house wines

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Yesterday I had a chance to sit down with Precept Brands Founder/CEO Andrew Browne at the company’s North Lake Union (Seattle) headquarters. Precept is certainly the fastest-growing and most youth-oriented big wine company in the Northwest – founded less than a decade ago, and on track to produce 750,000 cases (across multiple brands) this year.

I will have an extensive interview with Andrew in an upcoming issue of Vineyard & Winery Management, but I wanted to take just one of his comments and riff on it today, as well as look at some of the latest releases from Precept.

“We’ve done everything completely backwards,” Browne cheerfully admitted. I was asking about how he’d approached the challenge of building Precept and coming so far so fast. “We started with nothing,” he continued, “then built facilities, and now we’re finishing with vineyards. Usually you start with the vineyard, then build a winery, and then make a brand. So we’ve gone bass-ackwards.”

Interesting approach. Certainly there are hundreds of mini-wineries that use a similar approach. They rent space in an existing winery or incubator, often a place where they are employed as an assistant winemaker or cellarmaster. They arrange for some grapes, again, it may be as simple as taking some surplus from the host winery. They make wine, buy a few barrels, and limit their financial investment to the cost of bottling and packaging. Not that it’s easy, but it allows under-funded startups to get the ball rolling. And they are only making a few barrels, so their first release may be as little as a couple hundred cases of wine.

The difference with Precept is that they have done it on a grand scale. Yes, there are other “négociant” projects in Washington – it’s hard to resist when so much good juice is available. But Precept is not, as Browne adamantly insists, a négociant. And across the many Precept brands you will find some of the state’s best values. Not everything, to be sure, but with each new vintage, the percentage of success goes up, as does the QPR.

There are many who criticize Precept for being so aggressively a sales and marketing operation, but the fact is that there is no one else in the Northwest with an operation this substantial that is so tightly focused on varietal wines in the $6 to $15 categories. Which is where Washington (and Oregon even more so) need to put their growth if they want to become serious global players.

Here are a few new releases from Precept Brands that I particularly liked:

Ciao Bella 2009 Pinot Grigio ($13) – An easy drinking, fresh white wine with grapefruit and pear flavors front and center. There is a pleasing tartness, a hint of spritz, and a slight suggestion of balancing fruit sugar that plays well against the acidity.

Magnificent Wine Company 2007 Red Table Wine ($10) – This popular blend is mostly merlot, with syrah and cabernet sauvignon filling it out. Plenty of stuffing here, with the tannic structure of a pricier wine. Black cherry fruit, some well-modulated bark and herb, and even a bonus lick of licorice in the finish.

Washington Hills 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($10) – This brand was on the ropes when Precept acquired it a few years ago, but this new cab is quite fine. It’s hard to find a $10 cabernet with this much muscle and depth. Solid black cherry and cassis fruit anchors a wine with dark streaks of espresso, bitter chocolate and smoke.

Six Prong 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) – Precept recently acquired the Corus Brands portfolio, and along came this dark, tannic, five grape Bordeaux blend from a classic Washington vintage. The fruit is 100% Alder Ridge, with substantial black fruit flavors, fresh herbs, a hint of tomato leaf, and a streak of caramel.


scott e. said...

Why do WA and OR, in the general sense, need to become serious global players?

Dennis Schaefer said...

Do you not think some consumer confusion exists between who makes the House wines and the Charles Smith wines?

Paul in Boca said...

Washington Hills is one of the many "Winery Direct" products sold at Total Wine and More.

PaulG said...

Dennis, you are probably correct, but by and large I don't think that consumers pay much attention to the business dealings of wineries and the comings and goings of winemakers. It's what's in the bottle that most interests them. Scott, my short answer to your excellent question is that a rising tide floats all boats. Most major markets (including Manhattan) see almost no Washington wine at all.

Anonymous said...

Value...I think not. Cheap plonk with a cut throat attitude. Not a fan.

Anonymous said...

Charles Smith makes both wines!

Andy Plymale said...

Chas Smith sold his House to Precept

Anonymous said...

Charles Smith still owns 1/3 of the House Wines and is actively involved in the winemaking and promotion.

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