Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Prisoner, bondage and niche marketing

The fetishist's favorite
Many people in the wine world are constantly surprised (and jealous) at the success of The Prisoner, which is basically a $35 version of Gallo Hearty Burgundy.

I don't mean to insult The Prisoner. The Gallos know what they're doing, and until ZAP made Zinfandel popular, they had access to some of the same great old Zinfandel vineyards that Prisoner winemaker Dave Phinney buys fruit from today.

But what really is the difference?

Both wines are blends of fruit; Gallo's is superior in that they farm some of the vineyards themselves, while The Prisoner is superior in that at least 85% of the juice comes from Napa Valley.

The taste profile is different. Gallo Hearty Burgundy is going for a lighter, food-friendlier style. The Prisoner uses oak chips and tannic varieties like Cabernet to make it heavier and more New World.

The Prisoner is Zinfandel-based, whereas Gallo Hearty Burgundy uses whatever red grapes can be had.

The Prisoner is $35; Gallo Hearty Burgundy is $4.

James Laube likes The Prisoner, while I'll bet he hasn't tasted Gallo Hearty Burgundy in decades. So that's a big difference.

But we're still talking about a New World red blend that, at $35, is not cheap. It's not appreciably better  than 100 other $35 New World reds (even using Laube's ratings), and its taste profile is artificially created, not a product of terroir. So why does it have so many fans?

I think we're all ignoring something that makes people uncomfortable: the bondage community.

Living in San Francisco, I'm reminded every year how large the bondage community is during the Folsom Street Fair. Men fly in from around the country to parade around in leather restraints as each others' slaves. I used to go to watch the spectacle every year, but you know, if you're not really into men wearing nothing but bicycle chains paying someone to spank them, you lose interest after a while.

The Machine pays a visit to Brian Wilson
But I read Dan Savage. It's not just gay men who are into bondage: there are plenty of straight men and some straight women who enjoy bondage play. Apparently it's one of the most popular and organized of all sexual fetishes; that's why it's "the bondage community."

BDSM.com claims to have 2.3 million members -- and that's not even counting Brian Wilson's neighbor "The Machine."

Let's face it; if your personal life revolved around dressing up like Wilson's friend, why wouldn't you want to drink "The Prisoner"? Or perhaps be forced to drink it?

When you finish wincing, consider the possibilities. There are hundreds of small wineries struggling to peddle their wine in this economy. Perhaps all they have to do is find the right fetish community and advertise it on the label.

And you wonder why Barefoot Cellars sells so well ...

28 comments:

Martin D said...

Thanks for the early morning levity! Great post!

Anonymous said...

Don't hate the player. Hate the game.

W. Blake Gray said...

I don't hate anyone! Well, maybe Dick Cheney.

Anonymous said...

very questionable "fact" findings.

it should also be said that both brands/companies have achieved more success than most producers could ever hope for. "strap" that on and think about it.

W. Blake Gray said...

Do you have a name? If not, I can't respect your opinion.

Scott LD said...

Mr. Gray, once again you have managed to amuse me. I'm guessing that was the point of this article? Thanks for bringing 'the machine' back to life. After an amazing SF Giants World Series domination - as Mr. Wilson obviously preferred it - I appreciate your tying this connection. Cheers!

gdfo said...

The label is a turn off. So is the price for the content.

Seann said...

Funny stuff. While I haven't had Gallo Hearty Burgundy in quite a while, I'll bet it is a much better bargain in a quality sense than just about anything in that price range.

To gdfo, the label & price/quality ratio may turn you off, but at many thousands of cases, someone likes it.

And I love Dick Cheney.

Anonymous said...

Fun read about branding and at this time I'm trying buy only small and local.
jo6pac

Anonymous said...

Do you have any proof the wine is made with oak chips? I would disagree, knowing what barrels are used for The Prisoner. I would think Gallo's $4.00 bottle was the one using oak alternatives...

Paul said...

Amazing is how so many in the wine industry assume that everyone who drinks and appreciates wine in their lives is highly interested in wines that express terroir or believe that wines which do not are of any less moral value.

W. Blake Gray said...

Paul: I agree with you that most consumers probably don't care about terroir. But that strengthens my point about The Prisoner's popularity: if you don't care that it's from Napa Valley, then it's just one of many, many 90-point-plus red wines from anywhere in the world. So why buy it over all the others, especially when others are cheaper?

Anon: Re the barrels, do tell -- what barrels are used? If you're someone in a position to know, reveal yourself and I'll bow to your authority.

Dario said...

I do love The Prisoner, can't say I care where the grapes come from. If you want terroir, that leads you to certain producers and bottlings. I prefer a consistently good tasting wine to the vagaries of terroir. If some makes a good wine what does it matter where it comes from?

I did try Hearty Burgundy not too long ago. My recollection is that it was a typical low acid, flabby, low tannin wine with a burnt rubber and medicinal nose.

IMHO

Adam Mahler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
W. Blake Gray said...

Hey Adam, thanks for visiting! Your post is what inspired me to write this one. I thought your analysis was really interesting -- but you didn't address the bondage angle, and I really do think that's important.

Just look at the numbers: 2.3 registered members of only one bondage site; 70,000 cases per year.

BTW, I wouldn't worry about the few negative comments you got. You should see what I get ...

W. Blake Gray said...

Oops, meant to write "2.3 million." If there are really 2.3 members, then they're also into dismemberment.

Adam Mahler said...

Gray-I didn't even put 2 and 2 together-Thanks for reading and linking. Your bondage take is hilarious and yet, I bet everyone paused to say "wait, seriously?". Although, living in a flyover states likely limits my exposure to such seemingly open fetishes.

Anonymous said...

There is a barrel that Seguin Moreau makes called the U-Stave...check it out!

Kelly said...

nice teva sandals

Cabfrancophile said...

Funny post. Not sure what Anon is worked up over. What do they make of this wine now, 70k cases? If the wine matches the marketing, sure, $35 is fine. But this looks like a classic ramp-up strategy to cash in on multiple years of critical success. Usually quadrupling production in a short period of time is not a sign of a quality. Perhaps good fruit sources are available cheap now, but color me skeptical.

latchkeykid said...

Makes perfect sense now, thanks. Similar story for Menage-a-Trois?

W. Blake Gray said...

Yes and no: I know Menage a Trois was named to get people to buy it with a smirk. But the big difference is that there's a common male fantasy rarely realized, whereas the bondage thing is a commonly realized fantasy rarely spoken about publicly.

El Jefe said...

With a brand name like Twisted Oak I think we are already there...

My Sediments Exactly said...

If Life is a Cabernet, then Sex is a Zin!

wineopeners said...

What a funny post, entertaining and educational as always..
Interesting comment from Dario re: "can't say I care where the grapes come from... I prefer a consistently good tasting wine to the vagaries of terroir."
I respect his opinions, it's opinions such as those that made Gallo et al so successful in the large-market wine biz..
Cheers..

wineopeners said...

What a funny post, entertaining and educational as always..
Interesting comment from Dario re: "can't say I care where the grapes come from... I prefer a consistently good tasting wine to the vagaries of terroir."
I respect his opinions, it's opinions such as those that made Gallo et al so successful in the large-market wine biz..
I'd prefer something from grapes grown where they belong, not where some marketing guy figures he can get something drinkable that makes money
IMHO..
Cheers..

Serena said...

This is exactly why Menage a Trois was/is so popular...

Todd said...

My suspicion has been that "The Prisoner" label has some of the look and feel of many of the Sine Qua Non labels (right down to the definite article "the" in the name), and this attracts buyers who perhaps at a subliminal level think of SQN and then are attracted to the wines.