How The Prisoner Went From Outsider Wine to $285 Million National Phenomenon

Chris Shott How The Prisoner Went From Outsider Wine to $285 Million National Phenomenon

5 minute Read

Emmy-nominated actress Pamela Adlon sips a lot of wine with her co-stars on the hit FX series “Better Things.” Very rarely do viewers get a look at which labels are being poured.

But during the Season 2 finale, titled “Graduation,” the cameras zoomed in for a brief close-up of one particular bottle. The label is partially obscured. Even so, it’s unmistakable: the red-and-black-streaked background, the cursive script, and, most tellingly, the ghostly white chains.

I’m referring of course to The Prisoner, the ridiculously popular California red blend with the shackled inmate on the bottle.

The image is haunting in more ways than one. Beyond its grim depiction of a life in chains, I’m beginning to feel like it’s following me. Almost everywhere I look, The Prisoner is there, from my local shops in Brooklyn to my mother-in-law’s favorite retailer in suburban Ohio. In some strange corners, it even appears as an oversized display bottle. For birthdays, holidays, and other big celebrations, somebody inevitably shows up with a bottle of the stuff. Now it’s even creeping onto my TV screen.

It has become almost inescapable, which, given its label art, seems only fitting.

Prisoner creator Dave Phinney was famously given a print of the creepy Francisco de Goya etching that appears on the bottle as a gift from his parents at age 12. He launched the trendsetting label in 2000, putting out a mere 385 cases. Phinney’s edgy taste in art and unconventional approach to blending Zinfandel with other grapes earned him and his wine a lot of acclaim, making Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list three times.

But Phinney is no longer involved with the label that made him famous. The Prisoner is now the property of beverage giant Constellation Brands, following a whopping $285 million sale in 2016. As such, The Prisoner is not merely a wine anymore. It’s a brand, one of more than 100 under the Constellation umbrella — and one that the Fortune 500 company seems eager to grow.

Last year, the company produced about 165,000 cases of The Prisoner, up 17.5 percent, a dramatic escalation for what used to be a small but influential indie label.

“Back when it first came out, it was a one of a kind,” says Karen Williams, proprietor of ACME Fine Wines in St. Helena, Calif. “You didn’t see anything dark on a label. There was never anything of the macabre style. It just wasn’t done, really.”

In 2000, Williams was among the first to feature The Prisoner during tastings in the courtyard at the venerable Napa Valley restaurant Tra Vigne, where she helped run the wine program. The restaurant, which closed in 2015, served as an important stage for California winemakers in its heyday.

Prisoner creator Dave Phinney, though, was doing things a little differently from other producers. At a time when most winemakers stayed laser-focused on single varietals, Phinney busted out with an unconventional blend, heavy on Zinfandel with splashes of other grapes.

Then there’s Phinney’s strange choice of artwork, which instantly became a lightning rod for wine buyers. People either loved or hated it. “Some people were afraid of it,” Williams says. “One guy wanted to buy a whole pallet, but he wanted me to soak the labels off the bottles because he wanted to pour it at his restaurant, and he didn’t want people to be put off by it. I told him, ‘Well, actually, it’s art — and it could start a conversation.’”

Actually, it did a lot more than simply get people talking. By 2003 The Prisoner had attracted critical acclaim and was well on its way to developing a cult following. Before long, the price jumped from $25 to $35 a bottle, and Phinney’s creative approach to winemaking would inspire countless imitators. “I can’t tell you how many people would come to us later and say, ‘This is our Prisoner-style blend’ — not a red wine blend, anymore. They’re calling it a ‘Prisoner blend’ because they’re mixing varietals, and Dave was the first,” says Williams.

The world is now awash in Prisoner-style red blends with all kind of wild labels. Some producers even try to mimic the Prisoner-style font, Williams notes. “To me, it’s similar to when White Zinfandel came out,” she says. “People talk disparagingly about White Zinfandel now, but the fact of the matter is, it really helped people change from cocktails and beer into wine because it had that bit of sweetness and it was a good segue. I feel the same way about The Prisoner. That’s what brought many new people into the wine industry. So many people would walk into the shop, they’d see that brand on the shelf, and go, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got The Prisoner!’ Like it was the Hope Diamond or something.”

Despite her early embrace of The Prisoner, Williams, a specialist in lesser-known and hard-to-find wines, no longer sells it. “Mainly because it’s everywhere,” she says.

Phinney, who sold his stake in The Prisoner in 2010 for a reported $40 million, declined to comment for this article.

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. If anyone has grown weary of seeing the Goya image on a wine bottle, it’s him. He continues to make other sought-after wines with interesting labels. Last November, the celebrated winemaker released his first Zinfandel-dominant blend in the post-Prisoner era, aptly dubbed 8 Years in the Desert.

His original hit, meanwhile, is arguably more popular than ever. The Prisoner remains one of the most widely photographed wine labels in the world, racking up nearly 50,000 reviews on the  wine-rating app Vivino alone. “That’s massive and impressive,” says Boris Guillome, Vivino’s director of wine buying. “We consistently see it has one of the most consumed AND best rated wines on Christmas and Thanksgiving Day — at the $35 price point, that’s pretty unheard of.”

The Prisoner now seems destined to become even more ubiquitous. During a March 29 conference call with investors, Constellation Brands CEO Rob Sands described The Prisoner as one of the company’s standouts in the wine category, a group that’s “blowing the socks off the entire industry,” he said.

Under Constellation, The Prisoner Wine Company, which includes Phinney’s original Prisoner label and several others, is now coming up with more Prisoner-style red blends. Its latest, Derange, similarly blends five different varietals and features eerie artwork depicting vertical scratches on a wall, like the marks of an inmate counting down the days. CEO Sands called it “one of my personal new favorites.” It sells for $100 a pop.

The original Prisoner blend remains the company’s flagship and standard bearer. “We take great care in preserving The Prisoner’s established style, ensuring that even if the blend evolves from year to year, vintage variations do not change the wine’s hallmark profile,” says current winemaker Chrissy Wittmann, adding that the company is committed to “slow and steady growth” of its namesake wine.

As for the label’s recent cameo on TV’s “Better Things,” the company played no direct role in the product placement, according to Wittmann. “We found out about it when friends of the brand started calling to congratulate us,” she says. “It’s a testament to the widespread love and loyalty that so many people have for The Prisoner.”

 

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