As soon as I stepped past the slate-colored exterior and into the wood-and-metal, industrially designed lounge, I knew this wasn’t going to be a typical Napa wine experience—a hunch later confirmed midway through our tasting. After filling our empty wine glasses with their signature bold, red blends while running through the usual tasting notes and details about terroir, our sommelier then deftly transitioned the conversation to the importance of prison reform.
Yes. Prison reform. At a winetasting.
Though unconventional, this is exactly the kind of conversation you might have while visiting The Prisoner Wine Company, a Napa winery that, after years of working to make the luxury wine industry more inclusive by marketing to—and welcoming—a more diverse set of wine drinkers, has expanded its impact to the broader community. In 2022, it released the wine collection Corrections, which promotes awareness of—and raises funds for—prison reform.
How a cult wine became a platform for social justice
Despite the name, The Prisoner Wine Company has not always been so involved in social justice issues.
Longtime winemaker Dave Phinney issued The Prisoner Wine Company’s first release of wines in 2000 (it was later acquired by Constellation Brands in 2016). Both the brand name and its flagship wine, the Prisoner, were inspired by an 1810 etching by Francisco Goya called Le Petit Prisonnier. After the initial release, the winery quickly garnered attention for its unusual name and provocative wine label, which featured an interpretation of Goya’s piece. The flagship wine earned critical acclaim as well as a reputation as a delicious and creative red blend that helped it earn the popularity and wide distribution it holds today.
But it wasn’t until recently, in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement and the team’s collective reflection on how much injustice the U.S. criminal justice system places on incarcerated individuals, and especially brown and Black men, that the idea came about to leverage the winery’s popularity for action.
“We’ve always known the Prisoner to stand for progress and specifically to use art and artistic language to drive progress. Up until recently, that progress was [focused on] changing how the luxury wine operates, being more inclusive and being more approachable, and making sure everyone feels like they have a place in the luxury wine landscape,” says Bukky Ekundayo, The Prisoner Wine Company’s general manager and VP of marketing. But in 2021, the winery realized that it had an opportunity to make an impact beyond the wine industry. “We’ve benefited from having the name and label designed by this provocative artist and we decided we could bring a more modern and socially progressive meaning [to it].”
It was from this journey that it finally released the Corrections wine collection in 2022 to achieve just that. Each wine is wrapped in a bottle bag featuring statistics that underscore the unfairness of the criminal justice system, designed to spark conversation around prison reform.
The U.S. represents around 5% of the world population, but nearly 25% of the world’s prison population. Since 1991, the rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen by about 20%, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by 50%.
Additionally, it enlisted Los Angeles multimedia artist Chris Burnett for the design of the wine labels. Burnett, who has previously worked with publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post to address social issues through illustrations, was selected for his work’s ability to portray how humanity emerges from within a chaotic system. In the collages he created for Corrections, rips and tears represent anger and passion for change, while flower motifs and forward gazes act as metaphors for growth, progress, and freedom, coming together to highlight the humanity and resilience of incarcerated individuals while providing a sense of hope.
A total of $25,000 in proceeds from the sales is being donated to Rubicon Programs, a Bay Area anti-poverty nonprofit supporting communities disproportionately affected by the inequity of the U.S. justice system. Among its activities, it provides essential services to formerly incarcerated people, such as career training and healthcare assistance.
Only 300 cases of Corrections were produced in this inaugural release. However, Ekundayo states that her team plans to make this an annual occurrence, working with a different artist and partner each time. The 2022 release is available for purchase online for $225, and includes three bottles of wine: one malbec, one viognier, and one tempranillo.
Building an inclusive winetasting experience
Outside of the Corrections release, The Prisoner Wine Company remains committed to making the luxury wine industry more diverse and inclusive as well. There’s nowhere that this is better demonstrated than at the St. Helena tasting room, which opened in 2018.
“You don’t have to be a part of the ‘wine drinking elite’ or even have a depth of knowledge around varietals to find our wines, drink our wines, and enjoy it,” says Ekundayo. I understand exactly what she means: It can be intimidating to attend a tasting when you’re just starting to learn about the basics or feel unsure of what adjectives to use to describe a wine. But at The Prisoner Wine Company, they meet drinkers where they’re at, guiding the conversation based on what guests already know and want to learn more about. Visitors will also notice diversity among the staff—they even announced last year that they are working with Rubicon to participate in a second chance employment program, with a goal of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals—all of which creates an atmosphere that feels welcoming and inclusive.
The food and wine pairings have also been designed to reach a more diverse set of palettes—and wine drinkers—by drawing culinary inspiration from around the world. By serving curry dishes alongside zinfandels or cabernets, soup dumplings with bold, red blends, and hearty vegan dishes with wines that are more often billed as “great with steak,” they aim to show guests that all types of food can pair well with wine.
How to visit
Reservations are required to visit The Prisoner Wine Company. Visitors can choose between a standard tasting, a chocolate and wine pairing, a wine and food pairing, and on Fridays and Saturdays, a dim sum and wine experience—which we highly recommend. Also keep an eye out for its Friday DJ nights, which have been known to turn into quite the lively dance party.