The Prisoner Wine Company is named after the flagship wine that founding winemaker Dave Phinney originally produced with his inaugural release from 2000, a mere 385 cases. Dave ultimately sold The Prisoner to Huneeus Vintners (owners of Rutherford based Quintessa Winery) in 2010 at which point the brand was producing around 85,000 cases of wine each year. Huneeus Vintners grew the brand to some 170,000 cases before selling it in 2016 to the current owner, Constellation Brands (parent company of Robert Mondavi Winery along with 50% ownership of Opus One).
In a remarkable feel-good story of what comes around goes around, Dave Phinney began his wine career at Robert Mondavi Winery as a temporary harvest intern in 1997 working several hours every day during the graveyard shift in the winery doing punch-downs and pump overs. With Mondavi’s encouragement, in 1997 Dave made a barrel of wine from second crop grapes and the next year produced his first vintage of a label he ultimately became well known for, Orin Swift. He wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the wine, so Dave sold that vintage on the bulk market (Orin Swift is now owned by E & J Gallo Winery). Little did either Mondavi or Phinney know that eventually both would again be linked based on Phinney’s remarkable success with The Prisoner wines.
A gifted blender of both varieties and regions, Dave built his reputation on creating fruit forward (often higher alcohol), approachable blended wines. His winemaking has never been constrained by specific varieties or geographical places. To complement his creativity with winemaking – his wines incorporate extremely creative, unique and often eye catching labels. And he is a master marketer – helped by the fact his wines are reasonably priced based on quality.
Looking for a home for The Prisoner Wine Co after recognizing a need to showcase the portfolio, Constellation Brands closed Franciscan Winery in October 2018 and spent the next year completely renovating and remodeling both the exterior and interior space. The hospitality center opened to the public in early November 2018 on site of the former Franciscan Winery in Rutherford.
This property has a long history – Franciscan Winery was constructed in 1971 and in 1975 Ray Duncan and Justin Meyer (co-founders of Silver Oak Winery) purchased what was then bankrupt Franciscan Winery and made both Silver Oak and the Franciscan wines here for a number of years. In 1975 they also produced what was the first ever commercial wine from the variety Carnelian (a variety that UC Davis Professor Dr. Harold Olmo created by crossing Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane and Grenache). By 1979 Silver Oak sold the Franciscan property to the Peter Eckes Company (a German based producer of fruit juices and bandy) but continued to make the Silver Oak wines at Franciscan for several more years.
In 1985 Augustin Huneeus (founder of Quintessa Winery in Rutherford) became a partner and acting president of Franciscan Estates. He sold his interest in Franciscan in 1999 at which point Franciscan Estate was acquired by Canandaigua Wine Co – later changing their name to Constellation Brands.
Those who visited Franciscan who now come to The Prisoner Wine Co will no longer recognize the interior of the hospitality center. The fountain in the front is gone and the dated tasting room has been completely modernized. A small demonstration vineyard is located next to the main parking lot which guests can wander through at their leisure – the prominent wooden ‘Rutherford’ bench remains from the Franciscan days containing name plaques of those who worked at least 20 years at Franciscan.
The Prisoner Wine Co sources from numerous vineyard sites both in the Napa Valley and from neighboring counties. They often work with small family owned vineyards – at last count, they purchase fruit from some 80 vineyards within Napa Valley and approximately 50 vineyard sites outside of the valley.
Guests are greeted by hosts at the main entrance and then accompanied to seats either within the lounge or in an exterior courtyard which is kindly referred to as ‘the yard’ in keeping with the prison theme.
This artisan space is open at select times throughout the week – including as a stop on the daily afternoon tours as well as on the weekends for club members. More active on the weekends, this is typically when the artists represented here are on site to present and discuss their various works. The makers are scheduled to rotate quarterly.
