The Dozen Vol. 25 No. 08 Wine

The Dozen – Prisoner of Love

A mythical wine is a case study of how brands change with ownership.


During its few short years thus far, The Prisoner has seen the insides of more than one institution.

The winery with the unusual labels that speak of a bad reputation but with good stuff inside began around 2000 as a single-product, Napa Valley red-wine blend, the brainchild of David Phinney, one of those guys who defy categorization. Critics and drinkers quickly fell in love with this inmate. Phinney sold it to Agustin Huneeus (Quintessa, Franciscan, Concha y Toro) in 2010, who, with his family, managed it until 2016.

The label was then sold to Constellation Brands who wanted to broaden its portfolio collection of upscale wines. Under Constellation’s leadership, The Prisoner has expanded its number of labels considerably, straying from Napa/Sonoma designations to sourcing their grapes widely so that some labels are generically “California.”

Usually, when a winery changes winemakers, there are some expectations of tweaks in how it is made and tastes, but generally, these are minor adjustments. But when a winery changes both winemakers and winery owners, expect major changes.

That has been the case with The Prisoner, five of which we consider in the current The Dozen. In a word, for those who haven’t tasted any of The Prisoners wines recently, it is “toast” – as in new toasty barrels.  For those who love their wine toasty, whether red or white, then it’s up to you to get The Prisoner out on bail. For everyone else, you may want to go trial first.

Additionally, this Dozen also features a couple of blockbusters from Bibi Graetz, a nostalgic indulgence from Gonzalez Byass, and a trio of bubblies from northern Italy.

2020 The Prisoner “Unshackled” California Sauvignon Blanc ($21). Just lovely aromas and flavors – green yet creamy fruits with some baking spices lurking in the background.

2019 The Prisoner Carneros Chardonnay ($39). Apple fruit-forward – almost sweet – with lots of creaminess and a dash of cloves.

NV Martini & Rossi Asti Sparkling Wine ($12). Even if you don’t prefer the sometimes over-powering fragrances and tastes of Moscato, this one’s very soft, floral, candied sweetness and good acidity may seduce you tonight. And in the morning? The night was worth it.

NV Martini & Rossi Italia Sparkling Rosé ($12). Pleasant – light strawberry flavors, crisp bubbles.

NV Martini & Rossi Prosecco ($14). Crisp and tight with a little less floral than most Proseccos, but there seems to be a little odd, vegetal taste in the finish.

2018 Exem Bordeaux Merlot Cabernet ($12). Pleasant – a blend of lightly tart fruit and some green notes.

2019 The Prisoner Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($46).  Quite enjoyable, with very flavorful cherries and toasty vanilla flavors (not everyone’s “cuppa”) wrapped in a bold structural package.

2019 The Prisoner California Red Wine ($51). Very satisfying – smooth, almost creamy red fruits with a pleasant hint of balsamic and well-blended tannins.

2018 The Prisoner Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($58). A warm, full-bodied, generous Cab with ripe berry flavors and lots of vanilla toast.

2019 Bibi Graetz “Colore 20” Toscano Rosso ($404). A little gamier than the following wine, with what can only be called a polished rusticity.  More tannic, lots of intensity, long on the palate.

2019 Bibi Graetz “Testamatta 20” Toscana Rosso ($404). Almost tart black raspberry and cherry flavors with lots of raspy tannins and good minerality.  It will age well.

NV Gonzalez Byass “Tio Pepe” Fino en Rama Sherry ($21). Mentally, we have legacy wines that we tasted while young (we, not the wine) and loved, and this is one of mine – the world’s most-enticing nutty aromas and flavors with a hint of bitters, the perfect aperitif.  

Prices listed are generally SRP or from As more wineries are now shipping direct-to-consumer, check the winery website if you can’t find a bottle in your retail store.

Feature photo: Napa Valley

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