Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Orin Swift Cellars

"And now for something completely different," it's Orin Swift Cellars.  You will want to visit Orin Swift for their excellent, unusual, very reasonably priced wines and to experience a place that is refreshingly different from your typical winery.  Eccentric, creative, unusual, and unlike any other winery in Napa Valley, Orin Swift is located in the middle of downtown St. Helena and offers exceptional, atypical wines and blends, including Rhone varietals, from grapes sourced mostly from different regions of California.  The tasting room is small but strikingly attractive, and we found the service to be great thanks to Monica and Justin, our hosts.

Orin Swift Cellars entrance

Orin Swift Cellars was founded in 1998 by winemaker David Swift Phinney who derived the name from his father's middle name of Orin and his mother's maiden name of Swift.  He set up office in the upstairs of downtown St. Helena's Odd Fellows Lodge built in 1885 and sometimes has tastings there.  (I can't help thinking that Mr. Phinney was immensely pleased to be housed in the same building with the "Odd" Fellows.)  In August 2013 he opened a small tasting room across the street in the center of downtown St. Helena in what use to be an alleyway between two buildings.  The outside of the building has an English Victorian presentation that does not prepare one for the unusual inside.  One wall inside is a lovely composition made of colorful textured reclaimed lumber, another wall is beautiful old stonework from a nearby building, and the back wall is yet another work of art, composed from two old slabs of rusty steel that weigh over 1,000 pounds apiece.  The steel plates were sandblasted and had the patina accented and now compose the back wall plus the tasting table at the bar.  That was apparently not creative and eccentric enough for Mr. Phinney who added a floor made of pages from Chinese children's books from his collection.  The photos I took only hint at the overall exotic, creative and interesting experience.  It is worth viewing even if you don't drink wine.  This is the antithesis  of whatever stereotypes people might have of an ostentatious, pretentious, snobbish, high end winery.  It is all a great deal of fun and very appealing, just as the Orin Swift wines themselves are. 

Orin Swift Cellars tasting room

Mr. Phinney now owns 300 acres of vineyard in the southwest of France, and grapes from there are used in production of his D66 wine.  He has also purchased 48 acres in the hills above Oakville where he plans to eventually build a winery.  Most of the Orin Swift wines are from grapes sourced from throughout California, with many varietals that are rarely found in Napa Valley.  As with Behren's Family Winery, Orin Swift wines tend to be fruit oriented rather than focused on terroir and have very unusual, artistic, creative, playful and rather funky names and wine labels.  And, yes, the initial quote at the beginning of this review is from the introduction to the old Monty Python shows.  Orin Swift is one of those very unusual places where one searches for some comparisons, however remote.  Although some of their releases are as small as 450 cases (Trigger Finger), their total production is over 150,000 cases annually.  Mr. Phinney must keep quite busy.

Orin Swift artistic walls

At the time of our visit the tasting menu listed three options.  Two flights were $10 each and included four pours.  A third option was the Finite Few at $20.  You might want to split two tastings or three.  If I had to pick one, I'd probably opt for the Tails Flight with the Mannequin, Palermo, D66 and NV Mute, although The Finite Few with the Trigger Finger, Machete and Veladora would also be tempting.  But then I wouldn't want to miss the Papillon in the Heads Flight which comes with the Abstract, China Doll and NV Mute.  Well, I must confess, they are all worth trying.  The ones underlined below were my favorites, though. 

Orin Swift Cellars wine labels

Our first pour was the Orin Swift 2012 China Doll at $19.  This is a rose from Grenache and Syrah grapes and 500 cases were produced.  A light pink in color, it had a light flowery nose.  On the palate I got a dry, clean, refreshing presentation of raspberry, cranberry and floral notes, followed by a good, slightly less dry finish of mostly strawberry.  We liked this much better than almost any American rose we have tasted.  It is drier, has more substance and is very refreshing with its crisp acid and is not at all cloyingly sweet or insipid as are most U.S. roses.  Try it even if you don't like roses (neither of us usually do), just to see how refreshing a good one can be when it is done more in the French style.

