Monday, June 11, 2012

Stars in the Constellation

Last week, California-based booze conglomerate E. & J. Gallo announced the purchase of Washington's Columbia Winery and Covey Run. With the announcement has come a flurry of debate in the Washington wine industry as to the impact and whether quality can be maintained under such a large corporate umbrella.

While time will tell on Columbia and Covey Run, Andrea and I recently had an experience that proved without a doubt that there is room among the big boys for individual wineries to maintain their identity, quality, and sense of place.

We were invited to be part of a small blogger dinner with representatives of two wineries owned by Constellation Brands: Hogue Cellars and Simi Winery. While I could tell a number of stories about the evening, and may do so in a future post, perhaps the most compelling story of the evening for me was that the wine and conversation shattered every conception I had of corporate winemaking. Much like Gallo, Constellation's portfolio covers the gamut of beer, wine, and spirits, with offerings at nearly every price point in the industry. With 4300 employees and more than 40 different facilities, you'd think it would be hard for each winery to maintain an identity -- but they've done it.

Simi Winery brings over 100 years of winemaking experience in Sonoma County to the mix, founded in 1876 with initial vineyard plantings in 1891. With 600 acres of estate vineyards, Simi produces wines that truly reflect Sonoma County in a powerful way. Vineyard Manager Tom Gore explained to us that Constellation gives him and the winemaking staff the room they need to be creative, and the time they need to produce outstanding wines. In a time where many corporations have compromised quality for dollars, Simi has gone in the opposite direction and Tom should know; he literally grew up at the winery.

While all of the Simi wines I tried were excellent, a favorite was the 2009 Sonoma County Pinot Noir. At $23.99 per bottle, it's a bargain.

Perhaps on the other end of the spectrum as Simi, Hogue Cellars has all of 30 years under their belt; founded in 1982 in Prosser, Washington. Founded by an agriculture family, Hogue has access to some of the truly great fruit in Washington, creating wines out of the Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain, and Wahluke Slope. Assistant Winemaker Bryan Weil echoed Tom's comments on the freedom he has in the lab and cellar. With three different tiers of wine under the Hogue label, the winery has a product for every palate but they all scream Eastern Washington.

The 2007 Hogue Reserve Merlot from the Wahluke Slope is definitely worth revisiting -- and I truly believe that Wahluke Slope is the hottest new AVA in Washington.

So there you have it, evidence at least in this Blogger's eyes that corporate ownership doesn't mean generic wine. Hogue and Simi, two stars in the Constellation, have the same artisan spirit of any family-owned winery on the West Coast.


  1. Reminds me a lot of our experience with Chateau St. Jean and how pleasantly surprised we were with their portfolio given how large they are.

  2. I have a bottle of Simi I have had for a while. Maybe it is time to open it.