When brand trumps vineyard

on 20 May, 2016

Before mid-April, when it was acquired by Constellation in a $285m deal, I can’t say I was all that familiar with the Prisoner Wine Company

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But then that’s often the way with the more deluxe end of the California spectrum – whatever fame the wines may achieve in their own backyard, they tend to struggle to make a name for themselves in more competitive markets such as northern Europe or Asia, where the local pride that works in California counts for nothing and where prices can look ambitious at best.

To give American readers some idea of the disparity between home and away, the latest (2014) vintage of the Prisoner Wine Co’s most lauded wine, The Prisoner, a blend of varieties (including Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Charbono) and vineyards (more than 80 sites across the Napa Valley), can be found (for around £40 or $56) in just two European retailers (both in the UK). Back in the States, the brand’s listing on wine-searcher.com runs to more than 300 merchants from California to New Jersey at an average of $40.

For all that Prisoner may not be a household name overseas, however, I can’t say I was surprised by the size of the Constellation deal. Multi-million acquisitions are, after all, par for the course in California, specifically Napa – all part of the caricature of a wine industry that sometimes seems to exist in a parallel world, where the very rich still view a Napa winery as a must-have status symbol.

But dig a little deeper into the deal and there is something unusual about it, something that feels, to this observer at least, simultaneously groundbreaking and retrogressive.

That ‘something’ concerns what Constellation has got for its cash – or rather what it didn’t get. Along with The Prisoner blend, the Prisoner Wine Co portfolio includes other fast-growing brands Saldo, Cuttings, Blindfold and Thorn. All those brands are sourced, in the words of the Prisoner Wine Co website, from independent “passionate growers”. Which is a nice, romantic way of spinning the economically sensible plan of flexible sourcing. But it also means the deal doesn’t include so much as a single vine.

While this isn’t the first time Constellation has splashed the cash on what amounts to intellectual property rather than old-fashioned real-world assets, it’s confirmation of how the company views the future of the wine business. Essentially, it believes, wine should behave more like other consumer goods industries, where brand equity is what counts, not the places and people that make it.

That’s the groundbreaking part. Ironically, however, Constellation has formed this strategy at the very time that an admittedly small but voluble sector of the Californian fine wine market has begun to make serious inroads overseas with the opposite business model.

The members of the In Pursuit of Balance group, with their more elegant and balanced wines from coastal and higher altitude sites, have emerged as the darlings of the world’s sommelier and critical fraternity. Committed to the notion of terroir, of wines produced from single vineyards, they talk down the role of winemaker and brand in favour of a familiar message that resonates from New York, to London, Tokyo and even Paris: to make great wine, they say, the one thing you really need is what Prisoner doesn’t have – great vineyards.

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