Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Yeah, I get it, the Prisoner has escaped.

November is the time of year when limited release products are often unveiled. This is not a coincidence. This is when consumers buying expensive wine seems commonplace. Great hype often surrounds the trumpeted and rare opportunity to buy velvet lined boxes of something. One of the great scams/ marketing genius moves of all time was released just last week: The Prisoner.
*As a side note, I have many friends and colleagues that buy and sell this wine with great success, and I know many consumers that have enjoyed it over the years, this is simply a commentary not on the wine, but how powerful marketing can be.

The concept is simple: The wine is a Napa Blend primarily of Zinfandel, all purchased fruit. There is Cab and Charbono in the blend as well. The wine is released, a la Beaujolais Nouveau on a set date, November 1, to great pomp and circumstance. This seemingly limited wine is pre-sold like you just won't be able to get it. The label is quite attractive, and the entire package feels special. It gets a Napa Valley appellation and it's $35. Here's the thing: they make 70,000 cases of this one wine. What does that mean in relative terms? 70,000 cases makes them bigger than 95% of the bonded wineries in California, just from one wine. Strictly from a production standpoint, this is a very un-rare wine. So how does a winery that produces so many cases, maintain the aura of being special and rare? Marketing.
Rule #1: The label matters. This hand drawn label looks like it belongs in the ranks of the wines of Sine Qua Non.
Rule #2: Mystery. The proprietary name,along with idea of a mysterious blend is intriguing
Rule #3 Score. This wine has received some nice press by placing James Laube's palate right in their cross hairs. A little American Oak and Cab to
spice up their Zin, and Laube all of a sudden likes this more than most Sonoma Zins (wonder why?). Oh, that would typically get you about 92 points
Rule #4 Price. $35 seems like a lot of money for a Zin based blend. Comparative pricing puts it about the sames as Ridge single vineyard bottlings. But this isn't a wine for serious Zin people. It's a wine for people that think that a blend is something to shop for. Therefore, this is expensive, but not too expensive. This is really the sweet spot for less serious wine drinkers trying to step up.

Rule #5-Perceived scarcity-Can I just one more time say 70,000 cases!!! They have told the people that want to buy their wine what they want them to believe, that this is a limited availability wine. This is Disney and their DVD vault all over again.
Rule #6-Place is important. As long as it says Napa.

The marketing minds behind this wine have done an incredible job of selling through this wine, much to the delight of many, many people. If you happen to produce an actual limited amount of wine and are having a tough time selling through your production, there is much to learn from this example. I would not recommend trying to replicate this model as it is built on a bit of hype over reality. That's always a tough strategy for long term growth, but an excellent way to entice some sucker into backing a truckload of money up your driveway.


  1. I agree. At the end of the day Prisoner is an affordable fruit-forward blend with mass appeal—but the brilliance is they found a way to make it feel truly special. I don’t think it would be nearly so successful if it had a generic label on it and a “California” appellation.

  2. 100% agree, glad you said this. I try to explain this to all my non-wine-pro friends who ask me about it (constantly). Drives me a bit crazy...70,000 cases.

  3. Two questions:
    1. So is this a rant against The Prisoner or the consumer who buys all 70,000 cases?
    2. How much wine does Opus and Silver Oak make? I would guess similar productions at no less than twice the price. Conundrum? All examples of marketing genius with argueably mediocre wines.

  4. Soonervino
    1. Not really either, just a commentary on how a marketing plan can drive perception, regardless of many other factors (including style and production level)
    2. Agreed, all 3 wines are probably in the same neighborhood for production.Prisoner is a better example for wineries to learn from in that, it's a very difficult and dicey proposition to try to actually produce $100 bottles as a business plan, regardless of the quality of the marketing.

    Incidentally-I personally don't like The Prisoner or any of the other Orin Swift wines I've tried in the past. That's just my opinion though...

    Thanks for reading!!

  5. Smells like jealousy. No one at Orin Swift or anyone who sells the wine will claim that it is Chambertin, but the wine consistently and constantly wins blind tastings over more haralded (and expensive) versions in both the Cab and Zin categories. Call it what you will but for many retailers it is a license to print money at a time when consumer after consumer is trading down to $9 Malbecs and whatever the latest from Diageo is. Huge megacorps are churning out thousands of new labels daily from purchased fruit, juice and even finished wine that was crafted in a laboratory by a team of scientists and then concocting a story about the small family winery to move their bogus product, so it is a little disingenuous to hint that this wine is breaking some sort of mold in the world of advertising. Incedentally, as a wholesaler who represents this wine, it WAS and IS rare from the standpoint that five years ago we got 50 cases for two states, two years ago we ran out in April and this year we were out of the '08 by September. Yet you hear none of that from Orin Swift, only that the wine is the brainchild of Dave Phinney who is now one of CA's hottest winemakers. Purchased fruit? Yes, some of the best in the Valley from famous grower after famous grower, and it gets better every year as Phinney now has a clear track record of success after success. get mad at Spectator if you want, but don't blame Phinney for Top 100s and 92+ every year. And if you want to start ripping on wineries about buying fruit get ready to take on 99.8% of the industry. you may not like the message (or are just tired of losing out to it) but you have to give the man his due.

    Can you say you are not commenting on the wine but spend a few hundred words calling it a "scam" and "not for serious Zin people?" Not exactly veiling your dislike for this particular product are you? This post smells a little green to me.

