Browne Family Vineyards: It’s the Story About a Young Man
by the Name of Andrew Inspired by His Grandfather’s Love of Wine.
Winery now has tasting rooms in Walla Walla, Seattle, Tacoma and Bellevue, and a tasting room for Browne Family Spirits scheduled to open in Spokane in December.
By Mark Storer
Andrew Browne got his start in the wine business before he was even legally old enough to drink the product he was selling. Graduating college early, Browne was not quite 21 when he was hired by a wine distribution company, but had to wait until his actual 21st birthday to begin his job.
Subsequently working for years with companies like Southern Wine and Spirits, Chateau St. Jean and Constellation Brands, Browne’s experience led him to create Precept Wine in 2003. Since 2003, Precept has become the largest privately held wine producer in the Pacific Northwest and home to such brands as Waterbrook, Canoe Ridge, and eventually, Browne Family Vineyards.
Browne worked with co-founder Dan Baty, a man he refers to as his mentor, and other partners and associates, and branched out the company’s wine brands across the west from Washington to Oregon to Idaho and even south to New Mexico, where Gruet Winery produces unique sparkling and still wines.
Baty was the owner of Columbia Winery when Browne moved back to the Pacific Northwest from his time working with distributors in California. “We interlinked through me working for him as an employee and him as a proprietor.” That relationship began in 1995, and the two are still actively involved in Precept Wine’s operations.
Browne’s real impetus for the wine business, however, comes from his grandfather, William Bitner Browne. “He’s a real inspiration for me,” said Browne. “He was a great letter writer. You never got a birthday card from him, he wrote you a letter. The things I learned from him are more universal — how to live your life, the importance of family, what are you going to do in your career and all of that.”
Bitner, as Browne calls him, went to Europe before attending law school and wound up in France, where he eventually attended the University of Bordeaux and developed a passion for Bordeaux wines. After working as a counterintelligence officer in the U.S. Army in Germany during World War II, he came home to work as a lawyer and brought his passion for French wines with him, a passion he eventually shared with his grandson. “I didn’t necessarily know that I was going to stay in the wine business,” said Browne, “but the love of it was in my family and it got kind of interlaced with who we are and I knew I had a passion for it.”
Browne said his grandfather’s story, his influence on being the best at whatever he decided to do, is the beginning of his story and the cornerstone of why family is at the center of all he does.
Two years after Precept Wine was hatched, Browne Family Vineyards was born after Browne’s grandfather passed away. “When we were at his memorial service in Ohio, I asked my grandmother, my dad and my aunt if they would allow me to use the Browne family name,” Andrew explained. “It started with four barrels of Cabernet and I think they thought it was just going to be pretty minor. Fortunately, it’s evolved and people have enjoyed the product and it’s taken on a life of its own.”
Now 53, Browne still believes in that hard work and enterprise that built Precept and Browne Family Vineyards. Speaking from his home on Fox Island in Washington’s Puget Sound where he lives with his wife Courtney and three young children between 11 months and six-years old (he also has two older boys from a previous marriage), Browne was getting ready to go on the road yet again. “I’ve got a Tuesday flight to Dallas. Look, if you don’t get out there and tell your story…. it’s just something you have to do,” he said.
That attention to all of the moving parts of a large business is what Browne learned from his family and his mentors. His focus isn’t just on “growing the company,” it’s also on the quality of the wine, the quality of the people with whom he works and the quality of the experience that his customers have.
“When I look at business, it’s like traveling down a number of train tracks at the same time,” said Browne. “You hope everyone ends up at the final destination, but you definitely have to be doing a number of different things to accomplish what your overall hope is. The Browne Family wine story is one of incredible people with a passion who have all leaned in with me and my family, and helped create a community.”
Browne said that experience — giving people a chance to be together, enjoy their time with good wine and spirits, good food and a little escape — is at the core of what he hopes he’s created.
Perhaps it is no surprise then, that Andrew Browne and his team at Browne Family Vineyards have now ventured into making spirits. Browne says he and his team are bringing a “wine mindset” to producing spirits. “We’re talking to farmers all over eastern Washington,” he explained. “I’ve been wanting to do this for the last decade. Whether it’s wheat or rye or barley, or corn, we’re looking at local farmers, using local ingredients. It’s going to be a unique program, and we’re going to base it all out of Spokane.”
Browne grew up in Spokane, and while the epicenter of Browne Family Vineyards is in Walla Walla, its epicenter for spirits will be in Spokane and not just because it’s home. “My main reason for wanting to do this in Spokane is because we have the best water in the world there,” Browne said. “I know, it’s kind of a snarky thing to say, but the water is really great. When you go into our tasting room there, one of the first things you’re going to drink is the water.” The water comes from the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, discovered in 1895. It consistently exceeds all government water regulations.
Like all parts of Browne’s companies and projects, there is symbiosis in what he chooses to focus on and create. He’s fond of using Venn diagrams and he and his staff joke about his three circles talks. “We joke about the idea that if you meet in the middle with your three circles, you can do epic things,” Browne said. “For me, for our spirits, it’s the water, the ingredients we’re taking from these farms and then having a really good master distiller who knows what he’s doing. I think that’s a perfect scenario to make a really good product.”
Aaron Kleinhelter is the master distiller for the new project, and he comes from Kentucky’s bourbon country. Kleinhelter perfected his craft just two miles from the Jim Beam distillery, where he made small batch, high end spirits.
