Washington Wine Pioneer Started on the Farm
The Hogue Cellars was founded in 1982 in Prosser, Wash. It has grown to become one of the state's largest wineries. Brothers Mike and Gary Hogue direct a team committed to bottling the bright, pure flavors of the grapes grown in eastern Washington's Columbia and Yakima valleys.
The climate and soils here allow the fruit to mature completely and develop high natural acidity, an advantage many other top wine regions cannot claim.
Mike Hogue founded The Hogue Cellars based on the uncomplicated values of his family's farm. He and his brother Gary continue to apply those values today. It's evident in our history and in the wonderful people creating Hogue wine today.
Hogue Cellars is a little like the Rodney Dangerfield of wine: popular, acsessable, but not given all the winery's due respect.
The Prosser-based company is Washington state's third largest winery, behind Stimson Lane (Château Ste. Michelle/Columbia Crest) and Constellation Brands (Columbia Winery/Covey Run). But, Hogue is the largest
With those numbers, Hogue Cellars doesn't take a back seat to anyone. Yet, just like the self-effacing comedian, owners Mike and Gary Hogue want respectability. They are investing heavily in additional vineyards to control the crop, technology and personnel.
"We're raising the bar," said Mike, from his Prosser farm. Mike's parents have grown crops since the 1940s, and the sons added grapes in the early 1980s.
""We're ratcheting up the quality. In addition to our fruit forward wines, most under $10, we're moving up to a higher bracket. In order to do that, you have to have extremely good fruit. If you don't continue to improve the product, you get left behind."
For years, Hogue's fruit forward wines were a pretty good bargain for the price. The wines were fruity, had some character but not a lot of complexity. The price hovered between $7 and $9 for semillion, chardonnay, pinot gris and a cabernet-merlot blend. These are still decent wines for everyday meals and sipping.
A few years ago, Hogue introduced Vineyard Selections, featuring wine that had a little more aging and depth. The wine is about $15 per bottle.
Hogue encourages his winemakers to experiment with unusual varietals, develop distinctive wine styles and set aside special vineyard sites. Under limited production, that wine is sold under the label of Genesis, and costs anywhere from $13 to $24 per bottle.
The designation for the best wines produced at Hogue is its reserve line, running about $30 per bottle. This wine is concentrated, layered fruit, framed by oak. Mike Hogue says his reserves stand up to the more expensive $40 and $50 cabernets and merlots grown in the Northwest.
Part of the early Hogue philosophy came from being farmers. The brothers had to decide whether they wanted to be known as a boutique winery selling premium, high-end wines, or farmers with a good product at a good price for the consumer. They settled on value, and Gary began selling the wine.
Eventually, the brothers realized they had to convince the grape growers to yield fewer grapes per acre to produce better fruit. Coming from a farming family, the task was not easy.
"Farmers think of so many tons per acre; so many spuds or bales per acre. It's been a real struggle to explain that in some cases, less grapes is better," said Gary Hogue. "We tell them they will solidify their future
In addition, the winery offers bonuses for grapes that are used for the reserve wine.
"This evolution is working," said Gary. "And, we'll keep working the needle on this quality issue. There is more potential. We're not over. We knew we would go through periods where we had to bring it up a notch."
In recent years, Hogue has changed its bottle packaging and tweak the style of its bread-and-butter wines.
The winery has the ability to experiment under the watchful eye of Wade Wolfe, vice president of production. Wolfe has a Ph.D. in grape genetics from UC Davis and is widely recognized as one of the most knowledgeable
"My original intent was to teach and do research," Wolfe said.
Wolfe went to work for Hogue in 1991, helping to improve the fruit intensity of Hogue's grapes. He joined winemaker David Forsyth, another US Davis graduate, to produce the higher end wines.
Forsyth said his staff is "hunkering down," reducing the variety of wines offered to focus on producing higher quality wines while retaining affordability.
"We feel we're making very good wines, but sometimes we feel a little left behind," Forsyth said. "Some may not agree with our wine stylistically, but it's good wine."
But unlike the comedian who gets no respect and laughs all the way to the bank, Hogue is getting noticed. Gary Hogue said the distributors have noticed the changes. So has the customer. And while the price may inch up the scale, the winery's cornerstone will remain value, consistency and quality.