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Whiskey Dreams and the Future of Mare Island

Wine mogul Dave Phinney aims to transform a neglected corner of the Bay Area into a destination to rival Napa. Is he sitting on a real estate gold mine? Time will tell.


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Entrepreneur Dave Phinney

Through his black sunglasses, Dave Phinney stares out from the top of a hill overlooking an overgrown stretch of grass and brambles that was, until recently, the ninth fairway of the Mare Island Golf Club, the oldest golf club in the West. It isn’t much to look at now; thickets of tall weeds sway as the wind comes whistling through the shuttered clubhouse, but otherwise there’s nothing here but an eerie silence. Still, Phinney sees something else on Mare Island, a narrow strip of land that sits between Napa County and the San Francisco Bay: an almost infinite potential.

The site of a former U.S. Naval base that at its peak employed more than 40,000 workers during World War II, Mare Island has largely floundered since the Navy decommissioned the base in 1996 and turned over a portion of it to the city of Vallejo. A few nautical businesses and a dry dock remain, but with little in the way of foot traffic and a minimal community of homeowners nearby, it’s about as remote a corner of the Bay Area as you’re likely to find. Phinney has plans to change that.

Savage and Cooke barrels

Phinney, the Napa-based winemaker behind the successful labels Orin Swift Cellars and The Prisoner—which he sold to E. and J. Gallo for an undisclosed sum and to Huneeus Vintners for some $40 million, respectively—is among the few who’ve set down roots on Mare Island. His latest business endeavor, the Savage and Cooke Distillery, opened here in February and is now selling lines of bourbon, American whiskey, rye, and tequila from two handsome and fully renovated brick buildings. Interested in growing the operation, Phinney approached his landlord, the massive Miami-based developer Lennar, about expanding his long-term lease to take over several historic structures just north of the distillery, imagining a winery, restaurant, coffee roastery, and other businesses forming a small commercial district along the island’s core.

Lennar, which purchased 600 acres of the Mare Island peninsula from the Navy in 2001 with plans to construct 1,400 homes, allowed Phinney to make an offer. Sensing what he describes as “beyond a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Phinney drew up bold plans. Working with partners Gaylon Lawrence Jr., a Memphis billionaire and the owner of Napa’s Heitz Cellar, and Sebastian Lane, the real estate broker and owner of Depiction Wines, Phinney’s newly formed Nimitz Group earned the blessing of the Vallejo City Council to take control of 157 acres of land on the northern half of the island, which the city had owned, in order to install a 600,000-square-foot film studio known as Film Mare Island, a wine production and sales facility, manufacturing and industrial spaces, a 12-acre community park, and 24 acres to be set aside in a conservation easement for open land. And in January, the San Francisco Business Times reported that Nimitz had reached a tentative agreement to take over 500 acres from Lennar on the southern half of the peninsula, with 250 acres to be transferred initially and the other half over two years while environmental reports are being completed. Meaning that, in essence, Phinney is the laird of this potential gold mine.

The appeal of the plan is obvious, especially when you look across the overgrown fairway to where the shimmering Mare Island Strait separates the peninsula from south Vallejo and the Napa River drains into the San Pablo Bay. Where else does one come into possession of 500 acres of waterfront property in the Bay Area already zoned for mixed development? And particularly one with such a significant local history, a city council eager to attract business in the wake of its 2008 bankruptcy, a federal Opportunity Zone designation that offers businesses capital gains–tax deferrals, and—crucially—a ferry launch just steps away offering multiple trips daily to San Francisco. “You’ve got to try to screw this up!” Phinney exclaims.

Former naval buildings now house Phinney’s distillery.

Not that others haven’t fumbled here. Lennar, which is selling the bulk of its Mare Island holdings to Phinney’s group, only managed to build between 300 and 400 of its planned 1,400 housing units since taking ownership about 20 years ago. Most of the 7 million feet of commercial space it held entitlements for never materialized. In 2017 the tech firm Faraday Future backed out of highly publicized plans to launch an electric car manufacturing plant on the peninsula. Elsewhere in the Bay Area, former military bases haven’t always enjoyed smooth transitions into mixed-use developments, either: Hunters Point, Alameda Point, the Concord Naval Weapons Station, Treasure Island, and the Oakland Army Base have, for various reasons, all either hit roadblocks or been slow to get off the ground.

Still, Phinney is bullish on Mare Island. Driving across the southern half of the island, he excitedly points out sites that he hopes will one day transform into wineries, bars, restaurants, parks, art studios, and light manufacturing (including, reportedly, a leather-goods business and an artisanal—yes, artisanal—shotgun operation). The Touro University California nursing school will remain, he says, and there are plans to launch a Montessori school as well. It’s a miniature city-in-waiting, as Phinney describes it. “It’s like a blank slate,” he says. “One with some bookends on it.”

Phinney’s dreams for Mare Island are equal parts grand and, for now, somewhat vague. Part of that is by design, he explains. Nimitz has already spent more than $40,000 partnering with the urban design firm HOK architects to draw up plans for the development on the island. But he’s hesitant to delve into the nitty-gritty until those plans are finished and have been presented to the city. If approved, the first phase of development would begin immediately, and the entire project is anticipated to take at least 15 years to complete. Phinney’s role is to think big; the details he’s leaving to the pros. “I can tell you how to make wine, not plan a city,” he jokes.

Yet despite Phinney’s relative inexperience in city-building, there’s been no formal opposition to Nimitz’s plans thus far. Plus, there are several decidedly worse alternatives to consider for this area. In 2017, a controversial plan to construct a cement factory and deep-water terminal across the strait on Vallejo’s waterfront ran aground when the city’s planning commission formally rejected the bid. The difference in optics—from a potentially toxic factory belching smoke to a gentrified wonderland—is hard to ignore.

So while the few inhabitants of Mare Island can only wait and see, Phinney is left to dream about his budding empire. “The more time you spend here, the more you fall in love with it,” he says. “The possibilities are limitless.”

 

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