The stories behind Orin Swift’s quirkiest wine labels

Dave Phinney doesn’t follow the flock. Having dreamt of becoming a lawyer, he had his head turned by wine during a semester in Italy in the mid ‘90s and never looked back.

After working a harvest at Robert Mondavi and planting experimental blocks of Zinfandel in Arizona, in 1997 Phinney began developing his debut wine brand, The Prisoner, a blend of California Zinfandel, Cabernet and Petite Sirah that rocketed to success shortly after it launched.

Phinney also prints his quirky wine labels on skateboard decks

Featuring a Goya etching on the label, Phinney made just 385 cases of the inaugural 2000 vintage. Eight years later he had grown The Prisoner into an 85,000-case brand.

Keen not to be shackled by its success, Phinney sold The Prisoner in 2008 to concentrate on his boutique brand, Orin Swift, named after his father’s middle name and mother’s maiden name.

Focusing on Rhône-style blends, Napa Cabernets and old vine Grenache, Phinney buys grapes from over 100 vineyard sites across California for his Orin Swift wines, which are unashamedly bold in colour, body and character.

Many of the wines are made from a mash up of grapes, including lesser-known varieties like Charbono. Phinney’s winemaking philosophy is simple: to find the best grapes he can get his hands on, let them hang long enough to become perfectly ripe, then express their character in the boldest way possible.

His quirky labels have helped propel Orin Swift to cult status in the US. Charmed by both the wines and their maker, in the summer of 2016, E&J Gallo snapped up Orin Swift, now a 100,000-case brand, as part of its premium push.

Keen to tell the Orin Swift story outside of the US, Gallo recently launched six of Phinney’s wines in the UK through Great Western Wine; including brooding Rhône blend Machete and opulent white Mannequin.

Phinney’s labels are as important to the Orin Swift narrative as the wine inside the bottle. We caught up with him to find out the stories behind 10 of his quirkiest wine labels and how he went about creating them.

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