When compared to most winemakers, Dave Phinney, the winemaker and founder of Orin Swift, is probably a rebel, but to his fans, Dave is an artist…

Dave entered the wine industry in 1995, following a short stint in Florence, Italy, where he fell in love with wine. When he returned to the USA, he swapped his political science studies for winemaking, landing his first winery job at Robert Mondavi in 1997. The very next year, he started Orin Swift, and the rest is history.

What makes Orin Swift stand out from the pack is the wines’ names and the bold labels of the bottles. Dave makes 16 wines, and each has a totally different and unconnected name and label. If you aren’t familiar with Orin Swift, you might think these wines are from 16 different producers, and some people might dismiss the names and labels as marketing gimmicks. The only way to prove them wrong is to try the wine!

At a recent Zoom tasting with 10 Asian markets, Dave explained this often-asked question: what comes first with his wine – the name, the label or the wine itself?

With Mannequin, the name came first, inspired by a song Dave was listening to while driving. He decided it had to be a white wine and eventually developed a Chardonnay-led wine blended with aromatic varieties, which changes every year. This wine has lush flavours and bright acidity, just like the image of a mannequin.

8 Years in the Desert is a Zinfandel blend, one of Dave’s favourites. His first vintages of Zinfandel were not perfect, and he eventually sold the brand, with a clause that he would not make a Zinfandel for eight years. When he eventually got his hands back on Zinfandel, he made a much better version blended with Petit Syrah and Syrah and named it 8 Years in the Desert.

The most controversial Orin Swift wine is probably Machete. A huge fan of Petit Syrah, Dave thinks the variety is a chameleon and always wants to showcase it in a dynamic blend. He came across an old police car by the roadside that inspired him to create this dramatic label. The wine is a muscular blend of Petit Syrah, Syrah and Grenache, with depth and layers of fruits supported by firm acidity. This wine series has 12 individual labels, each with a model holding a machete in a different pose, but always in a position of power.

Palermo and Papillon are Bordeaux blends whose labels convey the power and nobility of Cabernet Sauvignon, the dominant grape variety. The image of Palermo is an 18th-century mummified priest in Palermo, Sicily, while the idea for Papillon (butterfly in French) came from Dave’s three-year-old daughter.

So how do these wines taste?

Machete 2018 is elegant, with layers of fruits and freshness that went well with the Acquerello risotto created by the chef at Popinjays. 8 Years in the Desert 2018 is a powerful wine that is a few notches better than most Zinfandels. Comparing the two Bordeaux blends, Papillon 2018 has better integration and more complexity.

Customers might buy an eye-catching label or name out of curiosity, but the wine needs to have substance in order to sustain repeat purchases. Orin Swift has clearly succeeded at both!

Orin Swift wines are available in Hong Kong from Watson’s Wine.

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A marketer turned winemaker, I make, promote, judge, write about and drink wine.

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