The head of Seattle-based Precept Wine said he hopes to boost the visibility of Idaho wine with the company's purchase of that state’s oldest and largest producer, Ste. Chapelle Winery. Privately-held Precept bought Ste. Chapelle from Ascentia Wine Estates for an undisclosed price, the company announced May 14.
“With its higher elevations, cool climate and good viticulture opportunities, Idaho’s untapped potential is unbelievable,” said Andrew Browne, Precept’s CEO, who started the company with the Baty family in 2003. “Sommeliers want to try new things. I’m optimistic that if we put the right stuff in the bottle, it will be a cool and intriguing story and we’ll put Idaho wine on the map.”
Founded in 1976 and located in the Snake River Valley AVA in southwest Idaho, Ste. Chapelle produces about 130,000 cases a year. It’s best known for its Riesling, off-dry whites and reds, and ice wines, generally priced in the $8 to $12 range and distributed nationally. Browne is familiar with the winery. The Baty family’s Corus Brands, which Browne headed, owned Ste. Chapelle before selling it to Constellation in 2001. Ascentia acquired it from Constellation in 2008, along with seven other wine brands.
Sonoma County-based Ascentia, which owns Geyser Peak and Atlas Peak, among other California properties, has been struggling. It’s reportedly in talks with E&J Gallo to sell its two Washington state brands, Columbia Winery and Covey Run. Last year, it sold Gary Farrell Winery and Buena Vista Winery. Ascentia did not return calls for comment.
The Ste. Chapelle acquisition gives Precept, Washington’s second-largest wine company, a portfolio of 13 core brands in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Australia. Precept owns more than 3,700 vineyard acres, mostly in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills AVA, and operates eight production facilities. It currently produces about 800,000 cases a year across all its brands.
Browne said his company would like to gradually increase Ste. Chapelle’s production to 300,000 cases, keeping the off-dry line of wines while creating a higher-tier series of drier wines, including Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. “I’m optimistic on the reds,” he said. With vineyard elevations ranging from 1,800 to 3,000 feet, “this red thing in Idaho is going to be silly fun.”
Precept will keep Ste. Chapelle’s winemaking team in place but have its other winemakers and growers collaborate with them, Browne said. He suggested a need for improvement in Ste. Chapelle’s product. “What’s in the bottle now isn’t what we’ll deliver with the 2012 vintage,” he said.
Ste. Chapelle and two Washington wineries Precept recently acquired, Canoe Ridge and Sagelands, “were tired brands that weren’t being aggressively marketed,” said Allen Shoup, CEO of Seattle-based Long Shadows Vintners and former head of Stimson Lane wine group. “It’s good for everyone in the state when a financially strong, sophisticated company like Precept takes control and ensures they are marketed nationally and internationally.”
Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank’s Wine Group in St. Helena, said the Ste. Chapelle purchase is a good deal for Precept if only because it gives the company capacity to produce more wine at a time of a looming production shortage on the West Coast. “This is the right time for this kind of purchase,” he said. “The need is there for grape supplies.”
Browne said the purchase is in line with Precept’s history of taking good brands, “dusting them off,” and raising their performance. “We’re going to invest a ton of dough, do the right thing with the winemakers and the facilities, and make great wine,” he said. “Idaho has the same potential Washington had 20 years ago.”