Leslie Absher Leslie Absher | July 15, 2019 | Food & Drink Story Wine and Spirits
Dave Phinney photographed at Savage & Cooke’s main facility on Mare Island.
It’s a perfect day for bourbon—overcast and gray—when I arrive on Mare Island, a small peninsula around 30 miles northeast of (and just over a one-hour ferry ride away from) San Francisco. I’m here for a VIP tour of the Savage & Cooke whiskey distillery, given by Napa wine icon Dave Phinney. He’s best known for The Prisoner, a blockbuster red wine blend that was later sold by Huneeus Vintners for a record-breaking $285 million. Phinney’s most recent venture is whiskey, and while his distillery opened a year ago, it only recently began making its spirits on-site, many from locally sourced grains, and all with water from his own Alexander Valley spring.
Phinney’s global success could easily make him cocky, yet he’s surprisingly unassuming and arrestingly honest. One thing is clear: He’s an idea person—make that a big idea person.
His latest big idea is to develop the City of Vallejo’s Mare Island—which hosted the Navy’s first West Coast base, but fell on hard times when the Navy left in 1994—into a hip Bay Area destination offering niche, artisanal eateries and cutting-edge commercial ventures. Phinney joins other ventures already making a go of it, such as the Vino Godfather Winery and the Mare Island Brewing Company, which is located a ½-mile from Savage & Cooke. The brewing company owners, Kent Fortner and Ryan Gibbons, envision a “Wet Mile,” in which visitors go for a shot at Savage & Cooke, then a glass of wine or a beer, stop for coffee and a bite to eat, then work their way back again—all without driving.
The main facility can hold 600 casks. There is an additional warehouse that has a 2,500-case capacity.
When our small group arrives, we climb into an SUV for an island tour. Phinney points out the sites—a small medical school, old navy barracks and stately captains’ houses—while narrating his vision of economic recovery that includes building schools, grocery stores and more.
Twenty minutes later, we arrive at the distillery, housed in a beautifully restored historic naval building. The tour’s charm deepens from there. Everything has been done with an eye toward preserving history, especially the red brick exteriors. The interior is amazing too. Gray light filters in from the tall banks of windows on all sides, and a polished wooden bar offers a row of Savage & Cooke’s spirits: The Burning Chair bourbon ($55), Second Glance American whiskey ($38), Lip Service rye ($32), Ayate tequila reposado ($65) and Ayate tequila anejo ($95). Each bottle bares an eye-catching label.
The whiskeys (from right) Second Glance American whiskey, Lip Service rye and The Burning Chair bourbon, with label art by Phinney himself.
A friendly bartender pours samples. I choose the Lip Service rye, which is smooth and gingery.
Next up is a tour of the distillery itself, which is open to the public, by appointment, Thursday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm. Like the rest of Savage & Cooke, the aesthetic is industrial-chic combined with a feel for the building’s history. A large round copper still catches my eye, but perhaps the most intriguing part of the tour is the tasting room, otherwise known as The Vault. Located in the center of the distillery, the cement cell once housed secret documents during World War II, but is available for small group tastings ($40 per person).
The column still converts the mash into a distilled spirit that will then be put in barrels for aging.
Master distiller Jordan Via creates a series of unique blends from Savage & Cooke’s prize-winning The Burning Chair bourbon, Second Glance American whiskey and Lip Service rye. Each whiskey is finished in Phinney’s own wine barrels and carries the sweetness and spice of the particular barrel in which it is finished. We sample several blends, but settle on one finished in cabernet, zinfandel and grenache barrels. It’s smoky and smooth, with notes of cardamom.
The blending process.
When asked what his next big venture will be, Phinney says he has projects in the works, but doesn’t want to say more. Instead, we talk about his process. Before he starts any venture, he researches everything—all the details, like an inventor who has to know the thing will run perfectly before he can begin building. Vision is important. But so is the idea. It all starts there. 1097 Nimitz Ave., Vallejo
Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco
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Photography by: Photos by Margaret Pattillo Photography