Above: Taste Washington brought thousands of visitors to taste wines from hundreds of exhibitors. Hard to keep up with all the new labels, let alone all the ownership changes of established brands.
In the 1960s, a farmer named Wayne Hogue was working for a hop grower who’d been leasing an 80-acre plot of land along the Rosa Dam Irrigation Project from the Bureau of Land Management. After the grower died, Wayne and his wife, Shyla, took over the property, which grew hops for breweries like Budweiser and Miller, and mint for chewing gum brands like Wrigley’s and Spearmint. In time, they acquired much more acreage (a total of 1,600) and planted a “new” crop, wine grapes.
Their oldest son, Mike, started working in the business in 1964, and eventually took over its management. In 1974, with a financial assist from his friend, the late Mark Schwartzman, Mike planted six acres of riesling. In 1981, a local kid and Cornell grad, Andy Markin, came along and made five cases of the riesling in the shed that housed the mint still.
The following year, Mike persuaded his brother, Gary, to start a winery with him, and hired Mike Conway as winemaker. They started out with 2,000 cases and quickly grew to 10,000; their vineyards eventually covered 650 acres. When Conway moved on to start his own winery (Latah Creek, in Spokane), the Hogues recruited a UC Davis grad named Rob Griffin as winemaker, and they hit on a successful formula: very good wines at affordable prices.
Eventually, of course, Griffin moved on as well (to devote full time to his own winery, Barnard Griffin), but by then Hogue had attracted a buyer with deep pockets, Canada’s Vincor, and before long, Vincor itself was acquired by Constellation Brands.
Which brings us to this week’s latest development: Constellation has sold most of its wine portfolio to Gallo for almost $2 billion. The same Gallo whose jug wine fueled many a college dorm party, the same Julio Gallo family whose granddaughter Gina became a driving force to improve the quality of the company’s wines, the same Gallo that bought Columbia Winery (the old Associated Vintners) a decade ago.
Does this mean that Gallo is going to take over Washington wine? Not really. After all, we already have Chateau Ste Michelle’s dominance of the industry. But conglomerates are always looking for what they don’t have (in Ste. Michelle’s case, a high-volume pinot noir producer, ideally from Oregon). The bad news about Gallo: they’re not too fond of unions, and seasonal agricultural workers need all the support they can get. The good news: they pay very well for grapes, top dollar. So, altogether, the industry is not displeased.