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Eight Years in the Desert 2021 / Oliva Serie V Melanio

Eight Years

15.6% ABV 

Red Blend

California

It’s rare enough to develop one “viral” wine, but when winemaker Dave Phinney released Eight Years in the Desert to the general public in 2018, he somehow caught lightning in a bottle for a second time. 

His first major success was The Prisoner, a zinfandel blend adorned with a Francisco de Goya etching from his famed The Prisoners series. Phinney, a newly minted winemaker in 1998, struggled to produce something noteworthy with his first two vintages and by the 2000 vintage was still faltering. The challenges forced him to blend his beloved zinfandel with other grape varietals in ways that were unique but more importantly made the wine deliciously approachable and affordable. The brand drew the attention of more than just consumers, and soon other winemakers started developing their own Prisoner-style blends, complete with their own versions of the dark, twisted artwork on the labels. The Prisoner grew rapidly and in 2010 Phinney sold his ownership share of the brand and with it came an odd, 8-year Zinfandel non-compete. In other words, Phinney and his company Orin Swift Cellars were not allowed to sell a wine that contained zinfandel grapes – the very varietal that he was most adept at working with. 

In a statement that accompanied the release of Eight Years in the Desert, Phinney gave fans a glimpse of what those eight years were like: “When I sold the brand I agreed to not make Zinfandel for eight years. At first, I liked the idea. Zinfandel is notoriously difficult. It ripens unevenly, it is prone to rot, and it often has very high alcohol. Taking a few years off sounded good. But, like a child who only wants to do what he or she is told not to, I began to plot my return.” 

Phinney is equal parts winemaking maverick and branding guru. He took the non-compete edict and leaned into it when he released Eight Years in the Desert. The name is interesting enough for those who are just picking it up unwittingly but have that brilliant “a-ha!” moment when they understand the story behind it. When Phinney said he would plot his return, he wasn’t kidding. Everything from the release date of August 8, 2018, to the eight different and unique labels that get cycled through each year was planned ahead of time. In a video released by the company, Phinney explains some of the details that go into the label. 

“It seemed like we had made an effort on all these other levels and taking the time with the wine,” he said. “But it just seemed like to slap one label on there, there was no way to fit all those eight years of thought and process and sleepless nights. Literally, it was an 8-year process. The commonality between them all is that it starts with a photo. It has a Joshua tree somewhere on it, and some components of film or slide and some layering. So all the labels are slightly different or dramatically different depending on who you ask.” 

Phinney’s eight years of planning and marketing savvy would be for naught if the juice in the bottle didn’t meet consumer expectations. It’s one of the characteristics that makes the wine business similar to cigars. If a cigar label catches your attention in the humidor or has a good story behind it but you don’t enjoy the smoke, you’re probably not buying another or recommending it. That’s where Phinney’s skill as a winemaker comes in. For all the stylized branding videos and whimsical label designs, his greatest skill is still in producing unique zinfandel blends that appeal to a broad range of consumers with bold flavor delivered with old-world finesse. 

Phinney’s company Orin Swift Cellars is now owned by wine giant E&J Gallo, but unlike other acquisitions, Phinney is still very much involved in the winemaking. 

Pairing by: Erik Calviño

Tasting Notes: Eight Years in the Desert 2021

A beautiful, dark purple wine allowing no light to shine through in the glass. Jammy aromas of blackberry, raisin, and pepper welcome you on the nose. The wine is sumptuous and juicy with flavors of raspberry, plum, cherry, and a touch of oak spice on the finish. Tannins are present but easygoing, providing a pleasurable and approachable mouthfeel. 

Cigar Pairing: Oliva Serie V Melanio

Impeccably balanced and smooth, this medium-strength perfecto seems almost purpose-blended for this wine. The wine’s heavy dose of ripe fruit wipes away any trace of earth and pepper in the cigar, leaving you with a dessert-like smoke highlighted by milk chocolate, nuts, oak, and an infusion of raspberry. 


This article appeared in the Nov/Dec 2023 issue. Subscribe today to get the magazine in your mailbox.


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Categories: Drink
Manufacturers: Oliva Cigar

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