On this “Next Round” episode, host Zach Geballe chats with Chrissy Wittman, director of winemaking at The Prisoner Wine Company. Wittman begins by detailing her background in the wine industry and how she became involved with The Prisoner, an iconic California wine brand best known for its red blends.
In her position at The Prisoner, Wittman aims to expand the brand’s portfolio beyond blends — now producing varieties such as Zinfandel, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Listeners will also learn how the brand’s visual aesthetic influences its winemakers, and how Wittman ensures that all of the brand’s wines maintain an approachable, balanced profile.
Tune in and visit https://theprisonerwinecompany.com/ to learn more about The Prisoner Wine Company.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe. And this is a “VinePair Podcast Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these episodes in between our regular podcasts so we can explore a broader range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I’m speaking with Chrissy Wittman, the director of winemaking at The Prisoner Wine Company in Napa Valley. Chrissy, thank you so much for your time.
Chrissy Wittman: Oh, thank you, Zach for inviting me.
Z: I want to start by talking about your own background and how you ended up in wine and then at The Prisoner. How did your career in wine get started?
C: Well, I certainly didn’t grow up around any grapevines.
C: I grew up in beautiful downtown Burbank in Southern California with two parents who really didn’t consume a lot of alcohol at all. And what my dad did consume was jug wine. That’s what I remember growing up. Then, I went away to college at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in pursuit of a degree in physical education or kinesiology. Just along with my travels throughout college, I decided that’s not what I wanted to do, so I changed to environmental science. That was really interesting. However, when I graduated, I didn’t really want to go back to L.A., and there weren’t a ton of positions supporting where I was at. Yet, I ended up landing a job analyzing soil and wastewater, which is very glamorous.
Z: I’m sure.
C: In that area, it was in the Edna Valley Viticultural Area, and there was a little lab inside that lab that supported the local wine industry, analyzing their wines and grapes.
C: That person who used to do that analysis went on vacation, and they asked me to fill in for him. I said, “Sure, why not?” The only wine that I had had up to that point was Corbett Canyon White Zinfandel and Boone’s Farm.
C: I did that for a little bit, and then I eventually saw an ad for another winery in the area. I said, “Oh, I’ve done that.” It was significantly more money than what I was making currently, so I applied for that and eventually got hired on, and that was it. It’s been 20 years-plus since then, and I had some really good mentors. Then, I just worked my way up over my career, so it’s been great.
Z: Do you remember the first time you tried The Prisoner?
C: Yeah, it was definitely different from anything I was making at the time. At the time when I tried The Prisoner, I was working as a winemaker and general manager at a winery in Templeton called Wild Horse Winery, and we focused on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
C: The Prisoner was very different from that. I’m pretty open-minded, so it was more of experimentation for me. But I can tell you that when I interviewed and eventually got hired as the director of winemaking for The Prisoner, it has been some of the best, hardest, and most challenging winemaking that I’ve ever done. I learned so much in the last five years than the previous 15, so it’s been awesome.
Z: Yeah. So I want to talk a little bit about the flagship wine and then we can talk a lot about some of the other wines that you’re making now as well. If this seems silly to say for people who are unfamiliar because it’s such a recognizable and well-known wine, but because of its reputation and style in many ways, I think people know they like it but they don’t know a lot about it. What is The Prisoner? What goes into it, and how is it made?
C: I think what has made it not famous…
Z: Ah, it’s pretty damn famous for wine.
C: I think what has made it really successful is that it is very approachable. It has super-soft tannins, a lot of aromatics, and it is a very giving wine. You can go to the store, buy it off the shelf, and you can drink it right away. Although it could age well for a short time, there is no aging required. I think that is really good, especially in this day and age of … I always say making wines for the impatient, and that includes myself. I think those are the main characteristics that have made it so successful. What goes into it is a lot of patience, perseverance, hard work, and anxiety. We deal with so many different varieties that go into that blend: Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Merlot, Cabernet, Charbonneau, and all of them grow differently. We harvest them at different ripeness, and we harvest them at increased ripeness to attain the really approachable tannin profile.
C: That alone makes the wine a bit difficult to make and get through fermentation because once you get a higher level of alcohol, the yeast is not super keen on performing to finish that. That’s where patience comes in. That is where the anxiety comes in, but it is super rewarding. We’ll harvest in September, October, and the wines will age. Then, we start grading them and looking at blends after the first of the year, so around February. You really see the fruits of the labor from the vineyard, from winemaking, come to fruition. Once you get all of the different lots blended — and what we do is a bench blend, so it’s on the benchtop — you taste it and say, “Oh, my gosh, it’s Prisoner.” That is how it comes together.
