Washington Wine History Interviews: Mike Hogue, Hogue Cellars

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 6/01/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22996
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Mike Hogue (b. 1944) is a pioneer wine grower and the force behind Hogue Cellars, one of Washington's earliest wineries and later one of its biggest and best-known. Hogue grew up on a Prosser hop farm owned by his parents, Wayne and Shyla Hogue, where he learned the basics of farming. After a stint at college and a detour into carpentry, he returned to help run the family farm in the mid-1960s, thoyugh it wasn't until 1979 that wine entered the picture. In this May 6, 2024, interview, Hogue sits down with HistoryLink historian Jim Kershner at the Prosser headquarters of Hogue Ranches.

Schwartzman's Idea

A family friend, Mark Schwartzman, a Chicago lawyer, got Hogue interested in wine and in growing wine grapes:

Mike Hogue: He was stationed over there in Germany with the army, and he got to drinking Mosel wine, Riesling. And so he introduced it to the family. And about that time, Chateau Ste Michelle was getting big awards with their Riesling. And he kept saying on every vacation we'd go on for several years, why don't you plant some wine grapes? And I had been enjoying the wine, Riesling wine, been going to wine events in Prosser, small events, and it was quite enjoyable. It was fun.

Schwartzman planted the seed in Hogue’s mind, and then in 1979, Hogue finally acquiesced. He explains how his first vineyard came about – and how it got its name:

MH: But anyway, he [Schwartzman] was quite a guy, a mentor. My dad was a mentor and Mark was my mentor also. He twisted my arm so many times, I said, "I'm going to plant you a vineyard, Mark." So in 1979, I planted a vineyard, Riesling, with no contract, small vineyard, seven acres, no contract, and planted it because Mark was insisting I do it ... You couldn't grow anything [hops] on it. It was steep. But it was ideal ground for wine grapes. So I planted the grapes, then we called the vineyard Schwartzman Vineyard.

Most wine grape vines take three years to come into production. Yet after two years, one of the managers at Hogue’s farm noticed that there were a few usable grapes. He made Hogue a proposition, which marked a turning point in Hogue’s life:

MH: That vineyard, the second year ... These vineyards, they have a few grapes on them at the base, not for production purposes, but they're there, these grapes. So that year in December, I hired a Cornell graduate from ... A graduate. His name was Andy Markin from Cornell University. His degree was in ag economy ... So I hired Andy to run the farm, help me run the farm, get me into the twenty-first century, I guess. And when Andy got to the farm, he saw that vineyard and saw these grapes growing there, and he said, "I want to make some wine out of those grapes." I said, "Fine." He said, "Boss, it's going to cost you some money." And I said, "Well, what do you mean?" "Well, we're going to need some glass carboys and we're going to need a press." And I said, "Well, what do you think it'll cost?" And he quoted a number and it was a lot less than buying a tractor. A lot less. So I said, "Let's buy it."

They also needed a place to make the wine – and Markin came up with an unlikely solution:

MH: And he said, "I'm going to make it in the dollhouse your daughters are not using anymore. It's in your backyard." I said, "Well, why are you going to use that dollhouse?" And he said, "Well, it's insulated and I can control fermentation better that way." I said, "Fine, have at it. They're grown enough that they're not involved in dolls or dollhouses."

A Future in Wine

When that first vintage of Riesling was ready to drink, Hogue and Markin sat around the kitchen table and did a tasting. They discovered, somewhat to their astonishment, that they just might have a future in wine:

MH: So anyway, we tasted these wines and there were different sugar levels, residual sweetness in the wines, and he had gone through and kept some fermenting, some not. So we had three or four different styles. And we sat in the kitchen in the house and tasted these. And they were beautiful wines. Not commercial wines, though, but they were beautiful wines. So I called up Mark Schwartzman. It was a Saturday I was doing this with Andy. And I knew he'd be in his office working. And I said, "Hey, we're tasting wines from your vineyard, and they taste pretty good." "Well, send me some right away." And so we did. And he was a man about the town and knew all the restaurants and whatnot. So he took that wine around, homemade wine, and got some real good reviews for it. And six months later, he came out to the farm again and said, "I think we ought to start a winery." I said, "Mark, I watched that and I've been involved in some of this stuff that ... Just what if it catches hold? Are you ready to sign banknotes and things like that? And you can run out of money real easy in these projects if you're not careful." And he said, "No kids, bachelor." He said, "I'm fine." I said, "Okay." Asked Andy, and Andy, he was ready to go, "Yeah, let's go." So we formed a partnership, Andy Markin, Mark Schwartzman, and myself.

