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Master winemaker Dave Phinney is living the Napa Valley dream, when in 2003 he created the now-famous blend The Prisoner at his Orin Swift Cellars winery. Photo by Katrine Naleid
CommunityTaste of Wine

Taste of Wine: Dave Phinney — Mastermind of ‘The Prisoner’

This is a story about “New World” wine in the Napa Valley and the meteoric rise of Dave Phinney, who had an idea about blending wine out of the box.

You might say he released “The Prisoner” and freed him to hit a creative home run in the wine world.

But we digress.

The story started in 1995 when Phinney, confused about what he wanted out of life, took a friend’s advice and studied wine for a semester in Florence, Italy.

Once graduated from university life, he set out to find work in a Napa Valley vineyard. He found one at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1997.

A year later he started his own winery, Orin Swift Cellars with two tons of Zinfandel, and not much else.

He spent the next few years making wine and experimenting with the way the wines tasted and looked, with mixing and expressive labeling.

It hit him in 2003, when he added together “mixed blacks,” like the Old Italian immigrants that came to Napa Valley used to do.

He made Zinfandel the major varietal and added it to the standard traditional “black” blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Charbono.  He called it “The Prisoner” from the label he chose, an etching of a prisoner drawn by the famous artist Goya.

He produced just 385 cases in its first vintage.  It caught on quickly as the new world’s newest and tastiest blend, and eventually went to 85,000 cases in 10 years.

The last vintage of The Prisoner made by Phinney before he sold the name is the 2013 vintage ($45).  It has 44 percent Zinfandel with 20 percent Cabernet and 16 percent Petite Sirah, and the rest Grenache and Charbono.  The alcohol content is a hefty 15.2 percent.

It is a deep ruby red hue with aromas of black cherry and plum and roasted coffee beans, with a long finish.

It had me going back for more.  I was captivated.

Without The Prisoner, Orin Swift and Dave Phinney went international with old vine Grenache made on 200 acres in the French Langedoc region as well as Napa Valley Cabernet brands like Mercury Head, Papillion and Palermo.

Mannequin is a Chardonnay-based brand and Abstract is a red blend mainly with Grenache.

Locations is a value brand lineup from places around the world. Look for a single large letter on the label.

Most recently, this story shot skyward when E. and J. Gallo, the legendary decades-long  jug wine bottle company from Modesto, announced that it had acquired Phinney’s company, Orin Swift Cellars,  for a reported $100 million. Phinney will remain in charge.  Learn more at

Antinori Wines at
La Gran Terraza USD

Antinori, as most of us know, is one of the iconic Tuscan wines to know.  His family has been making wine since 1385.

I learned about Italian wines from Piero Antinori and Wine Spectator when I first began TASTE OF WINE in 2005.  At a recent wine dinner at the University of San Diego’s posh La Gran Terraza, the next chapter of Antinori was revealed by its business manager in Southern California, Alessia Botturi.

Alessia Botturi of Antinori Winery of Tuscany with La Gran Terraza manager Luis Rosas as they display the Tormaresca wines. Photo by Frank Mangio
Alessia Botturi of Antinori Winery of Tuscany with La Gran Terraza manager Luis Rosas as they display the Tormaresca wines. Photo by Frank Mangio

It is the Antinori Tormaresca brand from the Puglia district of Italy.  Tormaresco means “watchtower” in Italian and they were built to keep away feudal empires from conquering Puglia, now more known for its Primitivo, a grape that closely resembles Zinfandel in California.

The Tomraresca Toricicoda 2013 ($20.97) is closest to what we call Zinfandel.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Antinori’s legendary Tignanello, one of the first and best “Super Tuscans,” pioneer wines that were the first in Italy to blend the Sangiovese grape with other varietals ($95).  They now command very high prices, and are not made unless the vintage is among the best.  Details about La Gran Terraza and other wine dinners can be found at


Wine Bytes

Vittorio’s in Carmel Valley off the 56 will be presenting a Cakebread Cellars wine dinner, Aug. 25 at 6 p.m.  This well respected Napa Valley winery will be paired with Vittroio’s splendid dinner menus featuring Beef Wellington and Cakebread’s Cabernet. Cost is $59.50 pp. RSVP at (858) 538-5884.

Decoy Dockside in Lake San Marcos has its sneak preview special event for the new restaurant, Aug. 27 from 6 to 10 p.m.  Cost is $100. Enjoy complimentary welcome cocktail, appetizers, chef demos, live music and fireworks.  RSVP at (619 236-8397.

Live at Lake Henshaw at Santa Ysabel, a food, wine and music festival across from the Roundup Grill.  Date is Aug. 28 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Cost is $30 to benefit Shelter to Soldier.  Music by Steelhorse Country. Wine from Ramona Ranch Winery.  Tickets by calling (760) 782-2729.

California State University San Marcos is offering its next course in the Certificate for Wine, Beer and Spirits, starting Sept. 8 and emphasizing craft beer.  Fee is $269.  More information at

Frank Mangio is a renowned wine connoisseur certified by Wine Spectator.  He is one of the leading wine commentators on the web. View his columns at and reach him at [email protected]Follow him on Facebook.