Orin Swift Cellars tasting bar

The second pour was the Orin Swift 2013 Veladora Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc at $28.  This is 100% Sauvignon Blanc and is produced as "an annual recognition of the Latino farm working community in Napa Valley."  100% of the profits from the sales of this wine are given to Puertas Abiertas (Open Doors) which is a coalition formed by Father Gordon Kalil that provides dental service, counseling and health screening to those in need.  This was a pale gold in color.  On the nose I got mostly grapefruit with some minerality and grassiness.  On the palate I got a clean and refreshing but slightly rounded presentation of lemon and grapefruit with some herbaceousness and a medium length crisp finish.  Very Californian in style. Quite nice.

Orin Swift Cellars Chinese book leaf floor

Third up was my favorite of the non-red wines, the Orin Swift 2012 Mannequin California White Wine at $30.  This is an interesting blend of 48% Chardonnay, 14% Sauvignon Blanc, 12% Grenache Blanc, 12% Viognier, 8% Marsanne, 4% Roussanne and 2% Muscat.  It was aged in 40% new French oak, 49% neutral oak and 30% stainless steel and 10,000 cases were produced.  It tastes completely different than almost any white wine you will ever encounter in Napa Valley.  It was a lovely sparkling light yellow in color.  On the nose I got mostly melon, pear and vanilla.  It was dry, rich and well balanced on entry and then unfolded with a myriad of flavors of tropical fruits, spices, vanilla and floral notes with good, well integrated acids.  The medium length finish was dry, refreshing and crisp.  This is a very interesting wine and we both really loved it.  Highly recommended!

Orin Swift Cellars end wall

Our fourth pour moved into the red wines and was also one of my favorites.  This was the Orin Swift 2012 Trigger Finger California Grenache at $38.  We were recently at the Rhone Rangers event in Richmondand tasted many California Grenaches, and this one would rank right up there with the finest.  It was aged for 14 months in French oak with 60% new oak.  Only 450 cases were produced.  A light purple in color, it had a pleasant nose of red cherry, vanilla and toast.  On the palate I got red cherry, raspberry, spices, earth notes and some toasty oak with lovely, well integrated tannins, and crisp acid, followed by a very good long finish.  I loved the balance and complexity of this Grenache, and the finish was one of the finest I have encountered in any California Grenache.  Orin Swift seems to have an excellent American source for Grenache grapes.  Very highly recommended. 

Orin Swift Cellars Trigger Finger

Fifth up was the Orin Swift 2012 Abstract California Grenache Blend at $29 a bottle.  This is a blend of Grenache, Petite Sirah and Sirah from grapes from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Amador and El Dorado.  It saw 10 months in a "combination of new and seasoned French oak," and 1400 cases were produced.  I loved the deep purple color of this wine and almost wanted to take it outside in the sunlight to look at it.  Aroma wise I got mostly blackberry with some floral notes and a bit of spice.  On the palate it was full bodied but very smooth, and lush with soft tannins and sumptuous, ripe fruit of blackberry and black plum, with some spices and chocolate.  The finish was medium length and very pleasant.  This is a fairly fruit forward wine but has the structure and complexity to support the fruit.  It is quite nice and I suspect it is a crowd pleaser.

Orin Swift Cellars Abastract

Our sixth pour was the Orin Swift 2012 Palermo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at $38.  This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc and was aged for 10 months in French oak with 35% new oak.  14,000 cases were produced.  The concept behind this Cab is to source Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from diverse vineyards in Napa Valley so that the various soils and microclimates combine to supplement and to work in harmony with and each other while adding to the complexity.  The focus is on high quality fruit and blending rather than single vineyard production.  Dark garnet in color, this started with a good nose of blackberry, black currant, buttered toast and oak.  On the palate it was full bodied with pleasantly chewy tannins.  I got mostly cherry, black currant, toasted oak, and mocha followed by a good, medium length finish.  I found it very drinkable now, but it has the structure to age well.  A very nice Napa Valley Cab at an extremely reasonable price.  Another one we recommend.

