Arterra Canada’s Eugene Mlynczyk MW tells the story of The Prisoner…

With Halloween looking a little different this year, we look to find comfort in a dark, brooding red blend with a red-and-black-streaked label featuring a shackled inmate on the bottle. The Prisoner Wine Company’s flagship red blend, simply called The Prisoner, needs little introduction to most contemporary wine lovers. It is after all, the singular wine which started the Luxury Red Blend trend almost exactly twenty years ago. But there is plenty of room for discovery (and learning) about the other wines in the broader portfolio.

Back to the ‘pioneering days,’ our story begins with a man named Dave Phinney, who didn’t own a winery but did have the brilliant idea of making an intense, powerful yet easy-drinking red wine from a mix of grapes hearkening back to pre-prohibition days. Traveling back to 19th Century California, field blends ruled, and varieties brought over by European immigrants included Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Carignan and more. That was Dave Phinney’s inspiration, and the reality in the glass was a dark, immensely lovable red wine, blended from key grower vineyards and the rest is history, as they say.

Not content to rest on his laurels, and working with smart winemakers, then under the ownership of Agustin Huneeus and eventually Constellation Brands, The Prisoner Wine Company’s continuing inspiration grew beyond just a single label. First came a closer to pure Zinfandel, from top sites across northern California, called Saldo. A few years later, the sibling white wine counterpart to The Prisoner red blend was born as Blindfold, a singular blended wine unafraid to mix Chardonnay, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Roussane and more. How easy is it to tell that Blindfold is The Prisoner’s partner in crime, so to speak? One look at the label provides the answer, with a darkly distinctive etching by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya circa 1800, from his challenging series The Disasters of War; it is a label and series that is not easily forgotten. Goya was a particular hero of my college art professor Nathan Oliveira, as Goya championed printmaking and especially monotypes, which are by definition one of a kind. I believe a similar originality exists here in Blindfold as well.

Around the same time (2012 onwards), several other wines were added, with Jen Beloz and, now current Director of Winemaking, Chrissy Wittmann carrying on The Prisoner’s stirring spirit. Those were Thorn Merlot (its brilliance showing how unfairly this variety gets treated by some in the Napa Valley), Cuttings Cabernet Sauvignon (sourced from a good portion of higher elevation mountain fruit for density and a yin-yang combination of concentration and structure), Snitch Chardonnay, and more.

The Prisoner is firmly rooted in the history of the late 1800s immigrant grape farmers and their very practical field blends. In this sense, our wine has been more than a hundred years in the making. (If you’d like to understand, long form, how success comes from more than just a single spark of genius, I encourage you to read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and you’ll be glad you did.) Not one to rest on its laurels, The Prisoner Wine Company continued to explore and during the last decade plus, introduced us to Saldo, Blindfold, Thorn, Cuttings, Snitch and more. Each of these wines has its own distinctive label and grape story to be told. But, like The Prisoner Wine Company itself, this wine portfolio expansion broke with convention. Many wineries start with a core of standard varietals, then expand out to more unique offerings. At The Prisoner Wine Company, Dave Phinney and successors did exactly the reverse, launching with a iconoclastic wine, and gradually branching out to include solid, more mono-varietal examples of Merlot, Chardonnay and Zinfandel. All are great wines in their own right, and in a way ‘easier’ for many wine drinkers to understand. In the end, I say hurrah to both the old and the new, and to the unusual as well as the familiar.

The Prisoner is always available as a Vintages Essentials at LCBO, while Saldo is available in limited quantities and Cuttings, Blindfold and Snitch can be ordered on consignment. For more information, contact Follow @PrincipleFineWines on Instagram for other great wine finds.

Eugene Mlynczyk MW is the National Sales Manager for Principle Fine Wines, a part of the Arterra Wines Canada group. Arterra Wines is a Good Food Fighter. Please support the businesses and organizations that support Good Food Revolution.