fresh tracks before everybody else gets out there.”)
The other Orin Swift wine club, called Equinox, is limited to 500 members and offers its insiders exclusive access to a new wine twice a year, at both the spring and autumnal equinoxes. Each member receives six bottles of the special release.
To sign up or learn more about Orin Swift, visit www.OrinSwift.com.
Featured Interview Written By: Uncorked Monthly Contributing Writer, Kim Brittingham
THE NEW BOTTLE EXPERIENCE RATING
Orin Swift Cellars 2013 D66
This was a wonderful Grenache with a bright appearance, intense aromas of forest floor, black pepper and oak. A medium/full-bodied red. If you enjoy a generally spicy, berry-flavored and soft on the palate wine with a relatively high alcohol content, we feel that the Orin Swift D66 is an overall good Grenache from France with a subtle, white pepper spice note.