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Precept Wine

Under the radar, but very much on target

By Ronald Holden

Precept Wine? Never seen that name on the shelf, have you? But you have seen brands owned by Precept: Waterbrook and Canoe Ridge from Washington, Shingleback from Australia, Ste. Chapelle from Idaho, Gruet from New Mexico. Wine from Oregon, wine in boxes and cans, too. You've seen them even if you're buying "house wine" from Costco, Whole Foods, Kroger (QFC, Fred Meyer), Trader Joe's, or Aldi.

Waterbrook winery

Without fanfare, Precept Wine, founded here in Seattle just 15 years ago, has become the largest privately-owned wine company in the Northwest. (Chateau Ste. Michelle, the region's largest-4,000 acres, 8.5 million cases shipped, $700 million in revenue-is owned by Altria, a $25-billion, publicly-traded tobacco conglomerate.) Although most of the wine business thrives on glitz and glamour, Precept wines are not marketed for their allure or prestige. "We went counter to what a lot of wineries did," says Precept co-founder Andrew Browne. "They went super-premium, and we took the middle of the road."

Browne, born in Spokane, teamed up with businessman Dan Baty, whose investments before 2000 had mostly been in the healthcare industry. "Stick with me," Baty told Browne. "You'll learn a lot more than you would with a Harvard MBA." Baty and Browne invested in a score of wineries that might have sunk had Precept not rescued them. Indeed, Precept today farms grapes across eastern Washington, Oregon's Willamette Valley, Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, New Mexico's arid southwest, and Australia's McLaren Vale. It employs a dozen winemakers at eight wine-making facilities and sells two dozen labels in addition to its custom-bottling business.

When it comes time to harvest in the Columbia Valley, Precept has invested in three half-million-dollar mechanical harvesters. "They pay for themselves," says VP for vineyards Dave Minick. Even assuming he could find the field crews, it takes a skilled picker a full day to harvest one ton of Cabernet Sauvignon gapes. And a single acre of vines at Waterbrook Winery's 160-acre estate vineyard outside Walla Walla, should yield four to five tons of grapes. The math is simple: a machine requires one operator and replaces a crew of 120 pickers. Furthermore, the harvesting machine starts at midnight (when grapes are cooling down) and can chug through 40 acres by daylight.

The German-designed machine can harvest an acre of grapes in as little as 11 minutes. As it straddles the vines, it reaches into the leaf canopy with gentle rubberized fingers to dislodge the ripest grapes. Earlier harvesting machines would shake the entire vine; the latest generation transports fruit via the machine's custom-fitted de-stemmer straight into a built-in hopper that holds three tons of grapes. What's left on the vine is the cluster's "skeleton," or rachis. The grapes in the hopper are in pristine condition: no bruises, no MOG (leaves, stems or extraneous "material other than grapes"). Every ten minutes the driver empties the machine's hopper into a bin pulled by a waiting tractor; the pristine, freshly picked grapes can reach the winery within minutes.

"We can process up to 300 tons a day if we have the tank space available," says John Freeman, Waterbrook's winemaker, "and we have done so many times." On a normal day, though, tank space permitting, the crew sees 8-10 trucks in a day, or 150-200 tons of grapes at the loading dock.

America's thirst for premium wine (more than $8 a bottle) is increasing, and wine producers like Precept are happy to put affordable bottles on wine lists and retail shelves. The competition is not so much domestic producers of bulk wine like Gallo as it is wines from South America. "In Chile and Argentina," Minick says, "field workers are paid $9 a day." (Workers here are paid $11/hour.)

Over the past few decades, as consumers developed more sophisticated palates and turned away from bland wines, the copywriters began turning winemakers from faceless production managers with degrees in science and enology into passionate artists who "crafted" wines like sculptors. That characterization might have stoked a few egos, but it ignored the underlying basis of the wine industry: it's a farm crop. Yes, wine really is "made in the vineyard." If it must be "crafted" in the cellars, beware: somebody's manipulating the juice. But the machine-harvested grapes arrive in ideal conditions, so no need for manipulation. "It's our efficiency of operations that lets us make affordable wine," says Browne.

And affordable wine is what both wineries and restaurants would like to see. In the '90s, family-owned wineries were able to get about 30 percent of total sales from restaurants. But the trends went the wrong way. In 1995, there were 2,600 wineries and 3,000 distributors in the United States. By 2016, according to Silicon Valley Bank, there were 8,000 wineries and 700 distributors. In the ensuing 20 years, distributors realized they had a customer base of large buyers who wanted more uniform offerings. There were "too many wineries and too few distributors, so something had to give," says Rob McMillan of SVB. Corporate restaurants like Appleby's and Sizzler have "corporate" wine lists. They capitalize on their buying power to negotiate lower prices from their vendors, from linen supply to kitchen staples. That purchasing power extends to wine, but the corporate buyers are reluctant to deal with little guys.

So here was another opportunity for Precept, with a range of moderately-priced offerings and the ability to customize its blends and labels. One good example: creating a juicy red and a bright white for PF Chang, the chain of pan-Asian restaurants. The white was a blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Marsanne. The red (harder to get right) ended up as 80% Merlot rounded out with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Screw tops avoid tableside fussing. The wines carry a custom label, too: an ampersand that symbolizes the partnership between Precept and PF Chang, as well as the pairing of Asian food and wine. The new wines quickly shot up to the top of the company sales chart.

Mary Melton, Beverage Dir., PF Chang, and Andrew Browne

Precept has done similar projects for over 20 clients, from the Aldi supermarkets on the east coast to Costco's Kirkland private-label wine brand. Total Wine & More? Their top-selling brand is Radius, produced and bottled by Precept.

Photos courtesy of Ronald Holden

May 2018


 Ronald Holden is a Northwest native who's been writing about local food for over 40 years. His latest book, Forking Seattle, is available on Amazon.com. He blogs at Cornichon.org and contributes often to Forbes.com.


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