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Quintessa Should Profit from The Prisoner

The Napa winery should benefit from a pleasure-driven winemaker
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 6, 2010 2:00pm ET

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.

Steve Kirchner
huntington beach, ca —  January 6, 2010 5:39pm ET
have you tried older quintessa? i wonder if the "tight, herbal and structured" stuff might get better as it ages. or is that just wishful thinking?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 6, 2010 6:01pm ET
Yes I have, Steve, and the style is not to my liking even though some of the young wines have been very good. I don't think the owners are satisified either, which is why they've made winemaking changes. Quintessa started with grand designs, but still has much work to do, in my view.
Rolfs Wines
Newport Beach, CA —  January 6, 2010 7:45pm ET
Are Mercury Head and Papillon part of the deal? Phinney is staying on to make The Prisoner and Saldo, and be involved with Quintessa's winemaking?
Jim Holliman
San Diego —  January 6, 2010 8:05pm ET
I opened a bottle of the 2001 Quintessa in the past two weeks, and I was very disappointed. It was watery and muted. In the past I have had several bottles from the late 1990's and was dissatisfied with them also. I definitely agree with James about the wines not being memorable, at least in a good way. There are many mass produced cabs under $20 that were far superior to the various bottles of Quintessa that I have tried over the years.
Marshall Tilden
White Plains, NY —  January 6, 2010 8:05pm ET
Wow, this is big news!! As a Prisoner fan, I am wondering if this is the beginning of a full buyout. Do you see them moving all the Orin Swift wines under the Quintessa label? And do you think Phiney will have the same say in his creation as he did when it was under the Orin Swift Label?

Also, I am reading some different things about the Relativity Quantum Reserve, something to the effect that one of the barrels of The Prisoner had some distilled water spilled in it and the result when they mixed it all up was this wine..any insight? Thanks James
Mark Antonio
Tokyo —  January 7, 2010 12:02am ET
"try a bottle of Scarecrow" - not exactly easy when they don't sell to retail and have closed their waiting list...
Brad Paulsen
Saratoga, CA —  January 7, 2010 2:26am ET
I am a bit worried by this news. I see what's in it for Phinney and even more so for the Huneeus family, but what's in it for fans of The Prisoner. Especially if Phinney backs away. His style and touch is great in all his wines both in-house and outside (Cavus Beau Vigne and Stanton) but the wines from Huneeus operation have lost their way. I find their wines underwhelming and thin shouldered and worry that The Prisoner we find consistently strong year after year will be watered down and turned into another shade of the beige offerings from Quintessa.
Ross Ritterman
Bay Area, CA —  January 7, 2010 11:56am ET
I particularly enjoyed their 2004 when I tasted it at the winery, thought it was smooth/structured. But I think, James, you make a good point that, given the infrastructure that Huneeus has in place, he just needs to put it all together. The tour at Quintessa is pretty epic though :)
Sherman Harns
Phoenix, AZ —  January 7, 2010 2:21pm ET
James, I recently had a bottle of 08 Prisoner with friends. While we've all been fans of the wine for years, we noticed that the 08 was *noticeably* different in style from the consistent wine we've grown to know and love. It was thin, didn't have the characteristic fullness and the flavors were pale by comparison to the 07. Coincidence? Bottle variation? Have you tried the 08 Prisoner yet?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 7, 2010 2:34pm ET
Sherman, 2008 is a highly variable vintage, and in many regards the weakest in many years. So it wouldn't surprise me that an '08 would be less exciting than an '07, which was a great vintage. Haven't tried the Prisoner yet; Tim Fish reviews Zinfandel and Zin blends for us. He hasn't tried it yet either.
Greg Flanagan
Bethel CT —  January 7, 2010 7:12pm ET
Marshall and everybody else--(since this topic was brought up)........

Relativity Quantum Reserve=the Prisoner????

Having had both (same years)...I can say NO WAY.....however, I was told the same thing!! Anyone else out there?

Maybe its a northeast distributor telling the retailers that? so, is it the truth? Anyone???
David Tietz
Columbus, OH —  January 7, 2010 11:16pm ET
Just curious where the 70,000 case number comes from? The tasting notes list 39,000 cases for Prisoner & 3875 for the Saldo.
Lora Pallatto
San Francisco, CA —  January 13, 2010 7:53pm ET
It remains to be seen whether Quintessa will get better or The Prisoner and Saldo will go down hill. You never know what will happen when two wine makers merge.

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