Tom's blog

Unraveling and understanding Orin Swift

David Phinney, a wine genius by most accounts, founded Orin Swift Cellars in 1998 after being inspired by a stay in Italy and later by a temporary stint at Robert Mondavi. He made a batch of wines from zinfandel grapes and thus launched a wine enterprise that became a financial success. His blends, pricey and with edgy labels, developed a cult following.

Orin is his father's middle name and Swift is his mother's maiden name.

These wines aren't for everyone and they certainly aren't for me. Heavily extracted and jammy, they are better spread on toast in the morning. They are the opposite of elegant French wine and more like the dense, hedonistic Australian shiraz and grenache, like those from Clarendon Hills and Mollydooker.

Phinney's The Prisoner brand was bought by Constellation in 2016 for a cool $285 million -- no property, just the name. E.&J. Gallo bought the rest of the brand, inventory and Modesto tasting room later in the year. 

I have to wonder whether Constellation or Gallo will be able to sustain Phinney's wine philosophy. Neither one seems to be a good fit for cult wines not intended for the masses.

I was thinking of this incredible success story while sipping a D66 that was gifted to me recently. Made mostly from grenache grown in the Roussillon region of southwest France, it mirrors Swift's other wines. Jam-packed, rich and concentrated with ripe cassis and plum notes and floral aromas, it attacks the palate with bold, full-bodied flavors. This is hardly a sipping wine on some summer day, but rather a wine you would pair with barbecued foods, beef, lamb or wild game.

In spite of my personal dislike of these wines, I can't deny their popularity. They get high reviews from other critics too. Prices range from $30-120 for blends with names like Trigger Finger, Machete, China Doll, Mercury Head, Slander and more.