By the same token, winemaking at Browne Family Vineyards is run by John Freeman, a Napa Valley native who came to Browne from his acquisition of Waterbrook Winery. Kleinhelter came from Warrior Liquor, another acquisition. “I have a tendency to pick people and say, ‘that’s in your DNA’,” said Browne. “So John has Rutherford dust under his fingernails and Aaron has Kentucky whiskey in his blood.”
For Browne, Freeman and Kleinhelter working together is no just coincidence. “We wanted our wine company’s base to be in Walla Walla, and John was there, having come to Washington where he wanted to make wine after growing up and being trained in the Napa experience,” Browne said. “And so, I wanted to do distillation and wanted to do it in my hometown and I’ve got some ideas of how we do this with local farmers and everything and then Aaron comes from Warrior, which is right there. So, is that fate or karma? Well, it’s whatever you want to call it, but it works really well. I think what we’ve done in the wine space, we’re going to do in the spirits space.”
In the wine space, Browne Family Vineyards has accomplished a great deal in a relatively short time. In the nation’s second largest wine-growing state, Washington wineries have to make choices about how to overcome the “hump.” Getting wines from the eastern part of the state, where most of the wine grapes are grown, over the Cascade Mountains to the western part of the state and the Puget Sound region (where most of the population of the state lives) requires a bit of logistical planning. For Browne, that has meant having tasting rooms in Seattle, Tacoma, Walla Walla (where the winery is based) and a new tasting room just recently opened in Bellevue.
In addition, Browne Family Vineyards maintains five different wine clubs (two of them dedicated to red wines only) to provide customers with a variety of choices. “People have different economic levels. Not everyone who is passionate about wine has the ability to spend a lot of money, Browne explained. “So scalability on the customer side is important to us. So, we have a $20 bottle of wine that tastes really good. And we also have a $100 bottle of wine with my grandfather’s name on it that’s really good, too. We constantly talk about what we call QPR, or quality price ratio. If I’m selling you a $20 bottle of wine, it better taste like $30 and if I’m selling you a $40 bottle, it better taste like $50, not the other way around.”
To help create those tiers of wines and experiences for his customers, Browne has also been able to source his grapes from a number of different vineyards and now owns acreage in various vineyards across the Columbia Valley, including William’s Estate Vineyard and Summit View Vineyard in Walla Walla, Alder Ridge in Horse Heaven Hills, Whittenberg and Canyon Vineyards in Yakima Valley and Taylor Mag and Klipsun Vineyard on Red Mountain.
Browne Family Spirits will open its tasting room in Spokane on December 2 and will feature three different collections of beverages: The Monogram collection is rye and bourbon aged for at least four years and one of those bourbons is aged in the winery’s French oak Cabernet barrels. The First Look Reserve Collection will feature reserve rye whiskey, bourbon and single malt whiske, and the Lab Series, which is a collaboration between Kleinhelter and Browne himself, with seasonal offerings and flavored bourbons such as vanilla bean and warm spice.
“We use the term hobby, and sometimes hobbies evolve into careers, and when that happens, it feels really great,” Browne said. “Whether it’s a wine or a whiskey, I find them linked together and the way we’re going to do it, they fit hand-in-hand. You have to have great ingredients, a great chef in the kitchen and you have to go out and tell your story.” Browne said the most important thing to him is to create something that is part of people’s lives and it shows up on the dinner table for friends and family to enjoy.
Browne said Robert Mondavi’s book, “Harvests of Joy,” was a seminal read for him. “He created Robert Mondavi winery when he was in his 50’s,” Browne said. “It was in his soul, and he was soulful about it. It’s a great roadmap of being able to integrate your family experiences with other people, friends and friends you don’t even know yet — and community. I think that’s part of our DNA, too.”
It will also help keep him closer to home more often, which is something he wants to do. “Maybe you can pull your foot off the pedal a little bit, ”Browne offered. “I want to do some more things close to Fox Island, to be near my wife and my kids. I think that will be an integral part of our organization — and I’ll try to put my head more on the pillow, here.”
Integrating family and community, creating a space for people to enjoy, relax and be a part of something simple, yet soulful, seems about the perfect career for Browne. “Our community members don’t look at this as a business,” he explained. “For them, it’s a pleasure and that’s the unique thing. We have the opportunity to integrate people into this business space that is about creating experiences for people. I think that’s one of the best things you can do.”
Browne Family Vineyards’ flagship winery and tasting room is located in downtown Walla Walla, WA., at 31 E. Main Street. Phone: (509) 522-1261. The company has three tasting rooms in Western Washington – in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood at 413 First Ave. South. Phone (206) 887-9463; in Tacoma at 2508 Proctor Street, Suite B. Phone: (253) 904-3066; and a brand new tasting room in Bellevue at 10245 Main Street. Phone: (425) 400-5505.
Browne Family Spirits Tasting Room, which is scheduled to open on Dec. 2 is located in Spokane at 714 N. Lee Street. (509) 413-1885.
The best way to experience Browne Family Vineyards wine, of course, is to visit one of the company’s tasting rooms. But if you can’t get to one of the tasting rooms during the upcoming holidays, you can purchase all of the company’s wines from their online wine store at: brownefamilyvineyards.orderport.net/wines.
The online wine store is a veritable wonderland of wines produced by Browne Family Vineyards, including various vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sparkling wine called “Davey & Brown Black Bubbles,” a wine called “Do Epic Shit Red Blend,” a 2018 Vintage Port, a Family Vineyard Pinot Noir, Klipsun Vineyards’ Merlot, Syrah and Malbec, Grenache Rosé, Tempranillo Rosé, and several varieties of canned wines, including Brut Rosé, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.