Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Wednesday's Wines: Prisoner Wine Company

Last week, Constellation Brands spent a lot of money – $285 million a lot – to acquire The Prisoner Wine Company. Most people probably aren't familiar with Constellation, but they are one of the world's largest wine producers. Constellation owns Robert Mondavi Winery, Clos du Bois, Ravenswood, Manischewitz, Vendange and recently acquired (they spent $315 million for this brand) Meiomi in addition to dozens of other wine brands. They also own the Corona, Pacifico and Modelo beer brands along with Svedka vodka. Chances are if you've bought a bottle of booze you've given Constellation some of your money.

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.

First up was Blindfold (14.2% abv, Sample $30); a white blend composed of Chardonnay, Roussane, Grenache blanc, Viognier, Marsanne, and Chenin blanc. Arneis will be added to the blend for the 2015 vintage. Fans of voluptuous white wines will love this newest addition to the portfolio. It is chock full of flavors reminiscent of pears, peaches, butterscotch and with a bit of lime thrown in. It is heady and has an attractive creamy texture that weighs it down a bit. Beloz loves the versatility of Blindfold for restaurants as it can fit into many categories on a list. I'm not sure that's necessity a good thing, but I obviously don't have $285 million ideas! I do agree with Beloz when she told me she thought this wine could be a market leader for a white blend category the same way Prisoner was for red blends.

Another relatively new addition to the lineup is Thorn (15.4% abv, Sample $40). 2013 is just the second vintage of this Merlot. Along with The Prisoner, Thorn is the only other PWC wine to bear the Napa Valley appellation on its label. Beloz told me that she is proud to produce a varietal Merlot and is not going to "hide" it by blending it below the 75% threshold. This wine barely gets to put Merlot on the label as it is a blend of 77% Merlot and 23% of Syrah & Malbec. Beloz said she purposely sources Merlot from Syrah growers in Los Carneros, Atlas Peak and Oak Knoll to maintain balance and aromas. Make no mistake, this wine is big, juicy, and plummy. The high alcohol is definitely noticeable and slight herbal characteristics are present on the palate. The tannins are smooth, but this is still a wine for people who are looking for a little thickness in their glass.

Cuttings (15.2% abv, Sample $50) is another varietally labeled wine in the PWC lineup. This Cabernet Sauvignon has a bit of Syrah and Petite Sirah thrown in for added structure and intensity (cabernet needs added structure and intensity??). Well, this wine sure has intensity! There are nice aromas of red fruits, currants, raspberries and just a hint of pyrazines (green bell pepper flavors). The fruit comes through on the palate along with chunky tannins, tobacco, smoke, and meaty flavors. However, overall it comes across as overripe. It is not sweet, but just has too much intensity for me. Beloz noted that the yet-to-be released will see the addition of Russian River Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and I wonder how that may help tone down the intensity.

My favorite wine in the entire lineup is the cheapest and the highest in alcohol – go figure! Saldo (15.9% abv, Sample $30) is a very nice Zinfandel. This 85% Zinfandel and 15% Petite Sirah/Syrah is sourced from Mendocino, Sierra Foothills, Dry Creek Valley and Lodi. A lovely spiciness combines with good fruit on the nose. Flavors of boysenberry, jalapeño pepper, bacon shine because of the lighter body and brighter acidity than in any of the other PWC wines. Saldo still has big flavors along with a nice spicy finish. A little heat is apparent at the end, but it actually carries its big alcohol well.

Last but not least, The Prisoner (15.2% abv, Sample $45) is the all about its smooth, broad and plush mouthfeel. The wine has grown in production and increased in price amazingly over the years and it is all because American wine drinkers love the rich and slightly sweet red wines. This wine just smells sweet. It is about as ripe as a wine can get. It is sweet, smooth and unctuous. It surprisingly tastes like elderberry syrup. My guess is that sweetness comes across as just big fruit to most people and not sugary. I know people love this wine, but I just don't like it. It's not bad – if you like fruit salad in your wine.

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...


  1. My 1st "big case purchase" was the 2005 Prisoner. Though I had made the big leagues, I had read a review of the wine, thought it would up my ally. i found the wine so overpowering and lacking any nuance that I gave 8 of the bottles away, free. A lesson learned early on. While you don't have to taste every wine before purchase (which is an impossibility with the vast majority of wines being purchased over the Internet) you can rule out , or take a chance on certain regions or styles, with pretty good success.

  2. WSA- I can see how the wines are popular. They're not bad, just not really a style I enjoy drinking.


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