On October 5, 1985, the 1983 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Hogue Cellars in Prosser wins Best in Show at the Atlanta International Wine Festival. The award is a stunning achievement for winery owners Mike and Dora Hogue, Andy Markin, and Mark Schwartzman, and for winemakers Rob Griffin and David Forsyth -- Hogue Cellars had released its first vintage just one year earlier. "There is no doubt that it is one of the finest reds ever made in the Northwest," writes Tom Stockley in The Seattle Times. The award will help spur radid growth at Hogue, and in 2001 the partners will sell the winery to Vincor International for $36.4 million.
A Winery is Born
Hogue Cellars winery came about as much by happenstance as design. Mike Hogue's father, Wayne Hogue, had started hop farming in the Prosser area in 1949 and gradually grew the family farm from 40 acres of hops to more than 1,700 acres of mixed crops, including apples, concord grapes, spearmint, peppermint, potatoes, and asparagus. In 1979, at the urging of mentor and business parner Mark Schwartzman, Mike planted six acres of Riesling grapes in a tract he named Schwartzman Vineyard. Two years later, Mike and Andy Markin, manager of Hogue Ranches, started making wine in Hogue's daughter's backyard playhouse with grapes that had been rejected by Chateau Ste. Michelle. Using a cigar box as a cash register, they sold $800 worth of wine at the annual Yakima Valley Spring Barrel Tasting in 1983.
Markin (d. 1987) was a key figure in Hogue's early days, Mike Hogue said. "Andy was a genius. He came out of Cornell University with a master's in agriculture economy and he could do anything. He was a tireless worker and had a personality you couldn't help but want to be around. He called me 'Boss,' but we were great friends" (Mike Hogue interview).
The staff eventually included cellar master Dave Copeland and winemakers Rob Griffin, later the co-owner of Barnard Griffin Winery, and David Forsyth, who was hired on the same day as Griffin. The partners brought in Elizabeth Purser, a marketing consultant from Seattle, to help with their business plan. They set a goal that within 10 years they would be selling 20,000 cases of wine annually. It took only three years to reach their target. By 2000 Hogue was producing 500,000 cases a year.
Breakthrough in Atlanta
As the Washington wine industry expanded rapidly in the 1980s, Hogue Cellars, whose first vintage was 1982, became one of the state's marquee brands. Two of its initial offerings, a 1982 Chenin Blanc and a 1982 White Riesling, were awarded gold medals at the annual wine competition sponsored by the Enological Society of the Pacific Northwest, an event that was covered by a range of media including The New York Times.
A year later, Hogue released its first red wine, a 1983 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon made by Markin and Conway and finished by Griffin and Forsyth. "Andy came into the office one day and said, 'I found some Cabernet that's distressed, and they don't have a market for it.' He said, 'Let's make some wine with it'" recalled Mike Hogue. "That was our first red wine, and it was only 400 cases" (Mike Hogue interview). In his book Washington Wines & Wineries, Paul Gregutt wrote:
"Perhaps the most important development of the decade, even more important than the wine industry's steady growth, was national acclaim for some of Washington's red wines. Though Ste. Michelle and Columbia were certainly doing a very good job, especially with their single-vineyard cabernets, much of the interest from out of state was focused on a few of the new boutiques, notably Leonetti Cellar, Quilceda Creek, Woodward Canyon, L'Ecole No. 41, and Hogue Cellars. Hogue's 1983 Reserve cabernet sauvignon dazzled the judges at the Atlanta Wine Festival, who named the wine Best in Show ... it revealed a combination of silky elegance and pure fruit-driven power that few outside the state had ever witnessed in a Washington red" (Gregutt, 8).
Seattle Times wine writer Tom Stockley also was smitten by the 1983 Reserve Cabernet. In the summer of 1985 he visited the winery to taste some of Hogue's offerings. Wrote Stockley of his meeting with Mike Hogue:
"Hogue has saved the best for last. Unlabeled and only recently put in the bottle, it is the 1983 reserve cabernet sauvignon. Glasses are poured all around and I inhale the rich character of this deep and intense wine. It is truly magnificent. 'A wine like this could really set the rest of the wine world on its ear,' says one of the tasters. Everyone nods" ("A Wine Country's Coming of Age ...").