They hired a Seattle winery consultant, Elizabeth Purser, to give them advice on how to start up the business. One of the key questions was: What to name the winery? The decision was both gratifying and surprisingly emotional:

MH: She said, "Well, what would you like to call your winery? Do you have names?" And we had some names that we were toying around with. And she says, "Well, I'm going to do some research. I'll come back next month when we meet and I'll give you some ideas." And we had told her that ... She had asked, "Do you want to use your name, Hogue?" And we said, "No, we don't want to use Hogue. Don't need to do that. We're not big on that." So a month later she came back and she says, "Well, I did some interviews up and down the valley with some people, and I tell you, maybe the best thing you've got going for you is your mom and dad and their name." She says, "I think you should call yourselves the Hogue Cellars." And I'm choking up over this.

So we kind of got together and said, okay, we're going to call it the Hogue Cellars.

Hogue Cellars started on a shoestring in a former Prosser machine shop. When it opened during a 1983 spring barrel-tasting event, Hogue’s mother was set to be the cashier – and the cash register was an old cigar box. The day before the opening, the labels for the bottles hadn’t even arrived. Hogue wasn’t entirely sure they were ready to open at all.

MH: And we said, well, we have nothing to show. We've got wine. And we just put the label on last night. That's fine, we'll send them to you and just don't worry. So the estimate that weekend of seeing our first sales of Hogue Cellars, I think we thought we saw maybe 200 people. And we were just – unbelievable! We were just – that many people! And we told them, we said, come back next year and we'll have a tasting room, bottling line, and tanks to show you. And, of course, I didn't know it at the time when I said it, but that next year, over 3,000 people came to the winery. And that’s being in the right place at the right time.

Like many early Washington wineries, Hogue Cellars started with cool weather white wine varietals, but in 1983, Andy Markin came across some Cabernet and Merlot grapes from a distressed vineyard. He approached Hogue with an idea.

MH: And it was in a distressed vineyard because the contract for the grapes had been canceled. And so there was no demand for the vineyard, so they had kind of let it go. But these grapes, they were very small grapes and small crop on them, very small crop. And so Andy said, "I think they'll make good wine." So Andy bought the grapes, got the barrels in, and started the fermentation. And then Rob Griffin and Dave Forsyth finished that Merlot and Cab off. Four hundred cases each. So we had our first red there, just by chance. Andy's the guy behind that one. And that turned out to be a minor miracle.

Breakthrough in Atlanta

It was a minor miracle because of what happened two years later, when those wines had matured. On a whim, Hogue and Schwartzman took the Hogue Cellars 1983 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon to the Atlanta International Wine Festival. This was one of the biggest and most prestigious wine events in the U.S. Out of 1,667 entries, the Hogue Cellars Cabernet won Best in Show. This was a coup for Hogue Cellars – and for the entire Washington wine industry. 

MH: The interesting thing about the wine industry is that it's a friendly industry. I don't know if another industry is that friendly, but we all love the competition, but we all love wine and respect everybody's wine and what they're doing. So before I got back from Atlanta, after winning that competition, Hogue Cellars, Allen Shoup [from Chateau Ste. Michelle] had let Bon Appetit and another magazine, I can't remember the name – had notified them that a Washington wine had won that show. Big deal. They interviewed me the week I came back from that show. They were right there in Prosser wanting to know, how'd you do it?

From that point on, Hogue Cellars grew in reputation and in size until it became the second-largest winery in the state. In 2001, the family sold Hogue Cellars to Vincor International, Canadian conglomerate. The company retained the Hogue Cellars name, as did several subsequent buyers, because of the Hogue reputation. After the sale, Mike Hogue continued to own and manage several vineyards and orchards. Hogue had always considered himself mainly a farmer, but he had also helped advance the careers of many winemakers, including Rob Griffin (b. 1953), Wade Wolfe (b. 1949), and David Forsyth, all of whom would go on to have acclaimed wineries of their own. Hogue had even allowed Griffin and Wolfe to make their own wine on their off-hours, while working for Hogue.

MH: [Wade Wolfe was a] viniculturist, of course, but when he went to work for us, he said – and Rob Griffin said the same thing – can I make wine on the side while I'm working for you? Yeah, his small label. And I knew from the Jack Worden experience that these winemakers all wanted to have their own brand and whatnot. And I thought, small concession. It wasn't even a concession for me. Yes, go ahead. And so as it ended up, Wade had his little, small wine project, and it's a good thing because when we sold Hogue Cellars, Wade had a fallback position. And look at him today, it's a very successful winery. So it was just ... I think my intuition was good that day.

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