Z: Do you find that year to year, the proportions of the different varieties are pretty similar, or do you get some pretty different blends that nonetheless still have that intrinsic Prisoner character?
C: I would say from year to year, there could be a couple of percentages in the different varieties.
C: The main thing that we want to do for all of our consumers who look forward to the release of The Prisoner each year is to maintain consistency. That’s why, depending on the season, those varietal proportions may vary in order to get the best consistency and quality that we can in that wine.
Z: Now I don’t want to get too much into the details of winemaking, although it’s of interest to me, but you mentioned looking for this higher level of ripeness to get that softness in the wine. Are there things in the winemaking process beyond that also contribute to that? Possibly what you might be aging the wine in or some of the other winery techniques? You don’t have to go into great detail, but I’m just curious about the other ways in which you might be working towards that end goal.
C: Yes, absolutely. There are a couple of ways that we can look at the profile of the wine and maintain its approachability. One is through what we call cap management or the pump-overs that happen in the winery to extract the color of tannin from the red grapes. If you increase the amount of turnover you have in your tank, you can increase the amount of color to a certain extent and certainly increase the amount of tannin. The longer that you have your grapes in the tank while they ferment and the longer they are in the presence of alcohol, you can extract additional seed tannin, which is the bitter tannin that we really try to keep out. We try to shorten the length of time that our grapes are in the tank fermenting. That is a key component outside of harvesting that can help. All of our wines are 100 percent barrel aged, and we make sure that they have the appropriate oak that complements what we need to get with the wine, so that helps as well.
Z: Makes sense. I want to actually ask a question that I intended to ask earlier and I jumped over in my notes, my apologies. I wonder what it was like taking over the helm of such a well-known and recognizable wine. On one hand, you have some advantages that come with that. Obviously, you have a very avid fan base and you presumably have a decent amount of resources at your disposal. Of course, I imagine there is a lot of pressure. Was there any part in taking the job where you were thought, “I don’t know if I want to be responsible for such an iconic wine?” Or was that the whole excitement in it?
C: It’s interesting because when I first got hired on, so many people asked me, “Are you feeling a lot of pressure?” I didn’t feel that pressure.
C: I knew what was ahead of me, sort of. I just took it as it came. Now being five years into this position, if you ask me the same question, heck yeah, I feel a lot of pressure because I always want to keep building on The Prisoner name and produce new products that complement our portfolio. Also, we have free rein of what the profiles of these wines look like, but initially, not so much.
C: Now three or four years in? Yeah, I feel it a little bit. But it’s OK, and I’m up for the challenge.
*Z: Very cool. You also mentioned some of the additional wines that have been now released under the broader Prisoner umbrella. Can you talk a little bit about the decision to make a varietal labeled Cabernet Sauvignon? Obviously, Cabernet has always been a part of The Prisoner, but the idea of making a wine that says that on the label, what was behind that and what has it been like?
C: Yeah, so making the Prisoner Cabernet has been great because like I said about the red blend and across the portfolio, we want to create wines that are super approachable and ready to drink. The Prisoner Cab is Napa Valley appellated. When we look at other Cabernets that are made by our neighbors, they’re definitely made in a traditional sense and very much in an age-released style. In addition, as traditional as Napa Valley is, many of the Cabs are either 100 percent varietals or only blended with other Bordeaux varieties. That’s where we buck that trend a little bit, as we’ll use other varieties like Syrah, Petite Sirah, or Malbec. I know Malbec is a Bordeaux variety, but using some different varieties really enhance the Cabernet and make it a more approachable wine. I love showcasing the Prisoner Cab because it’s more of a ready-to-drink style but has a pretty good ageability as well.
C: Gotcha.Then, how about Chardonnay? Cabernet is a very natural partner and obviously, Chardonnay is a very recognizable variety itself and quite acclaimed in California. Was that the only consideration for a white wine that was varietally labeled or was there anything else that might have made sense?
