The Prisoner Wine Company Saldo Zinfandel 2016

Deep ruby-black color; cherry, licorice, baking spice, black pepper on the nose; dark cherry, blackberry, dark plum, raspberry, pepper, vanilla, hint of chocolate on the palate.

The Prisoner Wine Company Saldo Zinfandel 2016

Dry; velvety tannin; voluptuous, dense fruit; smoke, baking spice sweetness, toasty oak on mid-palate and long finish. Big in the mouth; loads of very ripe fruit gets this to 15.9% alcohol. Blend of 85% zinfandel, 15% petite sirah and syrah. Grapes come from Dry Creek, Lodi, Amador vineyards—or from “here and there,” which is what “saldo” means in Latin. Dependable profile each year; tasting notes very consistent with previous vintage, though is less jammy. A good thing.

The Prisoner Wine Company began with a zin-led red—The Prisoner—created by Orin Swift Cellars founder Dave Phinney in 1998. Phinney grew The Prisoner brand from 385 cases to 85,000 cases in 10 vintages, a true wine success story. Phinney sold The Prisoner brand to Huneeus Vinters in 2010, and Huneeus sold to Constellation Brands in 2016. Bill Newlands of Constellation said at the time of the acquisition: “More than ever, consumers are seeking high quality, distinctive wines, and the portfolio we are acquiring from The Prisoner Wine Company delivers.” Phinney sold his Orin Swift Cellars brand to E.&J. Gallo in 2016. Since The Prisoner—maker of this effort—was a separate brand from Orin Swift, Phinney has now sold his brands to the largest wine company in the world: Constellation is world’s largest wine maker, sells more than 67 million cases (804 million bottles) of wine each year. Gallo is the largest family-owned wine company in the world. Selling to both was pretty nice trick for Phinney.

Constellation paid $285 million for The Prisoner Wine Company, and that was only the brand, no vineyards came with the purchase. The wine world is cleaving into two camps: wineries that make a precise, consistent style of wine (The Prisoner Wine Company is an example), and wineries that strive to express a particular plot of land and all the terroir elements that go into that equation. Wine drinkers can sit back and enjoy sipping while debating the existential nuances of each approach.

Chrissy Wittmann is the winemaker at The Prisoner. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Ecology and Systematic Biology at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, the future winemaker found her love for wine while analyzing soil and waste water samples in a lab. She returned to Cal Poly and earned a master’s degree in Agriculture. Waste water vs. wine, not a hard call.

Wittmann joined Scheid Vineyards in 2005 as assistant winemaker; two years later she joined the prestigious Wild Horse Winery & Vineyards in Paso Robles. Over the next nine years, Chrissy rose to director of winemaking, while mastering the art of multi-vineyard sourcing. In 2016, Chrissy and her family moved to Napa Valley and joined The Prisoner Wine Company, where her expertise in vineyard partnerships is in play every day. Chrissy says, “The Prisoner Wine Company’s wines have true personalities that start in the vineyards and which are encompassed in the blending of the wine. I’m thrilled to be working with so many vineyards of quality, to tap into my inner wine geek every day.”

The Prisoner Wine Company Saldo Zinfandel 2016 is slightly less jammy than the previous vintage, likely reflecting Chrissy Wittmann’s influence—this was her first vintage. It remains a big, bold, high alcohol California zin, but this vintage has more savoir-faire. It remains, however, a wine that may best be appreciated sipped solo as a “cocktail hour” wine. Food pairings include comfort foods— meatloaf, pizza, burger and sliders. It does not have enough tannic punch to pair well with rich red, fatty steaks, although I am sure people will go there and enjoy. They are, however, enjoying the meats and the wine, but not the complementing juxtaposition. $27-29

The Prisoner Wine Company website

The Prisoner director of winemaker Chrissy Wittmann
Prisoner Wine Company founder David Phinney