There has been a lot written about this acquisition by the wine media. Most of the discussion revolves around the lack of vineyards or production facilities with the purchase. Just as with the Meiomi purchase, only the brand was acquired by Constellation. Some writers have been flabbergasted that so much money could be spent on a wine brand when the source of the grapes seems to be up in the air. Other companies, like E & J Gallo Winery and Jackson Family Wines have been buying vineyard land up and down the Pacific Coast. That certainly is a strong approach to building a wine empire, but I would argue that the Meiomi and Prisoner brands are stronger and more highly regarded than any owned by Gallo or JFW. In today's economy, brand is king. All of the most popular wines are built on brand and not on vineyard sources. From what vineyard does Two Buck Chuck or KJ's Vintner's Reserve come?? Prisoner is more about a certain style than it is about expressing a particular terroir. That style of wine can be produced in much larger volume than a wine based on a defined place. To most American wine consumers, consistent style and availability is much more important than the expression of time and place. As much as this disturbs me personally, it is the way the wine industry has been trending for quite some time.
As aggressive as this approach seems to be, it is actually quite conservative. Providing the same style of wine year in and year out in as many markets as possible is a tried and true path to building a strong brand. Just look at how popular America's fast food chains have become. I can buy a Big Mac in Denver, Seattle and Miami and they all will taste the exact same. However, this doesn't mean all wine is going this way as my friend the Wine Curmudgeon often rants about. The number of wine brands that are privately owned, small wineries is much larger than the number owned by "Big Wine" overlords – and actually continues to grow. Yes, volume-wise they are much smaller, but we obviously still have the progressive end of the wine where the expression of place and vintage characteristics is important. Instead of converging to the same common point, wine seems to be as rapidly diverging as American politics.
A few weeks ago – and prior to the acquisition announcement – I sat down with Prisoner's winemaker Jen Beloz to taste through the lineup. Jen started in 2011 after Huneeus Vintners purchased Prisoner from Orin Swift founder Dave Phinney for $40 million. While doubling production from ~85,000 cases to ~170,000 cases Huneeus made quite a profit on that ~6 year investment! And just think, The Prisoner originally started as a single 385 case label. Now, the portfolio of wines produced by PWC includes the namesake Prisoner blend, a newer white blend called Blindfold, the Thorn Merlot, a Zinfandel called Saldo, and a Cabernet Sauvignon known as Cuttings. The wines are perhaps known best for their clever, catchy, creative and most importantly memorable labels. The Prisoner label is an image Francisco de Goya's The Little Prisoner etching. While the labels are cool and all that, I wanted to get to know what was inside the bottles.
Beloz says The Prisoner is about place – Napa Valley – but using various growers, though the same growers have been used throughout its history. However, its style is from deliberate winemaking choices. She gets to choose which wines to use in the blend to create the plush mouthfeel her consumers expect. The various growers all get to come taste the wine in January and express pride that their fruit is used in such a popular wine. Beloz claims the price increases have been more about paying good money to the growers to keep Zinfandel and Petite Sirah in the ground when growers have more incentive to plant more valuable Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Obviously there has been little consumer pushback on the price increases.
These wines are definitely not for the low-alcohol, acidity-driven wine crowd. The entire portfolio is about lusciousness and richness and I have no doubt Constellation will make a nice profit on this investment. I also would be willing to bet that production doubles again with infusion of capital Constellation will no doubt be willing to spend. And who knows, we might even see some more labels developed for the lineup...