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Winemaker and billionaire turn Bay Area island into booze destination

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Napa Valley whiz winemaker Dave Phinney thinks big. Very big.

Premium red-blend trendsetter? Check. Megahit brand builder for labels such as Orin Swift and the Prisoner? Ditto. Iconoclastic entrepreneur in a dozen wine regions around the globe? Yes.

So far, Phinney, 46, has made more than $150 million from selling those ventures. Now he's taken on spirits with his Savage & Cooke Distillery, which led to a partnership with billionaire Gaylon Lawrence to transform the San Francisco Bay Area's Mare Island into a hip booze destination and a sustainable community for 75,000 people.

"Designing a city from scratch is a little surreal," he admits over lunch on a cold and sunny day at a Yonkers, New York, restaurant overlooking the Hudson River. "At heart I'm still a winemaker."

Combining a laid-back Napa wine guy look - close-cropped beard, quilted vest, jeans, and checked shirt - with the intense focus of a business mogul on a tight schedule, Phinney dives into the backstory of how it all went down.

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Phinney was looking for a winery space in 2015 when someone suggested he take a look at the abandoned historic brick buildings on Mare Island, once home to the first U.S. naval base on the West Coast. The 3.5-mile-by-1-mile island (actually a peninsula) is linked by a causeway to the city of Vallejo on San Pablo Bay, an 80-minute ferry ride from San Francisco and a 20-minute drive from the city of Napa.

When the U.S. Navy purchased the island in 1853, Commodore David Farragut (famous for shouting: "Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!") took charge. The last of the clipper ships were repaired in its yard. Its 18-hole golf course is the oldest west of the Mississippi. But in 1996, Congress shuttered the base. The island fell on hard times.

Smitten by the colorful history, Phinney began leasing buildings in 2016 and decided that instead of housing a winery, they might be better suited for a distillery. Wine distributors had long suggested he could make lots of money with a spirits brand. "But I'm not that motivated by money," he says with a shrug.

The idea gained steam because he'd discovered in 2014 that his 300-acre farm in Sonoma's Alexander Valley had amazing natural springs - "like something pumping out of a hose." A blind water tasting and scientific analysis showed its high mineral content was ideal for spirits. "I started thinking," he says. "What if we finish whiskey in wine barrels? What if we used heirloom varieties of grain? What if we take a wine approach to spirits?"

What to call the brand? Looking through old Navy files on Mare Island, two names popped out to him: "Savage" and "Cooke."

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Phinney certainly had the startup funds.

What made him famous was the Prisoner, an outsider, zinfandel-based lush-textured red blend that made its debut in 2000 with a grim label from a Goya etching showing a shackled prisoner. By 2003 it had a cult following, and in 2010, Phinney sold the brand for $40 million to Huneeus Vintners (which flipped it six years later for $285 million).

But he first made his name with wine brand Orin Swift, which he founded in 1998 and sold to E & J Gallo in 2016 for a reported $100 million. In 2018, Gallo also snapped up his Locations wines - good-value $20 blends from different countries. Phinney still makes the wines, as well as Orin Swift's.

Enter Memphis-based billionaire Lawrence, fresh off purchasing Heitz Cellar, one of Napa's pioneer wineries, in April 2018. (Since then he's snapped up two more iconic vineyards in the valley.)

The two met on a Wednesday, hit it off, and that Sunday, Phinney found himself on Mare Island with Lawrence. "His thinking was much bigger than mine," he says. With real estate broker Sebastian Lane, they formed the Nimitz Group to acquire land and develop it. As of November, they'd locked up more than 800 acres, including the golf course, according to the Vallejo city manager's office.

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As a booze destination, the island was already on its way, starting with a brewery.

Production, tours, and tastings at Savage & Cooke followed last year. The tasting space has a salvaged feel - rough concrete walls, iron girders, old Navy office chairs, and a collection of antique chains on the wall. A glass case full of rounds of ammunition and a bust of Mao Zedong sit beside the bar. Adjoining spaces hold neat rows of aging barrels and polished copper stills.

The success of Phinney's wines and spirits owes a lot to their bold flavors, rich texture, and edgy, sometimes downright weird labels and catchy outré names.

So far, Savage & Cooke has released two tequilas made in Mexico, an American whiskey, a bourbon, and a rye, all finished in Phinney's wine barrels. They're presented in opaque black bottles with avant-garde photography on the labels. Phinney is already planning a gin using botanicals from Mare Island.

What's next for Mare Island? Jason West, a spokesman for Lawrence, injects a note of cautious reality: "We're still getting our arms around the project. You have to own it first before you can do a real feasibility study."

But Phinney is holding on to his vision - a winery for some of his wines, a fried chicken restaurant, a coffee roaster, artists' studios, even an artisanal shotgun business using walnut for the stocks from trees on one of his Napa properties. Will it all work?

Based on his track record, it's a good bet.

- - -

- 2018 8 Years in the Desert ($45)

Phinney's latest zinfandel-based blend is fresher and more complex than the Prisoner, with smooth plushness and rich berry and spice flavors. At 15.6% alcohol, it packs a haymaker punch.

- 2017 L'Usine Sta. Rita Hills pinot noir ($65)

This new pinot noir project is inspired by Andy Warhol's Factory. Of the three bottlings, this one has tart cherry notes, bright acidity, and a creamy texture.

- Savage & Cooke Second Glance whiskey ($40)

First released in 2017, this American whiskey is made from Kentucky corn, rye, and barley and finished in cabernet barrels. It's rich and subtle, with wood and caramel notes.

- Savage & Cooke Burning Chair bourbon ($55)

A blend of small lots from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana, it's more exotic than traditional bourbons and has a lush, honeyed savory quality and smoky, spicy tobacco hints.

- Savage & Cooke Lip Service rye ($35)

Sourced from Tennessee, this rye is finished in barrels from Phinney's grenache project in France and carries a provocative and somewhat unsettling label. What's inside is delicious: spicy (think cloves and ginger), bright, and more intense than the other whiskeys.

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