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by Christina Kelly & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or 25 years, Hogue Cellars has been comfortable in the value-wines niche market, making pretty good wines within the $10 to $20 price range. Not the first winery to come to mind, but they had enough respectability to pull steady business off grocery store shelves.





But quietly the Prosser-based winery has raised the bar, searching for better vineyards, using better fruit, and giving more in the glass while keeping the price down. Now Hogue Cellars is coming of age, and consumers are buying the wines for taste as well as value.





"We're the best we've ever been," says Gary Hogue, co-founder of the winery that's named after his family, who've been growing crops in the Yakima Valley since the 1940s. His brother Mike, a farmer and home winemaker, started the winery in 1982.





"It isn't just Hogue, but the quality of Washington state wines has risen," Hogue says. "Over the years, we've learned how to make better wines. And it has become abundantly clear which vineyard sites produce the best varietal with the highest quality. We know what works."





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Hogue brothers started the winery in 1982, when just a few wineries existed in the region. That year, the brothers sold $800 worth of wine at the Prosser Wine and Food Festival, using a shoebox to convert coins and cash. They made 2,000 cases in '82, and then, just a year later, ramped up to 5,000 cases.





For an average price of $6, the wines were fruit-forward, not very complex and not much to talk about in terms of the "wow" factor. They were basic wines that could be served with a meal. It was a conscious decision by the brothers to be farmers with a good product at a good price, rather than a boutique winery offering expensive wines.





However, as vineyards offering better grapes became available, winemaker David Forsyth developed wines with a little more heft and flavor. Now the winery offers Hogue wines (less than $10), the Genesis brand (better, more complex wines around $15) and a reserve line, using the best grapes on the market (priced around $25 to $30).





After an expansion to more than 500,000 cases annually, the Hogue brothers sold the winery in 2001 for a reported $36 million to Vincor International. Vincor was then sold to industry giant Constellation, now Hogue Cellars' parent company. Gary stayed on to help with national sales and marketing. Mike, who kept Hogue's vineyards in the sale, is starting Mercer Estates Winery. He recently named David Forsyth, formerly of Hogue, as his new winemaker.





"It's been an exciting time for me," says Co Dinn, 46, the newly appointed director of winemaking at Hogue. Dinn has been with Hogue Cellars since 1996. "We've gone from a family-run winery to a corporately run business. There have been a lot of changes, not to mention the explosion of the wine industry in the Northwest."





Dinn has continued to improve Hogue's wines -- sourcing new, smaller vineyards and requesting smaller yields per acre so that the grapes will have more flavor.





"I think we need to separate the perceptions and the labeling and just taste what is in the glass," Dinn says. "If you get past the idea that Hogue is a value-buy wine, and really taste it, you'll buy for the taste. The price is the icing on the cake."





HOUGE CELLARS RECOMMENDATIONS





2005 Fum & eacute; Blanc ($9): A versatile wine with ripened stone fruit, including peaches, with great acidity. The nose has a pleasing grapefruit aroma with a little sage, peppermint and a hint of smokiness. A little semillon (25 percent) adds a bit of weight.





2005 Syrah ($9): This is a soft, easy-to-drink syrah that has hints of smoked meat and oregano in the nose. Flavors include raspberry, ripe cherry and spice in the finish. The small amounts of merlot and sangiovese give this wine a bit more complexity than one would expect at this price point.





2005 Genesis Riesling ($15): Another versatile wine with very nice balance and crisp aromas of orange, grapefruit zest, peach and pineapple. The acidity creates a perfect complement to food, especially food that has a bit of kick to it, such as Thai dishes. The sweetness absorbs the heat.





2003 Cabernet Sauvignon ($16): A surprising cab with well-integrated tannins and tasteful oak, it has fresh cherry and raspberry fruit flavors. Tobacco and black pepper linger on the finish. For the price, the wine is a bargain.





2004 Reserve Chardonnay ($22): Give this wine just a little time in the glass and it will provide you with intense pear, cream and toasted oak. It has flavors of pear, vanilla and a hint of smoke that makes it very seductive. There are enough buttery notes to perfectly pair with cracked crab.





2003 Merlot ($30): My favorite of the tasting -- this is what merlot should taste like. On the nose is an earthy, spicy aroma complemented by ripe berry and the toast of oak. With dark chocolate and raspberry fruit in the mouth, this wine has great structure to age elegantly for a few more years. This wine shows that Washington makes few wimpy merlots at this price point.





-- CHRISTINA KELLY

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