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Alex Hare, of Southern Glazer Wine & Spirits, and Sal Ercolano, owner of Seasalt Seafood and Steak, set a new record for consecutive wine dinners with the popular Prisoner brand from Napa Valley. Photo by Rico Cassoni
ColumnsTaste of Wine

Taste of Wine: The Prisoner — a wine of elegance & balance — sets record at Seasalt

As 2017 finished up as the busiest yet for wine events in Southern California, I happened to be wrapping up an assignment at Seasalt Seafood and Steak in Del Mar when the owner, the always positive Sal Ercolano, bounced over to my table and handed me the lineup card for all his wine dinners in 2018. “What do you think of these dates?” he asked.

As a columnist who craves information well ahead of my deadlines, I could have planted a kiss on his cheek. Twelve top-shelf wineries and wine countries, all laid out with enough to make a winemaker proud in planning his next harvest.

After a running start for this year, with wine dinners by DAOU, Wild Horse and Pahlmeyer proving successful, no one could have predicted that the next winery on the Seasalt lineup would go where no winery has. 

When word got out as the date closed in on the event, the phones lit up and the Thursday, April 26, reserved for The Prisoner Wine Company, quickly sold out. Never one to stare in the face of an opportunity, Ercolano did the unlikely when he told me, “I’m going to open up the restaurant for a Friday and Saturday Prisoner Wine dinner, three consecutive nights for this elegant and balanced wine. Nobody has done this. I will do it.” All three nights sold out for this iconic blend. Chef Hilario, who always steps up to any culinary challenge, must have felt a certain kinship to the dinner’s main entrée, Drunk Ribs, a slow cooked short rib with lots of red wine reduction.

Dave Phinney was reluctantly talked into taking winemaking courses in Italy in the 1990s. He later turned the Prisoner red blend of Napa Valley into one of the most successful wines ever. Courtesy of Orin Swift

Dave Phinney can be credited with discovering the blend based on Zinfandel and elements of a Bordeaux mix that excited a wine-loving public, just as the new century produced new ways of making wine. The Prisoner went from 385 cases to 85,000 cases in 10 years. It was rocket fuel and we all wanted a bottle. Phinney called the winery Orin Swift after his mother and dad’s names. Recently, Phinney sold his interest in The Prisoner brand to The Prisoner Wine Company, then later sold Orin Swift to E. & J. Gallo for a price not disclosed by either party. Phinney remains as chief winemaker.

The Prisoner brand, which is now owned by Constellation, was the playmaker at each of Seasalt’s three dinners. The 2016 vintage ($41.99) is made from Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Charbono. Tasting notes include Bing cherry, dark chocolate, clove and roasted fig. Other wines that the Prisoner Wine Company brought to the table included Thorn Merlot, a very smooth flavored cherry-based wine. The finish is long with balanced acidity ($25). Cuttings Cab, is inspired by the age-old method of using cuttings from superior sites for the propagation of new wines.

A deep intense flavor adds richness to the Cab, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Zinfandel ($30).  Saldo Zinfandel is close to the Prisoner in taste and style, this is a combination of 85 percent Zinfandel, 15 percent Petite Sirah and Syrah ($20).

The next celebrated wine dinner event at Seasalt will be Justin wines from Paso Robles, Thursday June 21 and Friday June 22 at 6 p.m. with Sommelier and wine educator Jim Gerakaris from Justin and Landmark wines. You will not want to miss this special wine event. Justin reached legendary heights with its Isosceles blend and other popular wines.  Complex aromatic wines are a fixture at Justin.

Cost is $65 for a five-course dinner with five wines. Contact Seasalt for your place at (858) 755-7100. Visit the website at 

Wine Bytes

• The Barrel Room in Rancho Bernardo will be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Trefethen winery in Napa Valley, at 6 p.m. June 5, with a five-course wine dinner. Cost of $80 per guest includes all the wine and food.  New releases and classic wines will be opened. Go to

• Carruth Cellars Urban winery, Solana Beach has a Pinot Party 6 to 8 p.m. June 8. Free admission with 30 percent off all Pinot Noirs. Food truck and lots of live music. Details, call (858) 846-9463.

• Europa Village winery in Temecula presents “Wholly Toledo” a music and wine pairing dinner transporting you to Toledo Spain and the world of Don Quixote, the man from La Mancha, at 6 p.m. June 14. Four-course gourmet dinner. Tickets are $89 each. Go to