Orin Swift Cellars Palermo

Seventh in line was the Orin Swift 2011 Papillon Napa Valley Red Blend at $65.  This is a Bordeaux like blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec.  The grapes were sourced from Oakville, St. Helena, Rutherford and Howell Mountain and include grapes from the famous vineyards of Stagecoach, Morisoli and Taplin.  It was aged for 16 months in French oak.  Justin thought it was about 30% new oak and said that 3,500 cases were produced.  I got a good nose of black cherry, blackberry, cigarbox and forest floor.  On the palate it was very smooth with black cherry, black currant, blackberry, mocha and aged tobacco with some chewy tannins on its medium plus length finish. It is quite drinkable now but should cellar well.  We both loved the Papillon.  Mr. Phinney's daughter came up with the name.

Orin Swift Cellars Papillon photo

The eighth taste was their Orin Swift 2012 Machette California Petite Sirah at $48.  I love Petite Sirahs and usually attend the annual "P.S. I Love You" Petite Sirah tasting event in Alameda.  This one is a blend of Petite Sirah, Syrah and Grenache and was aged for 10 months in French oak, 40% of it being new oak.  I love the deep dark purple color of many Petite Sirahs, and this one is very lovely to the eye.  I got mostly blackberry and vanilla on the nose.  On the palate I got lush blackberry, with a hint of mocha and some vanilla and toasted oak. Some Petite Sirahs can be overwhelmingly powerful but this one is medium plus bodied for a Petite Sirah, deeply flavorful and lush, while also being very smooth and well balanced.  It had a medium length finish.  This is ready to drink now but could be cellared.  We both really liked it.

Orin Swift Cellars left wall

The Orin Swift 2011 D66 Maury-Rousillon Grenache Blend at $38 was next.  This was a Grenache Syrah and Carignan blend from their French vineyard.  It saw 30% new French oak for 18 months.  On the nose I got blackberry and some cinnamon.  On the palate it was soft and smooth with ripe blackberry and cherry along with toasted oak and spice.  A very pleasant, sumptuous and easy to drink wine, this also had a very nice medium plus length finish.  Another one that we both really like and heartily recommend.

Orin Swift Cellars rear entrance

The tenth and final pour was the Orin Swift NV Mute California Dessert Wine at $30.  This is a blend of 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Tina Cao, 6% Tina Madera, 6% Tinta Madeira and 2% Souzao.  It was aged for 18 months in neutral oak.  Alcohol is 19%.  This was a pleasant, smooth, well balanced, very nice port style wine at very reasonable price.  I got mostly rich, ripe, lush black raspberry (sweeter and without the tartness of a blackberry)  with some nicely balanced acid. As with most port style wines, this one can be cellared.  One of the better California port style wines we have tasted.

Orin Swift Cellars Palermo photo

Orin Swift has a very interesting and artistic tasting room, unusual and excellent varietals and blends, fascinating wine labels, an easy to find location, a relaxed and playful atmosphere and great service, but no views, picnic area, gardens or dungeons.  Perhaps Mr. Phinney will add the rest when he opens his new winery up.  Well, maybe he will have the views, picnic area and gardens, but I think you will have to look elsewhere for dungeons.  For excellent wines and a the only floor made of Chinese children's books, though, you know where to go.  Thanks to Deb, one of our readers, for suggesting Orin Swift.  We had never visited them before or even tasted any of their wines.  Great place.

Orin Swift Cellars
1325 Main Street
St. Helena, CA 94574
Phone: 707-967-9179
Date of visit: June 11, 2014

Open without an appointment.  Currently open from 11-5 Mondays through Thursdays, 10-6 Fridays and Saturdays and 11-5 on Sundays, but please call or email ahead if you have six or more people. There are no tours of course but private tastings are available by appointment.  They have a small, narrow tasting room that can become somewhat crowded if you visit Friday, Saturday or Sunday in the afternoon during the summer season or crush, but almost every winery in Napa Valley can also be very busy during those times.  Parking is usually available around the block.  Many very good restaurants for lunch or dinner are within a short walking distance, and downtown St. Helena has many interesting boutique stores, an excellent bakery and a famous gourmet chocolate shop.

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