Take No Prisoners
A women-led winemaking team at The Prisoner Wine Company continues a tradition of crafting blends that aren’t shackled to traditional winemaking.
Writing by Chloe Gellar | Photography courtesy of The Prisoner Wine Company
This is not a conventional winemaker story. From its inception, The Prisoner Wine Company has aimed to do things differently. Company founder Dave Phinney began his winemaking career in 1997 in the humblest of ways by working the graveyard shift as a temporary harvest intern at Robert Mondavi Winery. Just a few years later, Phinney released The Prisoner's flagship red blend, and it wasn't just what was inside the bottle that drew quick and widespread acclaim. Understanding labeling as an essential factor attracting the consumer's eye, Phinney chose an arresting etching of a prisoner drawn by the famous artist Francisco de Goya to make the flagship stand out on the shelf, thereby establishing a tradition of nonconformist wines with unconventional packaging. This renegade spirit has persisted even after Phinney sold the company, now owned by powerhouse Constellation Brands. Today, The Prisoner Wine Company boasts a female-led winemaking team headed by Director of Winemaking Chrissy Whitman and, under her, winemakers Niki Williams and Molly Zook.
Chrissy and Niki both took circuitous routes to arrive at The Prisoner Wine Company. Chrissy was working at an independent environmental chemistry lab analyzing soil and wastewater samples when she was asked to cover an absent co-worker in the lab's wine division. Niki's love for agriculture came from growing up in a central Illinois farming community. Working at a European travel agency and visiting top wineries in both France and Italy was the "aha" moment that set her on a path to meld her appreciation for wineries and love of agriculture into a career. SL had the pleasure of interviewing both women to learn more about their unique career paths and how their outside-the-box backgrounds are a perfect fit for the Prisoner brand.
SL: Chrissy, we can't say that we blame you for going from wastewater to wine! What was it that initially piqued your interest in winemaking?
Chrissy: After filling in for an absent co-worker in the wine division, I was hooked. I then steered my career in the direction of wine and became a wine chemist at Meridian Vineyards. After some great mentorship by their winemaking team, I looked to fully commit to my career in winemaking. I returned to Cal Poly for an M.S. in Agriculture with a concentration in Food Science. From there, I did some custom crush work making wine for other clients, which was eye-opening. Then, after nine years at Wild Horse Winery on the Central Coast of CA, I took the position as Director of Winemaking at The Prisoner, which has been the best ride so far.
SL: How has your scientific background influenced your winemaking?
Chrissy: Winemaking is the perfect marriage of art and science. Although I never considered myself artistic, I have learned over the years how creativity and science can work hand in hand. It takes specific chemical knowledge to make blends tactically, but the creative, artistic side comes in when assessing what creative touches we can give the wine to appeal to our fans.
SL: Niki, how did you end up leaping from central Illinois to working for a European travel agency? What was it that prompted you to expand your horizons?
Niki: I was lucky to be raised as a Midwest farm kid, spending lots of time with my grandparents and parents in their fields, pastures, gardens, and kitchens. Even though I will always feel connected to the family farm, I was born with an adventurous spirit and a hefty dose of wanderlust. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English from Illinois Wesleyan University. I then moved to Chicago to pursue a Master of Arts in Theatre at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Instead of writing plays – my original intention – I started acting, and I was lucky to land a day job at a European travel company. This led me to frequent travels throughout Europe, including some of the great wine regions of Italy, France, Germany, and Spain.
SL: Taking that further, how did you parlay your global travel into making wine?
Niki: I was living in Los Angeles and working for an African safari company when the economy took a downturn in 2008. Like many people in that moment, it was time to reconsider my career path! I had recently returned from a trip to South Africa, including a visit to Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, and I decided to pursue winemaking. I went back to school and graduated from the University of California, Davis, in 2012 with a Bachelor of Science in Viticulture and Enology. After graduating, I worked harvest internships at Franciscan Estate in Napa Valley and L'Avenir in South Africa. My first winemaking position was with Merryvale Family of Wines, where I also managed the custom crush production of The Prisoner Wine Company's wines. I returned to Franciscan Estate in 2015, and The Prisoner Wine Company followed me to Constellation Brands in 2016. It made for an easy transition since I was already familiar with the wines.
SL: The Prisoner Wine Company is known for its blends, notably their flagship Red Blend. How do you approach this method of winemaking?
Chrissy: I love the challenge of blending varietals from all over California, not necessarily what's expected, and that has made The Prisoner's portfolio of blends memorable and beloved. Sometimes you don't know what works until you try it. You have to be able to analyze the unique attributes of each component wine and how they may interact with one another. You must be open-minded and not get too hung up by tradition. That said, it can be difficult to maintain the balance between innovation and 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.
Niki: We get to create blends that we think are the best of the vintage, rather than sticking with the notion that only Bordeaux or only Rhone varieties can go into the same bottle with each other. We're also very playful and experimental with our winemaking processes, and we trial new and different techniques and practices every vintage.
SL: What are the benefits of blends versus single varietals?
Chrissy: The Prisoner Wine Company specializes in blends to bring together different kinds of grapes, which results in unique, compelling flavors and creates a versatile wine that appeals to many different palettes. Blends keep our drinkers guessing, which in part is what draws them in for more.
We work very closely with a family of about 100 growers throughout California to source grapes for our blends. Working with this larger pool of partners has allowed us to partner with small-scale producers, who grow outstanding quality grapes, including more unique varietals. Sometimes, growers will come to us. If we are looking for additional fruit, we will rely on relationships between growers and vineyard managers because they are aware of our unique needs. Visiting our growing partners and getting to know them is one of my favorite parts of my job.
Niki: Different varieties have their own unique fingerprint of fruit character, herbal or savory notes, acidity, tannins, and structure. Combining these diverse personalities can create a more balanced, complex wine, and it also can provide more vintage-to-vintage consistency.
Each of our grower sites is unique, and it is really refreshing to get out into nature during such a hectic season. It's a mental reset. Working with the growers is awesome. Everyone has a different history, and I love learning about it.