Orin Swift – A Californian Legend

Orin Swift sounds more like a character in an Agatha Christie mystery than a winery, but a Californian winery it is and a most impressive one. Established by Dave Phinney in 1998, though its genesis dates back even further – Orin is Dave’s father’s middle name and Swift, his mother’s maiden name. 

As mentioned, the genesis for all this was earlier, in 1995. Dave and a friend talked themselves into ‘studying’ in Florence, Italy, for a semester. It was there that Dave, as so many before him, discovered wine. And, again as so many before him, he fell hard. After University, in 1997 Dave took up a temporary position with the Robert Mondavi Winery, working harvest. He made the decision that if he was going to work this hard, it may as well be for himself. And so, in 1998, with two tons of zinfandel, Orin Swift kicked off. As well as his own wines, he has also acted as a contract winemaker. And then, twenty years later, he became the proverbial overnight success when named Wine Enthusiast’s ‘Winemaker of the Year 2019’, proving he is no mug. But then one look at his wines would tell you that. 

The wines are remarkable for their packaging, but the best packaging in the world won’t save a wine if it is not up to scratch. Dave’s focus is first and foremost on the vineyards, sourcing throughout the Napa Valley and Sonoma County. From the former, the Stagecoach Vineyard in Atlas Peak and Morisoli in Rutherford, and from the latter, Laguna Ranch in Russian River and Frei Ranch in Dry Creek Valley. In addition, the Annapolis Vineyards in Sonoma Coast and Sleepy Hollow Vineyard in Monterey on the Central Coast. From these, Dave has crafted wines of balance, power, complexity and flavour. 

The wines of Orin Swift are worthy of your attention. 

Orin Swift Palermo Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
93 Points – $100

A wine called Palermo might be expected to offer a mix of lovely Italian varieties, something you couldn’t refuse. Not so. A Californian Cab. Well, it does have 2% petite syrah and 1% syrah. 12 months in French oak, 38% new. The fruit is sourced from Sicily – sorry, not true – from a number of the sub-regions in the Napa. The label is a cracker, with a photo by National Geographic contributor, Vincent Musi, though it is nothing like your typical NatGeo pic. For me, it is very reminiscent of the labels from the Granite Belt winery, Le Petit Mort, taken by Aussie photographer, Ray Cook. Love them both. 

This is rich and meaty. A hint of cabernet leafiness, but mostly appealing black fruits and a hint of delicatessen meats. Some barbecue notes, and how good would this be at a quality barbie! Plenty of firm tannins so good structure here, and length. Flavours of plums and blackberries emerge, coffee grounds and dark chocolate too. This is big and bold and has a good decade ahead of it. Good stuff.

Orin Swift ‘Eight Years in the Desert’ California Red 2018 
93 Points – $100

Not the most obvious name for a wine but all will become clear. Zinfandel dominant, 56%, with 34% petite syrah, 9% syrah and just 1% grenache. 8 months in a mix of French and American oak, 37% new. All of these wines have high alcohol, but this one is a whopping 15.6%, not that you would necessarily pick it. 

Dave made a Zin called ‘The Prisoner’ for eight years before selling the brand and agreeing not to make Zin for another 8 years as part of the deal. Time has expired. He’s back! 

This was one of my favourites from the OS range. Extremely dark, near opaque. There is an immediate impression of coiled power here. Notes of florals, blackberries, tobacco leaf and aniseed emerge. Towards the end, some black jellybean flavours sneak in. What is most surprising, and this is all relative of course, there is even a note of elegance here, the last thing I expected. This is a delicious blend, cracking now, although it will be good for the next 4-5 years and probably a lot longer.

Orin Swift Machete California Red 2017 
94 Points – $100

We are looking at a wine that should retail a smidge over the $100 mark here so expectations are high. 

The labels are unforgettable. Dave says they took about 10,000 shots to get what they want. I gather that they have 12 different ones which are shared around each vintage of Machete, so don’t be shocked if your label is different to the next one. They feature models and cars. You won’t miss them! 

The focus here is on petite sirah – better known as durif to Australians. It is 58% of this wine, with syrah (shiraz, of course) 37% and grenache 5%. The wine spent 12 months in French oak, 38% new. It is a Godzilla like 15.7% alcohol. This will put some off but these wines have the structure and flavour to more than carry that level of alcohol. Match it with the right dish and they will work wonders. Don’t go subtle. Go big! These wines are really worth a look. If you have not been wowed by Californian wines yet, these will change your perspective. 

This is a Joseph Conrad wine – Heart of Darkness. Powerful, dark, concentrated, intense, did I mention powerful? There is oak here but it is integrating well. Bold flavours, well crafted and with impressive structure. It is for the long haul – serious stuff. Blackberry notes, cloves, black olives, licorice; everything about this is dark! Good acidity and with soft and supple tannins. This is only just getting started with ten to fifteen years ahead.

Mannequin Californian Chardonnay 2018 
92 Points – $90

This Chardy is apparently named after a line in a song by someone called Nicky Minaj. I have no reason to assume that is not true, but I have no idea who that is. The wine spent 8 months in oak, 32% new. What is interesting, and certainly not apparent, is that there is 1% of Sauvignon Blanc added to it. 

You just know it is going to be a big wine. Heavy bottle, American, big punt. And it is, but it is certainly nicely balanced. Intense fruit notes with quince, grapefruit, stonefruit and some cinnamon oak touches, over a minerally backing so lots to love here. There is a refreshing oystershell note on the finish, which really works. I found myself wishing I had a plate of rich seafood to go with it.



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