Washington state's third-largest wine company, Precept Brands, is holding steady despite the economic downturn, producing good, inexpensive wines across a wide range of brands, including newer acquisitions Magnificent Wine Co., Apex and Apex II, Washington Hills, Waterbrook and Willow Crest.

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There’s a dearth of cheap, good Washington wine in the marketplace, and Andrew Browne is a man with a mission: find it, make it, sell it.

The ebullient CEO of Precept Brands believes that, despite a global downturn in wine sales, his company is still “in really good shape.”

“We’ve got a nice, solid base of business, and it’s growing incrementally within a realistic pattern,” he explains. Browne and his partners founded Precept five years ago, and have built it into the third-largest wine company in the state, with production facilities in Grandview, Prosser and Walla Walla, and vineyards in development.

A stable of house brands established, Browne has been on an acquisitions binge in the past couple years, adding Magnificent Wine Co., Apex and Apex II, Washington Hills, Waterbrook and Willow Crest to the Precept portfolio, some as joint ventures, others as outright purchases.

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They join Precept labels almost too numerous to name: Rainier Ridge and Barrelstone, Sockeye and Pavin & Riley, Shimmer and Avery Lane, Sweet Pea and The Originals.

Why so many brands? It boils down to this: Precept has set out to develop a diverse lineup designed to over-deliver on quality, particularly on the cheap side.

“We try to maintain what I call extreme value in Washington state,” Browne says.

Some of the early Precept efforts were less than stellar, but these days quality improvements are tangible across the board. The strategy: Find people who do the viticulture and/or the winemaking well. Let them do it, give them the technical support they need, then let Precept do what it does best.

“We’re good at making packages, working with distributors, going out there and getting the public to try the wines,” says Browne. “It’s really hard for anyone to do the whole process alone.”

At the value end of the spectrum are such Precept brands as Pine & Post (all $6), Washington Hills (all $7), Washington Hills Summit Reserves ($12 except the riesling, which is $8), and the Magnificent Wine Co. “House” wines (all $10) made by Charles Smith. Current offerings are highly recommended.

Pine & Post 2006 Chardonnay. Sharp, spicy, with the crisp flavor of green apples. All-purpose pasta and poultry wine.

Pine & Post 2006 Merlot. Clean black-cherry fruit, firm acidity, light but supple tannins, long, refreshing finish.

Pine & Post 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. Cassis and tar, spice and herb complement tart, berry-flavored fruit. Has the heft of far more expensive wines.

Washington Hills 2007 Sauvignon Blanc. Fresh and varietal, this juicy effort bring flavors of pear, lemon and grass; plenty of acid and good persistence.

Washington Hills 2006 Chardonnay. Crisp, well-crafted, with a bit more flesh and fruit (melon, pear and orange) than the Pine & Post chard.

Washington Hills 2007 Merlot. Fresh and peppery, brimming with berry, cherry and cassis fruit; perfect structure and weight.

Washington Hills 2007 Summit Reserve Chardonnay. Another step up in quality; mineral, citrus rind and spice added to fresh apple and pear fruit.

Washington Hills 2007 Summit Reserve Merlot. Juicy and bright, loaded with young, grapey, berry flavors.

Washington Hills 2007 Summit Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. A young, juicy cab loaded with boysenberry and black cherry fruit, a streak of licorice, hints of tobacco and vanilla wafer.

Washington Hills 2007 Summit Reserve Late Harvest Riesling. This is not a dessert style. Lush, bright fruit balances the sweetness against firm acids, yet the alcohol is just 10 percent.

House Wine 2007 White. An aromatic blend of chardonnay, muscat and riesling.

Fish House 2007 Chardonnay. Crisp and lean, a classic oyster wine.

House Wine 2006 Red. An all-purpose pizza wine.

Steak House 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. Shows lots of vanilla; tobacco accents.

Paul Gregutt is the author of “Washington Wines & Wineries — the Essential Guide.” He is also Pacific Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine. Contact him at paulgwine@me.com.

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