How a Creepy Red Wine Called The Prisoner Became Napa Valley's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'
The 18-year-old cult wine brand's new tasting room has vibrating skeletons, bondage pottery, and some pretty damn good wine, too.
Photo by the author
Having grown up in Northern California and spent the better part of a decade as a food writer, I’ve done a fair amount of wine tasting. I’ve made pit stops in Sideways country on my way up and down the state, spent numerous bachelorette parties giggling and spitting into sterling silver dump buckets, and even visited the Loire Valley with my parents when I was a kid (honestly, pretty boring when you’re 11). In my head, all those wineries blur together into one big, Tuscan-inspired mansion on an immaculately manicured lawn, surrounded by planters full of geraniums and gargoyles winking at me, knowing that later I will probably fall asleep without brushing my teeth.
But on all those visits, I’d never seen a vibrating skeleton made of graphite. This is a first.
I’m staring at San Francisco-based artist Agelio Batle’s “Ash Dancer,” a suicidal sculpture that, through its placement on a massive sheet of white paper atop a violently trembling table, draws itself to death at an agonizingly slow pace. It’s on display at the The Prisoner Wine Company’s new winery, which opened in November in St. Helena, California. It’s a massive, 40,000-square-foot facility that looks like if Trading Spaces gave Dave Navarro and Ai Weiwei $50 million and let them go wild on the interior decorating, and I mean that as a compliment.
This all makes sense: A weird (but immensely popular) cult wine deserves an unconventional (but still massive and opulent) facility. But there’s a feeling that this is like seeing a punk band play a stadium.
The Prisoner has always marched to the beat of its own drum. It can be difficult to explain, in 2019, why this red wine with a creepy label has been so game-changing—but that’s because the game looks so different now thanks to its influence. Everything from its label to its composition has been a rebellion against the old establishment of Napa Valley wines, but—like beet salad or, say, Freddie Prinze Jr.’s character in She’s All That—it has found widespread appeal despite being darker and funkier than its contemporaries. Now, its new tasting room is a tangible embodiment of that success.
In 2000, a few years after completing a study-abroad program in Italy, then-27-year-old Dave Phinney was experimenting with winemaking, and in his tinkering, came up with a zinfandel-forward red blend.
“It was a bit of a—I don’t want to say a mistake—but a mistake,” Phinney tells me over the phone. “2000 was a very challenging harvest.”
It was a cold, wet year, and Phinney found himself with a hodgepodge of messed-up grapes: zinfandel, charbono, petite sirah. The zinfandel had quite a bit of residual sugar, so Phinney threw it together with some of his dryer stuff, and soon came to realize that the blend wasn’t half bad.
His mother, who was an art curator, had gifted him a Francisco Goya etching at a young age—yes, the same Goya responsible for Saturn Devouring His Son, the freakiest painting from your college art history course. This was a scribbled portrayal of a bound, frightened prisoner, from his series The Disasters of War, and looked more like something you’d find on a Converge album cover than a wine label. But when the first 385 cases were ready for sale and needed a label, he looked up in his office and saw that Goya etching. Done deal.
The visuals were a bit grim, but most everyone agreed: The wine was delicious—easy to drink without being too sweet, complex without being too challenging. In 2008, WineGeeks described it as “a hedonistic blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Charbono, a Kitchen Sink, Grenache and a steering wheel from a '68 Cuda.” (if you need a visual on the latter, it’s a cool-looking car.)
The wine’s popularity soared, and the brand expanded. By the time Phinney sold the brand in 2008, it was producing 85,000 cases annually. Now, after being acquired by the Fortune 500 company Constellation Brands in 2016 for $285 million, The Prisoner is the number-one luxury red blend “by a huge margin,” says Logan Michaud, Senior Wine Education Specialist for The Prisoner Wine Company, with 180,000 cases produced each year. He adds that the company is essentially capped out at that number, due to grower contracts, quality control, and the constraints of sourcing the right fruit in Napa, but that it’s at a sweet spot of supply and demand.
“Though it may be a push [for] classic Old World lovers of Bordeaux or Rhône Valley reds to put this one on the dinner table, there is a new generation of wine drinkers who can't get enough of this style of wine,” wrote wine critic Wilfred Wong in his review of The Prisoner’s 2016 vintage.