C: I think Chardonnay is extremely popular. The opportunity there is high. For us to create the Chardonnay with different varieties — whether it’s Roussanne, Gewürztraminer, or Viognier — there is always a good chance for the Prisoner to get a Chardonnay blend out there. As far as other varieties go, there has been consideration for other varieties to be produced under the Prisoner label. We’re working a lot through strategy right now and figuring out the right varieties for the different brands that we’re making.
C: There are going to be some other varieties coming out under some other labels that the Prisoner is working on.
C: Speaking of some of those other labels and ideas under the broader Prisoner umbrella, because I think a fair number of listeners might not be familiar with Unshackled, which is the newest, as far as I’m aware, set of releases. What are those wines, and what’s the idea behind them?
C: We released Unshackled two years ago, and the idea behind those wines is really to provide some additional accessibility for wines made by The Prisoner. Because The Prisoner red blend itself is the $50 bottle with the caveat depending on where you buy it from, we really wanted to produce some nice, approachable, full-flavored wines under a label that was a bit more economical. That was the big idea behind Unshackled. The Unshackled varieties currently out there are a red blend, a Cab, and a Sauvignon Blanc.
C: All of these are California appellated and have their own sourcing requirements, which inherently creates a slightly different profile than The Prisoner wines. It’s a step in the door to The Prisoner Wine Company and to see what we’re all about. Then, we also have Saldo, which is a California Zinfandel that has done extremely well. We will be releasing some new wines here shortly under Saldo with another red wine and white wine.
Z: Are all of these various expressions now made with this idea of approachability? In addition, is there anything else that you see, besides your hands, being a consistent theme across all the different wines?
C: Yeah, a consistent theme is approachability and balance. The amount of aromatics and depth that you’re going to get out of the wines, and that price point compared to others. Additionally, with our brands, we want to be able to differentiate, so there is much more of a focus on different varieties, maybe more obscure varieties, that will be coming out in the future to just provide some excitement about the whole Prisoner program. We have been working with a lot of varieties over the past 20-plus years. Now is a chance for us to really exhibit what has gone into our wines and what is special about the different varieties. It could be Tempranillo, Chenin Blanc. Plus, the different regions that we sourced from throughout the state. Obviously, there’s Napa Valley, but there are such beautiful areas and wines that come from Mendocino, Sierra Foothills, and Paso Robles, and it’s just a tremendous way to be able to showcase those to the consumer.
Z: Very cool. I have one last question for you, Chrissy. One of the things that I’ve always known is that The Prisoner has a very clear aesthetic to it — both in the wine and the bottle, but also the labels and the name itself. This might be a silly question, but does that aesthetic play some role in how you approach your job? I don’t know if this question makes sense, and as I’m saying it out loud, I’m having a hard time even formulating it. But does this spark anything in you? This idea that The Prisoner is not a so-and-so estate or so-and-so vineyard. There is a whole aesthetic that comes along with it. What is it like to work with that?
C: To me, it’s more of a feeling that goes around, and that’s great for me. There’s a lot of variety. Of course, there are expectations, but there is a lot of creativity involved. I’m a pretty technical person, and I’ve always denied the creativity part, but I think it’s becoming more creative now. It’s flipping. I started off really analytical. Now, I’m definitely on the more creative side. And not letting there be too many boundaries of what you can do with blending, sourcing, and all that. When you look at The Prisoner, the main thing about the label itself is that it is a piece of art. And sometimes that gets misconstrued because of the name. But it is a piece of art. That’s ultimately what we’re doing, creating more art-like things that go in the bottle.
C: It starts in the bottle, goes to the label, and comes through our winemaking team. My personality fits. I’m pretty easygoing. I’m always going to try to think outside the box and not let anything keep us too cramped up. That’s how I see it.
Z: Sure. Well, some people might see constraints there apropos the name, but others might see a certain creative space. The idea is that, to some extent, it can be the wine that you want it to be as long as it also is the wine that, of course, your many loyal fans want it to be. That is probably a nice freedom that not all winemakers have.
C: Yeah, and I want people to enjoy it. You like what you like. Ultimately, when I go out and market our products, most of the fun is just seeing people enjoy what they’re doing and just seeing what they think. I don’t want to take that away from any of them.
Z: Excellent. Chrissy, thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it, and it was super interesting to learn more about these iconic wines. For a lot of people, it may be pleasantly shrouded in a certain amount of mystery, but it was nice to go behind the curtain a touch and get a feel for how it’s made and how you think about it. Again, thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
C: Thank you, Zach, for having me.
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Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.
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