USA

Winemaker bringing food to Northern California town without restaurants

Winemaker Dave Phinney — whose runaway wine hit, The Prisoner, sold for $40 million a decade ago — is branching into food.

But in a bizarre twist, his culinary foray may be met without competition because there are currently zero restaurants on the 23-mile stretch of land outside of San Francisco where he plans to start pairing fried chicken with wine and whiskey.

Phinney — whose sale of The Prisoner to Huneeus Vintners in 2010 resulted in an eight-year noncompete — planted roots on Mare Island two years ago with plans to develop the area, a designated federal opportunity zone, into a bustling center for business, living and having fun.

He and his partner, Memphis billionaire Gaylon Lawrence Jr., own 800 acres on Mare Island — once home to the first US Navy shipyard on the Pacific Ocean— including a Savage & Cooke distillery that produces whiskey, bourbon and rye aged in wine casks.

Phinney and Lawrence Jr. plan to eventually develop “a city of 75,000 people,” including tech, film and educational businesses.

But first, they need food.

The 120-seat eatery and bar will be located in the distillery and offer Phinney’s wines and spirits.

It will provide outdoor seating, including on a patio and a rooftop, as well as 2,100 square feet of indoor seating.

The menu will be focused on fried chicken because “that’s what the chef does best.”

“It’s the best fried chicken we’ve ever had,” Phinney said.

The menu, being developed by Phinney and Chris Blanchard, the distillery’s chef and Master Sommelier, will include two different styles of fried chicken and “soulful Southern sides that will pair well with whiskey-based cocktails served up at the bar,” said Lauren Blanchard, the distillery’s general manager.

“Fried chicken and whiskey are a natural match,” Lauren Blanchard said. “We want people to come to the distillery and have an incredible experience, from the whiskey to the food and architecture, and learning about the distillation process.”

It will also be the only sit-down dining in the area without crossing a bridge.

“There are food trucks, but no real restaurants now,” Phinney says of the plot of land on the San Pablo Bay. “Friends in the restaurant business say don’t get into it.”

“But this is a safe bet. It is an accoutrement to the distillery, so it is a little easier to rationalize from a business standpoint.”

Mare Island, which sits across from the city of Vallejo, divided only by the scenic, 55-mile-long Napa River, is not a desolate island by any stretch of the imagination.

Despite the name, it’s not even an island.

It’s a peninsula and home to Touro University in Vallejo, along with a smattering of small businesses and residences.

There are also a growing number of wineries and breweries sprouting up.

But it’s primarily used for the freeway that connects people from towns on the east side of San Francisco to towns north of San Francisco — and it can feel more like a dying steel town than Napa Valley.

“It’s the only undeveloped piece of property in the Bay area and on top of that it has as much history, or more, than anywhere,” Phinney said.

That is changing, but slowly.

In addition to the Savage & Cooke distillery, Mare Island boasts about the Vino Godfather Winery winery and part of the Mare Island Brewery, a group that is being marketed as “The Wet Mile,” — a collaboration that runs Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. to attract visitors.

Despite the growing booze scene, Mare Island remains spooky enough to inspire film sets.

It’s where Netflix shot “The Spy,” for example, Phinney said. It is also, supposedly, haunted.

“We’ve heard lots of stories from the old-timers. And in the distillery, when people work late, they say the elevator comes up and no one comes out, and then it goes down again,” Phinney said.

The hit series “13 Reasons Why” is also filmed on Mare Island.

The production team transformed the distillery’s tasting room into a yoga studio for a scene last year.

”It’s rough and rugged now, but that will change,” Phinney said.

“We have a 20-to-50 year horizon,” he said. “We’re not looking for a quick return on investment.”

“We’re looking to do something we can tell our grandchildren about.”