Much like a good cabernet sauvignon, Andrew Browne, CEO of Precept Wine and principal of Browne Family Vineyards, is relaxed, intelligent, confident, and bold. Even though he’s one of the biggest names in the Pacific Northwest wine scene—Precept Wine sold 300,000 cases in its first five years of operation, becoming the second largest wine company in the Northwest—Andrew is incredibly down-to-earth, engaging, and eager to share his wine knowledge (and excitement) with the community.
In town last weekend as an “honorary winemaster” for a wine charity event to benefit pediatric research and care at the University of Minnesota, he took a few minutes out of his schedule to chat with Minnesota Monthly regarding his impressions of Minnesota, how he got his start in wine, and the Precept Wine varietals that will be poured at GrillFest May 17 and 18 at the Depot.
Q. How did your relationship with wine start?
A. It all started with my grandfather, William Bitner Browne. In the 30s, he studied at the University of Bordeaux. While he was there, he became a Francophile … and really got passionate about wine. I stayed with my grandparents in Ohio for two weeks every summer. I can remember sitting at my grandparents’ dining room table when I was 5 or 6 years old, and getting to taste a tiny amount of wine with water added to it. Wine was always a part of my grandfather’s life. It’s just one of those things that stuck with me—my grandfather was my hero (he also went to Harvard Law School and later helped liberate the French from Nazi control during World War II as an officer in the OSS—the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA). Wine was in my thought process at a very young age because of him.
Andrew got his start in wine in sales—Southern Wine & Spirits, Chateau St. Jean, Associated Vintners, Corus Brands, and Constellation—before moving to the executive side of the business.
2002 – Andrew Browne & his mentor Dan Baty form a partnership and combine 50 years of Washington winemaking & branding to launch Precept Wine Brands
2003-10 – Precept Wine develops into the largest privately owned wine company in the Northwest, through key acquisitions and organic growth (Waterbrook, House Wine, Washington Hills, Canyon Ranch, Willow Crest, Apex Cellars)
2011 – Precept Wine acquires Canoe Ridge & Sagelands
2012 – Precept Wine acquires Ste. Chappelle in Idaho
2013 – Precept acquires Yamhela Vineyard to focus on premium Pinot Noir production; Browne Family Vineyards opens tasting room in Walla Walla, Wash.
Precept, which has spent an estimated $100 million on acquisitions in the past decade, is the largest privately held wine business in the Pacific Northwest. Precept owns 4,270 acres, seven wineries and 37 labels across Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Last year, it produced 950,000 cases of wine. Precept wines are sold throughout the United States and in Canada, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
Q. Is great wine made in the vineyard or the winery?
A. Great wine is unequiovocally made in the vineyard, you can make great grapes lesser in the winery, but you can’t take lesser grapes and make them great. That’s why my family wine is Browne Family Vineyards. The quality of wine is so dependent on what you do out there in the vineyards—working with Mother Nature to enhance the quality of those grapes.
Q. What did you think about our wine community when you talked with Minnesotans during Winefest?
A. This is a sophisticated wine community; a community that is very well-educated about wine. They know what they like, and they tell you politely what they don’t like. They know Northwest wine, they know Washington and Oregon, they know the grape varietals. There’s an exciting energy here. I also think there are a lot of similarities between Minneapolis and Portland, not just with personality types but also with your beer scene. People talk about their local taprooms and breweries with a great sense of pride. It’s become part of Minnesota’s DNA.
Q. How did you stand out from the competition when you were marketing Precept Wine and Browne Family Vineyards?
A. All wineries have to define themselves, we don’t have a central valley where we can produce on a per-acre basis. We have to focus on the quality side of the business. I think that rings true in both Oregon and Washington. We had great early support from restaurants. They grabbed onto our products—we have wonderful flavors but there’s also a nice acidity to our wines. Restaurateurs jumped onto our bandwagon because of the wonderful marriage between food and wine. Having a glass allows people to try the wine before they purchase a bottle. We have had a very steady rise on a tide. The tide continues to rise. Every day people find us or learn about us and want to try us.
Q. What are your thoughts about Idaho Wine Country?
A. Idaho reminds me so much of Washington state, but at a higher elevation—1,500 to 3,000 feet higher (comparable to those in the high mountain deserts of the famed Rioja region in Spain). Where we are in Idaho with viticulture is where Washington was 15 or 20 years ago. There’s a lot of potential. What we’re putting in the bottle is absolutely fantastic wine. It really is world-class. The diurnal temperature variation—the difference between the highs of the day and the cools of the night—can be 50-degree swings. It’s like the crispness of an apple, it’s really the same concept with grapes. With the right temperature, we can lock in the freshness of the grapes and you can taste the difference in the wine.
Q. What advice do you have for others who are trying to follow their passion in the wine industry?
A. I don’t know that it’s industry-related, but finding your passion is a wonderful thing. Don’t get blinded by your passion. Embrace it, but be realistic about what you’re getting into. A lot of people get very passionate about wine. I would say: Be sensible. People in Minnesota remind me of people in the Northwest, we’re sensible. Approach your passion, and bring your energy, but don’t blind yourself. The screwups in life have allowed me to have the perception that I have—when I do take risks, I know the ups and downs.
Q. In your opinion, how much of winemaking is risk-taking?
A. I think the greatest risk is with Mother Nature. There’s a definite science to winemaking, along with a passion and flair. Oregon wine country is in western Oregon, so the weather is similar to California, but in Washington and Idaho, we have to worry about spring frost, winter deep freezes, cold-climate viticulture/grape-growing, it’s very similar to what you experience in Minnesota. Weather patterns can turn an average growing season into a great one. Mother Nature can make or break a vintage.
Q. How do you personally figure out which wines you like?
A. I base it on the time of year, the food I’m eating, and the people I’m with. If it’s a hot day out there, I love rosés that we make with the Sangiovese grape. I also love crisp Sauvignon Blanc, drinking it gets me excited about summer. With salmon, I want a beautiful Pinot Noir. If I know the people I’m going to be with are passionate about cabernet, for example, I’ll try to find some cool cabernets, or maybe a Syrah.
Q. If you’re not drinking wine, what are you drinking?
A. Mainly beer. I’ll drink whiskey now and then, but beer really is so interesting to me. Spirits would be the third option. Other than that, sparkling water. In the summer, when it’s hot, I’ll take a bottle of Pellegrino and Sauvignon Blanc and mix them. It’s so refreshing.
Q. What wine will be poured during GrillFest? How would you describe it?
A. From the Browne Family Wine, the 2011 Tribute Red Blend—a blend of Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and a touch of Syrah. This wine is spectacular. We poured it May 10 at Winefest, and it was so enjoyable to have people come up to the table the second or third time and say, “This was the wine of the night for me.” It becomes even more special because it’s the Browne Tribute—the first red blend we make every year.
Finish this sentence: The best wine is … the one enjoyed with friends and family. You want wine to help you create experiences. It brings the story alive.