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An Exclusive Interview with Orin Swift’s Winemaker

Dave Phinney’s artistic fire has yet to fade in over 20 years since the winemaker and Orin Swift creator set the wine world ablaze. His innovative blends and continuous stream of imaginative labels have solidified international acclaim, hailed for both the quality and creativity of his approach. A collection of diverse, mysterious wines, Phinney looks to tells a new story with every bottle.

When it comes to Orin Swift, every packaging element, glass selection and label material are designed by Phinney. Many of the designs come from ideas he has incubated for years, while others originate from fleeting thoughts of inspiration throughout his day.

For the chance to learn more about his creative process, Wine Dialogues sat down with Phinney to talk about everything from his approach to developing ideas to what he wanted to be when he grew up.


Do you find yourself wanting to leave your labels up for interpretation or do you hope that there's a natural feeling that people will pick up on?

I'm not trying to make some statement. I'm just doing what I like. And if you like it, that's great. And if you don’t, I totally understand. They just are what they are: telling the story.

In some cases, I’ll use things to help people understand. For instance, I purposely used the Polaroid idea with Machete because everybody knows what a Polaroid looks like. They almost see the photograph second. Or with Abstract, there are so many different people on the label that they're bound to connect with somebody or something on there.

An old-time farmer that is a good friend of mine, a guy named Doug White, said, “I figure if 7% of the people out there hate me, I'm doing something right.” If everybody loved my labels and I’m not offending somebody, then we wouldn't be doing our job.

“If everybody loved my labels and I'm not offending somebody, then we wouldn't be doing our job.” – Dave Phinney

Do you find yourself matching up your label ideas to varietals? Is it the chicken or the egg that comes first?

It’s different every time. What definitely comes into play is I ask, is this masculine or feminine? That’s usually the first thing I look at.

Like with Blank Stare, I thought Sauvignon Blanc. To me, it was a feminine label, and Sauvignon Blanc is often a lighter, more delicate wine. But then on the flip side of that like with Machete being our biggest, darkest wine and we put a female on there, you know? Sometimes it's fun to do the opposite to have that juxtaposition.

Do you have any kind of habits or traditions to generate ideas or get in the creative mood?

No, it's an ongoing, like a never-ending sort of process. Sometimes I have great ideas when I'm really tired. Sometimes I have them when I’m totally awake, and I’ve had too much coffee. It's all over the board and omnipresent.

Yesterday, I was kind of putzing around and working on some pieces that we're putting in shadow boxes and hanging in the distillery. And then later I was working on some mockups of some stuff for a clothing line. And then while I was doing it, I wrote down an idea for a potential label. It's just constant – they all interact.

What's your favorite thing to drink when you're creating and in an artistic mood?

Oh, red wine for sure.

What do you do when you're feeling completely uninspired?

I just walk away. Because I’m constantly keeping a list of hundreds of ideas at a time, I can usually get to an idea within 24 hours. If it doesn't hit right away, then that’s when it becomes a little tougher because then it can become forced. That's when I have to walk away and wait for it to come.

And when I say wait for it to come, I mean, it's always in the back of my mind. I'll be driving days later, and I'll see something and right away I know that’s it.

What do you think is the longest you've ever held onto an idea before you brought it to life?

That’s funny now that I think about it. Coincidentally, it was just over eight years – and it wasn’t for Eight Years in the Desert – it was Abstract. I remember I was with my wife, and it was our first anniversary when I ripped the original image that eventually became the start of Abstract. I held onto that picture since 2001, and the first vintage was 2009.

When you have a new idea that you're excited about, do you find yourself wanting to bounce it off of anyone or do you keep it close to the vest?

By the time I’m showing an idea to somebody, I've already decided what it’s going to be. Although I will show some ideas to my wife to make sure I'm not too offensive. I know my tolerance for Avant-Garde is a lot different from most.

Would you say your wife is your best ‘gut-check’ then?

Definitely. It’s not about whether she likes it or not – she knows right away exactly why I'm asking. When I first showed her Machete, I woke her up at like two in the morning because I had gone all night putting the files together and I was so excited. But, you know, Machete could be taken the wrong way.

So, I woke her up and she came downstairs, she's pissed off I woke her up, and ask her, “You just have to look at this…do you know what I’m saying?” And she replied, “From that standpoint, you're fine.” But she looked up at me, and she asked me, “What is wrong with you?” I don't talk to her about concepts; I like to show her when they're done. She's a good sounding board because she's never going to sugar coat it.

What's something you always go back to that will always inspire you?

Magazines. Terminal two at SFO has an international section and – talk about bingeing – I think I got 15 magazines the last time that I was there. People sitting next to me on airplanes must be like, “what is wrong with this guy?” I'll have an Italian fashion magazine and some skate mag, and then I'll have an architectural magazine and the whole time I'm ripping the crap out of them.

Magazines are my go-to because I'll always find something; they are sort of my comfort food. It drives my wife crazy - there are magazines all over. I refuse to throw any one of them away because I don’t know if I've picked through that one yet.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Oh, there was a pretty long phase I wanted to be a stunt man. Athletics were a very big deal for me, and I had huge, enormous respect for the Olympics. I remember when that idea died, I think I was probably about 12 or 13, and just realized it wasn't going to happen. But I did always know that whatever it was, and when I finally figured it out, it would work. I always kept a little bit of my naive confidence – it can take you a long way.

“I always kept a little bit of my naive confidence – it can take you a long way." - Dave Phinney

To read Phinney’s take on Napa Valley, read “Napa’s Pedigrees & Pressures.” 


Phinney’s creativity seemingly knows no bounds, and he’s always got something new on the horizon, whether that’s a clothing line in the works or exciting new wines. Here’s a look at two of his latest forays into wine as an art form.

8 Years in the Desert Vintage 2018

Twenty years after Phinney’s first foray with Zinfandel, the launch of 8 Years in the Desert marked his return to the grape that started it all. Now, the highly anticipated next vintage of 8 Years in the Desert will be released in October 2019. Phinney created eight mixed-media, handmade labels for the wine, releasing one label with each new year. Redefining the look of modern luxury brands, the unique labels step away from traditional wine designs that remain static over time. Vintage 2018 of the California red wine will continue to be Zinfandel-led and is sourced from some of the best vineyards throughout the state.


Inspired by one of the most infamous artists of the 20th century, Dave Phinney’s latest venture tackles stuffy artistic pretenses head-on. French for “The Factory,” L’Usine is an ode to winemakers and artists who hold a shared defiant nature and a disdain for the status quo. A limited release wine, L’Usine will offer three Pinot Noirs sourced from some of the most coveted regions and vineyards in California’s Central Coast. The small-batch brand will launch with Santa Rita Hills, Annapolis Ridge and Sleepy Hollow Vineyard designated Pinot Noirs. They will be available online at and in limited distribution in New York and California.