The sale of The Prisoner and Saldo to the Huneeus family may mean there's hope for Quintessa.
The Huneeus' own this large Rutherford estate, which makes a Bordeaux-style blend that sells for $145. Yet in more than a decade of producing Quintessa, it has yet to make a memorable wine. Its second label, Faust, a Napa Cabernet that sells for $50, has been disappointingly hollow. The 2006 (80 points) tasted stale.
The Prisoner and Saldo, two wines created and produced by Dave Phinney of Orin Swift, are all about pleasure. The Prisoner is a clever, creative blend, anchored by Zinfandel, with Cabernet, Syrah, Petite Syrah and Charbono, and in 2007 (92 points, $35) it had a splash of Grenache. It's ripe, supple, fleshy, easy to drink, complex and satisfying.
It's a wonder more winemakers haven't pursued this style of wine. Phinney not only made an excellent wine, but made 70,000 cases of it. Most wineries have a hard time making an outstanding, fun to drink wine, period.
Both the Prisoner and the 2007 Saldo, a Zinfandel blend that draws on vineyards mostly in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino (91, $28), are about enjoyment, which somehow gets lost in the wine world, where too many vintners try to make serious wines that aren't much fun to drink. Both of Phinney's wines remind me of Conundrum, the white wine cuvée Chuck Wagner created at Caymus in the 1990s. That wine featured an innovative mix of Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Canelli, Chardonnay and Viognier. It grew from about 5,000 cases to nearly 90,000 cases and still earned very good to outstanding marks.
Quintessa, on the other hand, hasn't quite found the right touch with its wines, despite its site (in the heart of Rutherford), a fairly new and immaculately planted vineyard and a dream-come-true winemaking facility. The winery has worked with several winemakers, but none of them have made the kinds of wines the property seems capable of. That should change, though. The Huneeus' hired Charles Thomas to oversee the operations and he's a talented winemaker, having made excellent wines at Robert Mondavi, Jackson Family Estates and Rudd. I expect the 2007 Quintessa will be a marked improvement from recent vintages, which have been tight, herbal and structured, but offering little in the way of charm or finesse, which is what Rutherford Cabernet is all about. Try a bottle of Scarecrow if you want to see what Rutherford Dust can do.
Between Thomas and Phinney, Quintessa's wines should get better (ditto for Faust) and the potential for the Prisoner to grow to 100,000 or more cases, while still maintaining quality, is easy to envision. There are more quality vineyards and good grapes available in California than in any time I can remember. Phinney knows how to source grapes and assemble wines that people like to drink and can afford.
My guess is that the Huneeus family realizes that and can see the potential for sales growth. Phinney has 2008 and 2009 to blend, and I'm sure he'll see the label through those bottlings. But whether he'll hang around for the long haul depends as much on the Huneeus commitment to greater quality. This seems like a golden opportunity for this family to make its mark with some fun and sophisticated wines. So far they've come up short of that mark.