In October 1985, Hogue and Schwartzman traveled to Georgia for the Atlanta International Wine Festival. They brought along the 1983 Reserve Cabernet, which had been entered in the competition, and jars of picked asparagus from the Hogue farming operation. The aspargus were a huge hit with festival-goers, and the Cabernet was a revelation for the wine judges, who named it Best in Show, a stunning coup for Hogue Cellars. The award-winning wine was released to the public in November 1985. Wrote Stockley in the Times:
"Another great red wine is appearing on local shelves. It's the one everyone has been waiting for: the Hogue Cellars 1983 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine, of course, is the one that was just named "best of show" at the Atlanta International Wine Festival. It was chosen from 1,667 entries produced in wine regions throughout the world. In the words of Bruce Galphin, one of the directors of the festival, 'it is a perfect example of the category.' I have sampled this wine at the winery in Yakima Valley and found it intensely flavorful and complex. It is a wine to age, but actually is quite drinkable right now with its full, lush fruit. There is no doubt that it is one of the finest reds ever made in the Northwest. This wonderful, deep-hued red is scheduled to be released here in November ... and will sell for $18.95. It would make a fabulous Christmas present for someone's cellar" ("Red Wines Surprise ...").
Hogue Changes Hands
Hogue's victory in Atlanta helped spur spectacular growth at the winery, but there were losses along the way. In 1987, Markin was killed in a car-train collision while leaving the winery. Months later Schwartzman died of colon cancer. Soon thereafter Walla Walla grower Norm McKibben became an investor and business partner, and in 1987, Mike's brother Gary Hogue signed on to run marketing and sales for their company Vintage Northwest.
In 1989, Hogue built a new 30,000-squre-foot winery next to the existing one -- increasing production capacity to 80 bottles a minute -- and by 1997 it was making about 10 percent of all Washington wines and was the state's second-largest winery operation behind Stimson Lane, owners of Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest. In 1998, Hogue introduced its Genesis line and announced plans to increase production to 500,000 cases by 2000. In an effort to improve brand recognition, Hogue "virtually reinvented their product line with new packaging for wines in all five tiers of products offered" ("Hogue Cellars Opens the Book ...").
Meanwhile, Hogue Cellars kept winning accolades, including one in 1992, when Wine Spectator magazine ranked a $12 Hogue Cellars Merlot at No. 26 on its list of the 100 best wines, and another in 1994 from Wine & Spirits magazine, which selected Hogue as one of its wineries of the year.
In 2001, just a few days before 9/11, the Hogue partners sold the winery to Vincor International for $36.4 million. Mike continued growing grapes for the winery and Gary stayed on doing sales and marketing. In 2006, Constellation Brands, which already owned Columbia Winery, Covey Run Winery, and Paul Thomas Wines in Washington, purchased Vincor for $1.5 billion. The Hogue partners had done quite well for themselves, though Gary Hogue downplayed their role in the winery's success. "Hogue is a product of timing, timing, timing and location, location, location," he said. "We didn't have anything to do with the great climate -- and our father was the one who located us in the Valley" ("The Grapes of Success").
In 2007, Mike Hogue, then 63, partnered with Bud and Rob Mercer, and Hogue's daughter Barbara and son-in-law Ron Harle, in a new winery, Mercer Estates. The white wine grapes were sourced from the Brooks, Sunnyside, and Spring Creek vineyards, properties Hogue still owned in the Yakima Valley. David Forsyth, who spent 23 years at Hogue Cellars, signed on as winemaker, and Jeff Peda, "a 17-year Hogue veteran, serves as 'director of stuff' -- regional sales, winery events, and hospitality" ("With Heart ..."). Mike Hogue retired in the early 2010s. In 2013 he was inducted into the Washington Wine Hall of Fame at the Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center in Prosser.