Its delicious but unstuffy flavor is essential, but The Prisoner’s once-controversial aesthetic is equally integral to its success. It might retail for just under 50 bucks a bottle (in its early days, it was $25), but its branding conveys a suffering, solitary man, possibly a criminal, instead of a chateau on a hill, or a hunting expedition of old white guys and their English Pointers. There are anecdotes about wine sellers being asked if they could obscure or even soak off its label for worries that Goya’s sinister imagery could offend dinner table guests.
Phinney grew up in LA in the 80s, embedded in its surfing, skateboarding, and punk rock scenes. His parents were both professors, and frequently took him to museums. “I had this juxtaposition of highbrow fine art and graffiti, essentially.”
“We’re never trying to appeal to anybody. I’m not going after Millennials or Gen Xers or 85-year-old grandmothers,” Phinney says of his wines. “I’m settled on something I like and I can stand behind, and hopefully, people like it. It’s never meant to be dark or edgy or disruptive, but maybe that’s a byproduct.”
A retrospective on the wine published on VinePair last year argues, “What Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ did for indie rock in the 1990s, Phinney’s Prisoner has done for California reds in the new millennium.” That may sound hyperbolic, but not to those in Napa Valley’s insular but influential wine world.
Liz Thach is the Distinguished Professor of Wine and a Professor of Management at Sonoma State University; she also holds the title of Master of Wine from the Institute of Masters of Wine in London. She remembers the release of The Prisoner as a much-needed revolution in Napa.
“When The Prisoner came out, to me personally, I thought it was a really good thing. Things needed to be shaken up a bit, and it was a disruptive brand,” Thach tells me. “It created a lot of buzz and a lot of excitement. Since then there have been some other brands that have been trying to do the same thing, but I think The Prisoner was the first to do this. And it’s been healthy for the wine industry.”
Swap “The Prisoner” for “Nirvana” and “wine” for “music,” and indeed, we could be talking about Seattle in the early 90s.
One big change that The Prisoner brought was a shift away from grape varietal worship. Young people rarely care what grape they’re drinking, as long as it tastes good. The Prisoner is meant to be consumed just as enjoyably outside of mealtimes as it is next to a medium-rare duck breast, and has a sense of pleasure for pleasure’s sake.
“You see a trend today where a lot of brands are chasing that ‘consume now’ style,” Michaud says. “Only a smidge of the market ages and cellars wine.” With most Millennials still seeing home ownership as a pipe dream, casually building a wine cellar feels like a laughably distant luxury.
It’s a great date wine even if your date hates talking about wine. It seems like the kind of wine Johnny Depp might accidentally spend 30 grand on every month. A 2011 Forbes article suggested The Prisoner as “what to get that client who is about to do some time in Club Fed for a white-collar crime.” That is to say, it felt luxurious without touting itself as such, and without being boring.
“At the time it came out, everyone was doing the same blended red wines with big tannins and big acidity and big richness. They all needed food. Then, The Prisoner came along and it was unabashed easy drinking. As a blend, you didn’t even need to know what was in it,” says Michaud.
“The Prisoner really unleashed a new era to some extent in California wine,” adds Virginie Boone, a contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast focusing on California wines. “People only need to remember the name of the wine, not the specific variety per se, or vintage. They don’t have to overthink whether what they’re asking for is accepted by wine insiders. They can just like the wine.”
But being popular and being cool aren’t the same thing; just look at Facebook, or Imagine Dragons. Non-oenophiles have little patience to read yet another story about this vineyard’s soil composition and that imported grape, about a vintage they’ll never be able to afford or a new line of rose being marketed toward [name your demographic]. Writing about wine in a way that doesn’t make even a food editor’s eyes glaze over can be... difficult.
While the rest of food and beverage writing has rapidly modernized over the past few decades—surely due to increased representation from writers and chefs of more races, ages, gender representations, socioeconomic backgrounds, and subcultural underpinnings than ever before—wine has remained left in the dust. Restaurants have raised their ceilings, dropped their dress codes, and moved away from the “French = fancy” model, but the vast majority of wineries have stuck with their stone lion statues and gaudy floral arrangements.
The breakout success of The Prisoner in the past two decades seems to have put some of those dinosaurs on their toes almost single-handedly. Copycat red blends with sexy labels—for instance, E. & J. Gallo’s zinfandel-based Apothic Red and Ménage à Trois’ merlot-forward Midnight—began to pop up like mushrooms.