A diversity of creations are always on display in each of the tiny rooms within The Makery, rotating depending on the artist represented. During recent visits we saw soap, flour, ceramics, jewelry, jellies, salts and one of the more creative pieces one will ever see – a full-sized skeleton made entirely from solid graphite called the Ash Dancer from artist Angelio Batle of Batle Studio based in San Francisco. And this skeleton is used to create additional art – unique sketches if you will. The skeleton lies on a horizontal table which when vibrates causes the skeleton to bounce up and down in effect ‘drawing’ with graphite on the paper below it.
And additional experiences in The Makery involve food and wine pairings. The property features two commercial kitchens, including the open-view kitchen in The Makery and raised gardens with a variety of vegetables used by their culinary team.
Since 2015 and prior to opening The Prisoner Wine Co in the Napa Valley, The Makery Experience was held in select cities domestically including Brooklyn, Denver and Los Angeles. These one-night events featured local craftspeople and their stories – combined with music, food and wines from The Prisoner Wine Co.
Long known for its creative packaging, each bottle seems to out do the next when it comes to visual appeal. Take for instance the Syndrome Rosé – part of the label is a zip tie, yes, you read that correctly. Employees zip tie each of the bottles before presenting it to guests. And every zip tie is printed with the word Syndrome. The 2017 The Prisoner Wine Co Napa Valley Syndrome is an unusual blend of Syrah, Grenache and a splash of Pinot Noir. This wine is only served at the tasting room. Pink in the glass shows notes of strawberry, rhubarb and a minerality nuance on the bouquet. Very well balanced on the palate with nice acidity – this wine drinks quite easily. Offers flavors of not overly ripe strawberry and watermelon – this is a flavor similar to the part of a watermelon containing the flesh between the rind and the more riper inner core. This wine is vibrant and lively across the palate. Drinks very well by itself.
The 2016 The Prisoner Wine Co Blindfold is a unique white varietal blend of Chenin Blanc, Roussane and Viognier. Darker yellow in the glass shows aromas of citrus blossom, ripe pear and melon. There is a noticeable sweet aromatic core throughout the bouquet – including notes of honeysuckle. Full flavored but not heavy – however it does show some phenolic grip across the palate. A hint of orange or mandarin flavor, especially towards the finish.
Every metallic label features a different number for the No 39007 Chenin Blanc (blended slightly with Viognier). A wine with a theme referring to a prisoner, the cork is labeled with, “He is anonymous – and still, with-out him, the whole of it would crumble”. Pale yellow in the glass the 2016 The Prisoner Wine Co No 39007 Chenin Blanc shows notes of dried straw and stone fruit including nectarine and melon on the bouquet. What is immediately noticeable on the palate is the wine’s texture and grip; it is oily, almost briny in feel and certainly carries plenty of weight across the palate. An interesting mix of both pineapple and citrus flavors especially lingering on the finish. This is a memorable wine because of it’s structure.
The label on their flagship wine is an etching of a prisoner drawn by the famous artist Goya (Phinney was introduced to this piece from a print his parents had given him as a present). The grapes for this wine are sourced from high quality vineyards throughout the Napa Valley. When Dave Phinney owned this label, it was typically a five varietal blend including Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Charbono and Petite Syrah. The Prisoner Wine Co 2016 The Prisoner is a blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Syrah and Charbono. Shows more dark fruit on the bouquet then red fruit although there is a note of raspberry throughout the aromas. Also hints of bittersweet chocolate. Unlike the bouquet, the palate is fairly fruit forward. Supple and very rounded in texture features layers of flavor without the heavy influence of tannin. Also notes of cherry and a noticeable darker spice linger on the finish.
After one is exposed to the variety of creative labeling from The Prisoner Wine Co wines, one may start looking at the world a bit differently and wondering what the limits are for wine labeling creativity. Everything becomes a potential label, toilet paper, wire, random images of animal heads, household utensils – oh the list goes on.
Visits for sit down tastings are available by walk-in. Other experiences require an appointment. For more information, to schedule an appointment or to join The Fringe, their membership program, visit: www.theprisonerwinecompany.com.
The Rutherford Bench