8 Years in the Desert : A New Wine from Dave Phinney and Orin Swift

8 years in the desert with car background

Wine lovers across the country may not know him by name, but they have seen and drank his wines. They are everywhere, from grocery stores to high-end wine shops. Even the wine-curious, that know his many brands, such as the Prisoner and Orin Swift, know little about the mind behind some of the most successful wine brands in American history. His latest project, 8 years in the desert may be on of his most exciting yet. Hear what the man, himself has to say about it….

8 Years in the Desert is the first Zinfandel by Dave Phinney in 8 years!

As many of you know, the first commercial wine I made for Orin Swift was Zinfandel. But none of you have ever tried it. None of you have tried it because it was never bottled. I sold it on the bulk market. I would argue that Zinfandel may be the most difficult varietal to tame. But when you get it right it rewards you like no other. If winemaking is a series of challenges Zinfandel has them all in spades.

I guess you could say it all started with Zinfandel, although you could also say it almost ended with Zinfandel. It was 1998 and with the ignorant bravado that only a twenty-five-year-old can possess I decided to form Orin Swift Cellars. My goal was to never make more than one thousand cases. Oops! Back then I loved, as I do now, to drink Zinfandel. So, that’s where I started. I bought two tons of Zinfandel and took the first step of what I hope will be a lifelong journey in turning grape juice into alcohol. Truth be told, that first step was more like a trip or a stumble at best.

You see, 1998 was a tough, wet year, and no matter what I did in the cellar that first vintage, my baby, was just OK, and I’m not OK with OK. I sold the wine in bulk and tried again the next year. I went back to Zinfandel, this time farming it myself. It was literally trial by fire. I lost a third of the crop when I sprayed sulfur late in the year and a heat spike fried the morning side of the vines. What was left yielded my first commercial bottle of wine, the 1999 Orin Swift Cellars Zinfandel. Ninety-nine cases. I had finally arrived, although late and a bit hungover.

The next year, 2000, was another difficult year, much like 1998. Circumstances led me to basi­cally throw all my red wines together, most of which was Zinfandel, and I made a wine called The Prisoner. I made that wine for the next eight years, and then in 2008 I sold the brand. When I sold the brand I agreed to not make Zinfandel for eight years. At first I liked the idea. Zinfandel is notoriously difficult. It ripens unevenly, it is prone to rot, and it often has very high alcohol. Taking a few years off sounded good. But, like a child who only wants to do what he or she is told not to, I began to plot my return. I would have to wait till 2016, which seemed like an eternity.

I can’t tell you how many hours and brain cells I wasted obsessing over potential names and label art. I finally hit rock bottom on a warm summer night in Paris. I woke up, unable to sleep. I thought I had it. I wrote down my “genius” idea. Then went back to sleep. The next day I read what I written the night before and was embarrassed by its absurdity and obviousness. I decided right then to stop trying. I would stop trying and wait for something to happen, and in the mean­time, I would write a book. A short book. OK, a very short book.

The only reason I mention the book is because the title of the first story in it is 8 Years In The Desert. Just corny, enough, right? By accident I had solved for the name and label con­cept. Better to be lucky than good, much better.

It’s hard to believe that this will be my twenty first harvest in the Napa Valley. Some of those vintages I remember fondly, others I’d like to forget.  What may be harder to believe is that this harvest also marks the twentieth year that Orin Swift has been in business. Twenty years. It makes me feel old. But I love it, maybe now more than ever. 

 It would end up being an eight-year break. 8 years in the desert. It was never if but when would we make Zinfandel again. That when is now.
Today is a big day. I am reunited with the varietal that got me started in the wine business and created Orin Swift. 

202018 8 Years in the Desert #2

 About Orin Swift:

Our relationship with Zinfandel goes back 20 years. Orin Swift Cellars was started with two tons of Zinfandel in 1998 – perhaps the most important two tons we’ve ever purchased. Quite often, you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. What we learned from those two tons is that there is neither a silver bullet nor alchemy once the grapes are in the winery. You can only make great wine from great grapes. This truism applies to Zinfandel more than any other varietal. Like golf or fly-fishing, you never truly master the game; you just have the good days and bad days. By incorporating Petite Sirah and Syrah into the blend, we’re able to mitigate some of the predictability. In the end, our goal every year, is to get closer and closer to the mastery of Zinfandel.

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