A recent issue of Wine Business Monthly listed the Top 30 U.S. wine companies, and all of a sudden, little old Washington state is loaded with them. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which includes Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Snoqualmie and numerous others, is now the seventh largest wine company in the country.
Several other big corporations, including Constellation Brands (No. 3), Diageo (No. 8), Ascentia (No. 13) and Foley (No. 24) also have significant holdings in Washington. But the real surprise is Precept Brands, which just missed cracking the Top 20. (It’s No. 21.)
Based in Seattle, Precept was founded barely six years ago, but now includes a dizzying number of brands (most from Washington) following a spate of acquisitions and joint venture agreements. CEO Andrew Browne has quickly taken Precept from its start as a négociant (essentially, a company that purchases finished wines and bottles them under its own labels) to a fully developed, bricks-and-mortar organization with three production facilities and vineyards in development.
The largest and most impressive facility is the Walla Walla Wineworks, nearing completion on Highway 12 a few miles west of town. This is the new headquarters for the Waterbrook winery, as well as a production and visitors’ center for several other Precept brands.
Precept’s mainstream lineup incorporates four price-driven product tiers. What Browne refers to as his “extreme value” ($6 and less) wines are labeled Pine & Post. These are solid efforts, with occasional bursts of brilliance. Current vintages include an excellent 2006 chardonnay, a solidly crafted 2006 merlot, and an equally well-done 2006 cabernet. At $6 or less, you won’t find better-made varietals.
A step up is the value portfolio (priced from $7 to $12), including the mainstream Waterbrook, Washington Hills, Avery Lane, Willow Crest and Magnificent Wine Company wines. The Magnificent portfolio, which is an extension of Charles Smith’s original House Wines, includes wines labeled House, Steak and Fish. Washington Hills, which had underperformed in the past, has put forth a strong lineup, especially the Summit Reserve wines, priced at $10.
Further up the price ladder are the premium value ($13 to $20) offerings, including the more expensive offerings from Waterbrook, the Apex II wines, more from Magnificent and a Bordeaux blend called Pendulum.
At the top, at least in terms of price, are the ultra-premium ($20 and more) wines of Apex Cellars, Waterbrook reserves, Sol Duc and Browne Family.
Why so many brands, labels and projects? “We’re good at making packages, working with distributors, going out there and getting the public to try the wines,” explains Browne. “It’s really hard for anyone to do the whole process alone; farming, making, selling, branding and doing the PR for the wine. We’re finding people that do a remarkable job with some portion, but bash their heads against the wall talking to distributors.”
Waterbrook, which was the fourth winery to be founded in Walla Walla in the modern era, has long been a personal favorite. After the original owners split up, the winery was sold to Precept two years ago. Browne immediately invested in the new, 55,000-square foot winery, with room for 10,000 barrels, 60-plus tanks (ranging from 1,000 gallons on up to 30,000), and a 300,000 case annual capacity. The visitor center is slated to open later this spring.
The lineup of Waterbrook wines has (inevitably it seems) expanded. The value tier best reflects the winery’s history as Walla Walla’s leading purveyor of well-made, value-priced wines. It includes chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot gris, merlot-cabernet and a rosé, all priced between $10 and $12.
Mélange began as Waterbrook’s “kitchen sink” red blend; it is now made in both a red and a white, called Noir and Blanc, with new versions due this spring. The Mélange Blanc sports a floral, dusty nose, a burst of citrusy lime and orange fruit and a juicy finish. The intriguing blend is 30 percent gewürztraminer, 26 percent riesling, 10 percent viognier, 10 percent chardonnay, 7 percent pinot gris, 10 percent sauvignon blanc and 7 percent muscat canelli.
The Mélange Noir is fragrant with inviting scents of milk chocolate and spicy berry. Here the blend is 40 percent merlot, 31 percent cabernet sauvignon, 15 percent sangiovese, 13 percent cabernet franc and 1 percent “various.” Both these wines are priced at $15.
The Waterbrook reserve wines, attractively packaged in longer, slimmer bottles, include a chardonnay, a cabernet sauvignon, a merlot and a syrah. These compete successfully with comparable Washington wines priced in the low $20s. Best are the syrah and the merlot.
At the top of the Waterbrook lineup is a Meritage, priced at $50. Fruit is sourced from name vineyards such as Red Mountain, Loess and Stonetree. It’s a Bordeaux mix of 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 17 percent petit verdot, 16 percent cab franc, 12 percent merlot and 10 percent malbec.
Maybe I’m just remembering the great and generous Waterbrook reds of days gone by, but at the moment, this tightly wrapped effort seems more of a puzzle than a pleasure.