By Rick Riozza

One of the more imaginative new-wave of winemakers here in California is Orin Swift. Actually his name is David Swift Phinney and the quick history on Orin Swift Cellars dates back to 1995 when on a lark, David took a friend up on an offer and went to Florence, Italy to spend a semester “studying”. During that time, he was introduced to wine, how it was made, and got hooked. It was here somewhere and sometime where his bombastic winemaking style was initiated.

Truth be told, I’m not a fan of overly decadent fruit-bomb wines. I know famed wine writer Robert Parker kinda is and Michel Rolland in Europe is Monsieur Fruit-bomb, and both these guys influenced how big flavors became big business in wine

So after school graduation Phinney did a stint at Robert Mondavi Winery, where he gladly started at the bottom staining barrels and cleaning bins, “it was hard work, but we had a blast!”

Deciding that if he was going to work this hard, it would eventually have to be for himself, so in 1998 he founded Orin Swift Cellars; Orin is his father’s middle name and Swift is his mother’s maiden name. The Orin Swift project started with a couple of tons of Zinfandel from the 1999 crush, along with a little Cab Sauv. But it was the 2000 harvest that brought the young winemaker to the attention of consumers. He spent the next decade making wine for others as well as himself and grew the company into a multinational brand that now includes 300 acres of vineyards in the Southwest of France. This international ambition has led to projects in Spain, Italy, Corsica, Argentina and other locations around the globe.

Phinney used only the best fruit to create his first wine, Prisoner. Success came quickly, but production remained low since Phinney was committed to only creating wine from the best possible vines he could.

“The demand was there,” he explained. “But if we can’t find that quality of fruit we just won’t make it.”

It’s been said that “He’s the man, the man with the Midas touch.” And he’s been very smart and fortunate in wine opportunities. Perhaps never before have we seen such a perfect storm of quality grapes, expert winemaking—and slick packaging.

Some people hate the mere mention that something as trivial as packaging could play a role in the overall popularity of a wine. But here’s the news: 27% of all wine is purchased without knowing a single thing about the contents inside the bottle. There’s an entire arm in wine marketing that simply deals with the R & D of label art.

Just the other day, I met a lady browsing labels in my wine department. I began to talk a little about the wine she was choosing, but she immediately alerted me that she’s not that interested, rather she decides her purchases strictly on the label—and she’s never been disappointed with her picks!

A great label can grab your attention and your interest, but only a truly superb bottle of wine will have you hooked for a lifetime. Phinney’s genius was to put his best wine in bottles with wild and thought-provoking labels. His Papillon may not be a wine that you are familiar with, in part because production was low and demand through the roof but it’s a Bordeaux-styled blend that is out-of-control good—full of complexities, with structure and balance. It is just that big and jammy and juicy and enjoyable—I’m now a believer. It is also packaged in probably the heaviest glass bottle in the market.

This has allowed him to pursue another passion — buying up choice vineyards and potential vineyard sites not only in this area but also in France. He began by picking up old Grenache vineyards in the south of France in 2008 and now has acreage and a winery.

What’s followed is the growth of a brand in a steady pace that now has Phinney and his team marketing ten distinctly labeled products all made from California fruit, the vast majority of which is picked in the Napa Valley. The wines below are offered at Pavilions in Rancho Mirage. Come by and say hi.

Wine Spectator gave the 2011 Pappilon, $60, a whopping 93 points “Offers a rich, inviting core of dark berry, mocha, crushed rock, fresh brownie and sandalwood notes, with fresh-cut flower scents. Gains depth and richness before ending with ripe tannins and layers of flavor, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Drink now through 2025. ”

2012 Machete, $45 is a blend of Petite Sirah, Syrah and Grenache.  Petite Sirah may be winemaker Dave Phinney’s favorite grape varietal and wine . Massive and powerful with intense color and structure. A limited release with a case exhibiting 12 different labels of chic women posing with machetes and white Cadillacs.

“Saturated black-ruby, with layers of ripe cherry and strawberries.  Crushed blackberry and blueberry aromas are perked up by spices, pepper, violet and mineral notes, with a smoky element adding complexity. Tons of weight on the mid-palate and the finish is laced with long, tannins that go on and on. Seriously delicious and dangerously complex. A must-have.”

2012 Mannequin, $25, is a blend of Chardonnay, Viognier, Semillon, Muscat, and Marsanne. Rich and ripe with tons of fruit character – trademark Orin Swift.   Winemaker Notes – Beautiful shades of deep gold and amber fill the glass letting loose tropical aromas of ripe peach and pear married with subtle French oak. The entry of the wine is fully mouth-coating and offers a viscosity that leads effortlessly into an intense mid-palette with the colorful acidity of fresh pineapple. The finish of the wine is soft and subtle with great length and volume.