No, you’re not mistaken: Those are shackles lining the walls behind the bar. In the fireplace nearby? A tangle of iron balls and chains. But even if the light fixtures over your head mimic the hoods lowered by pulley over electric chairs, the prison imagery in Napa Valley’s newest tasting lounge is less sinister and more of a brilliant extension of the brand that now calls the sleek place home.
Created in 2000 by the ever-inventive winemaker David Phinney, The Prisoner was a wine that arguably launched an entire trend of upscale red blends (not to be confused with the jugs on the bottom shelf). Lush, ripe, and well made, the Zinfandel-based blend quickly became a cult favorite, and in the following years was joined under The Prisoner Wine Company brand by a handful of other bottles with equally edgy labels (such as Blindfold and The Snitch).
As of this month, the longtime favorites—along with some new bottles—are being poured in The Prisoner Wine Company’s ambitious remake of the old Franciscan winery on Highway 29 south of downtown St. Helena. And implements of captivity aside, the atmosphere is far from grim. Handsome wood-plank walls soar to an expansive skylight. Concrete elements and acid-stained, reflective surfaces (mirrors, aluminum tables) create an “industrial refurbished” look, or “retro futurism,” as it’s dubbed here in classic Prisoner word play.
Through the glass doors is a Napa first: The Makery is a light-filled private tasting space lined with alcoves showcasing the goods of local artisans and craftspeople, including, at the far end, an impressively appointed kitchen where the winery’s chef and team—“makers” themselves—turn out delicious small plates. In this gallery (with its own expansive skylight overhead), you can peruse a rotating collection, such as handmade jewelry, wine-infused soaps, and pottery. Lest you forget the overarching theme, though, a graphite skeleton sculpture rests on what resembles a whiteboard table to the side; flip a switch and the table shakes, causing the skeleton to draw a freeform sketch of itself.
The Prisoner Wine Company is rethinking wine tasting in a region that sometimes takes itself too seriously. Yes, the dark brand resonates through the experience, but the idea is to experiment, to have a little fun, to offer vinous diversity in a bastion of Cabernet houses. There are three ways, at the moment, to enjoy this creative space and its crowd-pleasing wines (in any case, you will be greeted with a glass of delightful Chenin Blanc at the podium out front): A seated tasting of four wines in the lounge ($45, including a delicious bite from the chef); “The Makery Journey: Tour & Tasting,” which includes a visit to the vineyard and culinary garden, plus a tasting in The Makery of five wines ($65); and “The Makery Experience: Wine & Food Pairing,” for which the team in the kitchen sends out seasonal small plates paired with more limited-release wines ($125). In the spring, look for an even deeper dive to be available, at a more exclusive price point.
Already a fan of The Prisoner? The 2017 ($49)—a blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Charbono—is at the top of its game, with dark, jammy cherry and red berry headlining the fruit profile, plus warm spice and a touch of dark chocolate. And new and noteworthy this year is the 2015 Dérangé ($100, and pronounced the same as, simply, derange, with a straight-up American accent), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Merlot, Syrah, and Zinfandel. Concentrated and lush, with nice balancing acidity, this red leads with a brooding, earthy quality followed by blackberry, cassis, dark cherry, anise, and fresh herbs.