Napa Valley’s The Prisoner Wine Co. winemaker Chrissy Wittmann wins North Bay Wine, Beer & Spirits Industry Awards
St. Helena-based The Prisoner Wine Co. is part of Constellation Brands. Chrissy Wittmann, winner of the winemaker large winery category in North Bay Business Journal’s alcohol beverage industry awards, says the firm is seeing great growth through its website and e-commerce platforms.
How did you get into the industry? And what has been your career track since?
Working in the wine industry hadn’t actually been my intention! I enrolled in California Polytechnic State University as a physical education major, before ultimately switching my major and receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in ecology and systemic biology.
My first peek into the wine world came while I was working at an independent environmental chemistry lab and was asked to fill in for a co-worker in the wine division. That experience really piqued my interest.
Two years later, I became a wine chemist at Meridian and later was promoted to laboratory enologist. Not too long after that, I realized I would need further education and so I returned to Cal Poly to pursue a Master’s of Science degree while working as lab manager and production winemaker at Courtside Cellars.
Once I received my advanced degree, I was able to hit the ground running and get some pivotal, career shaping experience at Scheid Vineyards and Wild Horse Winery & Vineyards. I officially joined The Prisoner Wine Company as director of Winemaking in 2016 and it has been such an exciting experience that has really allowed me to grow as a winemaker.
How have you or your company influenced the industry in the last five years? What are key accomplishments?
Our namesake wine, The Prisoner Red Blend, anchors our portfolio and has consistently remained the #1 luxury red blend, really resurging the public’s interest in the category. Beyond The Prisoner, our winemaking team works very hard to continually create new innovative blends using unique varietals sourced from our family of growing partners.
We’ve had two very exciting releases within the last five years. Last year, we debuted Unshackled, an accessibly priced collection of wines consisting of a rosé, cabernet sauvignon and red blend.
Just this fall, we introduced two new Napa Valley wines under our iconic “The Prisoner” label: The Prisoner Chardonnay and The Prisoner Cabernet Sauvignon.
I worked closely with my team to ensure the new wines in The Prisoner family all honor the untraditional blending style and quality that our fans expect. Plus, now more people than ever can experience what makes The Prisoner so special.
Another standout accomplishment was opening our tasting lounge in 2018, which was a game-changer for Napa Valley. Our goal for the space was to create a home for this brand that physically embodies its untraditional, edgy, and artistic nature (which I think we did!). It was really thrilling to offer this new, contemporary winetasting experience to visitors.
What changes have you noticed in your industry in the last five years, and how have you and/or your company moved to capitalize on or adjust to those changes?
Looking at the success of The Prisoner and our larger portfolio of blends, I’ve noticed that consumers are more adventurous and willing to try new things.
There are also a lot of resources available now that allow consumers to deepen their knowledge of wine, ultimately making them more willing to spend money on a quality bottle or brand. That being said, it can be intimidating walking into a wine shop, so I think people are generally looking for a bottle that is not only approachable but enticing.
How has the pandemic affected your business? What has been the impact of restrictions on visitors, closure of restaurants and bars, surge in online shopping, and rise in digital consumer experiences and marketing?
The tasting room has been closed or operating on a restricted basis for much of the year, so we’ve pivoted to virtual experiences as well as limited in-person tasting reservations.
Our team’s number one priority is the health and safet of our staff and guests, so we’ve been abiding by local safety protocols and pivoting our programs however we can.
Our online business has been booming due to the overall caution around shopping in person. We’re seeing great growth across our wines sold through our website and ecommerce platforms like Drizly.
Which of your adjustments and initiatives do you think you’ll continue past the pandemic, and why?
We’ll likely continue some of our virtual offerings even after the pandemic. Our virtual tastings and pairing videos allow us to connect with fans around the world who can’t travel to the winery in person. The virtual pivot has allowed additional fans to experience the winery for the first time, just in a more modern way.
How are the North Bay wildfires and power shut-offs affecting the outlook for your business?
The wildfires and power shut offs have been challenging for everyone in the wine country community, but we’re inspired by how everyone pulled together to help one another.
The health and safety of our employees and guests are our primary focus, and we remain committed to producing only the best quality California wines. We’re lucky to have an incredible family of grower partners, with whom we work closely year-round to source the best fruit for our wines to ensure consistent character and quality.]