And in addition to its namesake red blend, The Prisoner Wine Company has in recent years expanded its line to more similarly brooding wines such as Blindfold, The Snitch, and Syndrome—a white blend, chardonnay, and rosé respectively. There’s also Derange, a $100 red blend whose dark bottle is marked with hundreds of thin scratches, like the wall of a cell; Eternally Silenced, a fruity, floral pinot that has black wax cascading halfway down the label; and Saldo, a minimalist zinfandel.
TPWC’s new facility seems to have an on-the-nose (no pun intended) awareness that traditional wine tasting doesn’t always do enough to impress the young, alt bourgeoisie, with their Parachute sheets and vinyl collections. Yes, they would love some rosé, but they also want vibrating suicidal skeletons!
While sleek and well-appointed, TPWC’s winery has plenty of goth-y details that nod to that Goya etching. The dome lights were made to look the ominous helmet over an electric chair. Rows of shackles hang behind the bar in a striking display. (I ask Michaud if anyone has been offended by the cheeky take on prison chic. “Not really,” he shrugs.)
The facility offers more than just wine tasting. After staring for way too long at “Ash Dancer,” I admire the wares of ceramicist Amanda Wright. Her Servitude collection is an assortment of high-end matte black pottery adorned with studs and spikes and BDSM-inspired buckles and harnesses. She says the line was inspired by hardware and her love of things in kitchen drawers—safety pins and screws—and by, you know, punk rock and dog collars. (Guess we’re not going to discuss the 50 Shades of Grey vibe, but maybe we don’t need to.)
Wright is featured in The Makery, a portion of the winery showcasing crafts from local artists in mini shops—”cells,” if you will. A gift shop made Goya. A standard tasting (called “The Line-Up Tasting,” prison-style) is $40, but for $65, guests can take “The Makery Journey,” where they can also shop for specialty products from the vendors. For 30 bucks more, they can indulge in “The Makery Experience,” where they can feast on a five-course tasting of small plates that includes rock-seared wagyu and goat cheese agnolotti. This is where I’d want to go on a date with Dracula. (Hopefully, he pays; I want that wagyu.)
After selling off The Prisoner a decade ago, Phinney has continued his work at Orin Swift Cellars, where he partnered with EJ Gallo and leaned into the creative side rather than dealing with the business stuff. (“I don’t have to worry about sales; I don’t need to worry about economics. I just need to make wine and come up with new cool labels, and I have zero oversight,” he says.) The label of Orin Swift’s highly rated petite sirah, Machete, is adorned with a topless woman carrying a long blade away from an old white Cadillac. Bordeaux blend Papillon’s name is spelled out on knuckle tattoos. The winery’s labels are also available as skateboard decks.
The Director of Winemaking position at TPWC is currently held by Chrissy Whitman, a dry, down-to-Earth winemaker with a big laugh. “One thing that’s great about the Prisoner is that there are no rules,” she tells us as we taste. “Any vineyard you see, any grapes, we’re free to make wine with.” While keen on grape talk like any other winemaker, she also tells us that about eight of the ten beers consumed during harvest are Modelo.
Winemakers: They’re just like us! While we’re used to hearing Michelin-starred chefs talk about how they love cheap beer and Takis, those little things remain refreshing in the wine industry, which still often feels wealth-focused, elitist, and hierarchical to outsiders. The current team at the The Prisoner seems very aware of the boredom and exclusivity that has historically turned many young people off.
“It’s repetitive,” Michaud says. “You go wine tasting at three different places and taste 20 [cabernet sauvignons] in one day. So we’re showcasing what else Napa can do—giving people something different.”
While there is one cabernet in the winery’s arsenal, called Cuttings, eye-rolling at the grape varietal’s ubiquity in the Valley seems to be something of a hobby at TPWC. “Common theme in Napa: Let’s tear out everything that’s cool and different and turn it into cabernet sauvignon,” Michaud laughs. Even subpar cabernet sauvignon is getting twice as much acreage as any other grape in Napa Valley, he says.
The Prisoner is certainly no longer an underdog, but in many ways, it still thinks like one. Rules are as bad as endless fields of cabernet sauvignon. Guests, please have a red something-something and enjoy the bondage pottery.
For now, I’m sipping Thorn, a jammy-smelling and supremely drinkable merlot. (Sorry, Miles from Sideways.) The crackers and charred eggplant dip I’ve been fueling up on are long gone. It’s 10:41 AM, and I’m a bit drunk. Some things about wine-tasting never change, I guess.