  6. Ouch Sunny-
    Clearly struck a nerve. It was only a matter of time until someone
    Here's the deal-I don't really like this wine, but that's not the point. I'm not a wine critic. I don't begrudge them. I do believe there is a tremendous amount of smoke and mirrors behind it. Kudos to them and you for making money off of this wine, I wish I had a piece of it. Kudos to retailers for stacking it to the ceiling and selling the crap out of it, and driving the average sale up. Those are all true. My issue is with the small wineries that are trying to compete that don't recognize what a perfect storm of marketing The Prisoner actually is. I itemized enough points that I hope the small wineries I work with and root for will learn from. If you take a step back and reread the post, you may see that I am giving the marketing behind it all the credit in the world. They succeed in such a way, where the elements that go into the wine as it's own entity, wouldn't typically compute. A little smarmy commentary is always how I write. I don't think I'm exactly dissuading anyone from buying The Prisoner, and I'm sure you'll continue to take orders for plenty of it here in Ohio.

    Thanks for reading and weighing in-Sounds like you have a few opinions of your own, do you write?

  7. You know what they say about opinions and everyone having one.... I don't disagree that the Prisoner has become a craze that is hard to fathom, but my point is the proof is in the pudding. You can say all you want that it is in James Laube's crosshairs but the reality of it is people LOVE this wine and that it overdelivers for the money. If you like the style personally or not you cannot disagree that it has gained thousands of fans in a ridiculously short time. That cannot be through marketing. Another reality is that the very first version of the Prisoner was made in Dave Phinney's basement while he was working his tail off at his crappy day job. While the wine has become insanely popular with everyone from soccer moms, cork dorks, neophytes and jaded wine vets like me, it was not and is not a product of a multi-million dollar marketing push by Constellation Brands. It was born out of grass roots marketing and just flat out quality wine that started in a tiny amount and has become a great success story.

    I thought your blog was leaning too far into the negative to be called a junket on marketing brilliance. That's all. No nerves struck and no offense taken.

  8. If this wine can get more soccer mom's and other wine drinkers to move from the under $20 to this price point, then God bless the water-walkers in marketing. And as someone from the sales side, I don't praise the marketing folks too much!

  9. Coming from a small winery that is putting out their first offering this year I appreciate the article and totally agree that the price, label, social awareness all greatly contribute to the demand.

  10. I sell wine in Ohio, and also write about it. I think The Prisoner has been such a huge hit because it just "works" for lots of palates. Many of my Cab drinkers think Zins are too jammy -- except for The Prisoner. Many of my Zin drinkers think Cabs are too unapproachable -- except for the Prisoner. You get the picture.
    The Prisoner also hit the market when there were A LOT of Napa wines that had become over-priced. Opus was at $200, Silver Oak Alexander at $80, and the "boutique" wines were upwards of $250 (if you could get them, which we couldn't). The Prisoner offered wine drinkers an affordable boutique wine, even though we didn't get much in the early days. And yes, the high Spectator ratings helped to launch it (and its sister Zin, Saldo), but my customers bought it again and again because they just plain liked it.
    Thanks for bringing attention to an interesting subject -- it's been fun reading the comments.

  11. Interesting discussion.

    Incidentally, the label is not universally loved: it was a finalist in our "worst wine label" competition a few years ago.


  12. I poured this wine for my 67-year old dad 2 years ago... he's a "European-wine drinker" of sorts who dislikes California wines in general. I knew I was taking a risk pouring this wine for him, but it was worth it... he absolutely loved the wine. At has since become one of the few California wines he drinks.

    I also agree 100% with what Sunny said above. This wine may be in large production today, but it really came about as a result of hard-work, risk taking (not a common blend, at least not when he started it) and yes, great marketing.

    As for the label, there is a saying...."When you make something no one hates, no one loves it". This should be another lesson... don't try to please everyone, not even with the label. Some will hate the label, same will love it. And that's perfectly fine.

  13. Anonymously from here in Napa...

    First off, I'm not a fan of the Prisoner from a (Somm) tasting perspective for my palate. To me, it is very one-dimensional big mega-fruit (juice) driven that appeals to 95% of wine drinkers that do not understand 'structure' of hand-crafted wines. It is one step away from a Zin Port and I can stomach about two sips before I crave SOMETHING with tannins.

    That being said, I think Dave Phinney is a genius and a very good winemaker. He is well-respected here and makes several other very good wines and his Papillon is amazingly complex and a good value. His Beau Vigne brands are quite good (and well-structured) and he consults on various other well-done projects here in town.

    The Prisoner is a marketing anomaly and what Adam points out is spot-on. But what most do not know is that it has been around for over 10 years (since 1997 actually) and was not a huge hit right out of the gate. He hit a perfect storm of price, timing and a market that was ready for it. And, (ear muffs girls...) the wine appealed to the female market as that niche took off (i.e. smart marketing) on all cylinders...juicy, low-tannins, low acid, artsy label, good price and they could get it by the glass at most places. The 10-year overnight sensation was born...marketing 101 ++

    In summary, the brand obviously appealed enough to a winery like Quintessa to purchase it (and Saldo Zin) for ~ $20 mil. when it does approx. $12 mil in sales to the industry. Dave Phinney can chuckle all the way to the bank, but it did not come without some foresight and hard work many years ago.

  14. I've had this wine in hand at the the store several times. I admit the packaging is attractive to me. But one way they failed is matching the description to the price. I don't remember what it says but every time after reading it I put the bottle back on the shelf thinking it can't possibly be worth what they're charging (and I do occasionally buy wines at that prices).

  15. Worst "wines" ever. People want to be marketed to, people like Prisoners in general because they provide slave labor for telemarketing firms. I bet some of the vineyards Phinney sources from use slave labor. I am prety sure as well that The Prisoner is used as lube at S and M clubs. Run feces through a oak machine and you will get something similar to The Prisoner. Drink some f'n Roussillon if you want a more authentic, ripe experience. Mas Amiel anyone?