PROSSER, Wash. In the past four years, Mercer Wine Estates has tripled its production to more than 60,000 cases of wine, all while raising quality to new levels.
That would seem to be quite a trick, but not when you combine 130 years of family agricultural history with a Ste. Michelle-trained winemaker.
Just a decade ago, the Mercer and Hogue families launched Mercer Wine Estates in this Yakima Valley town, but the story began much earlier. The Mercers arrived in Washington's Horse Heaven Hills in 1886 and started sheep and cattle ranching operations. In 1972, Don Mercer planted the first wine grapes in the Horse Heaven Hills known then as Mercer Ranch and now the acclaimed Champoux Vineyards.
Since then, the Mercers have become one of the top wine grape growers in the state, amassing more than 2,000 acres of vineyards, with the majority of their fruit sold to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
In 2005, the family used a tiny amount of Cabernet Sauvignon to begin Mercer Wine Estates. The facility was built in 2007, and the winery opened for business in 2008. In 2011, longtime Yakima Valley winemaker David Forsyth announced his departure. A year later, Mike Hogue retired and sold his share of the winery to the Mercers, whose dynamic leader is Rob Mercer.
Jessica Munnell arrived in April 2012 to take over as head winemaker. She grew up down the road in Richland, then went to Washington State University to earn her bachelor's and masters degrees. After graduation, she landed at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, first as a viticulturist, then as an enologist at Snoqualmie Vineyards and later as assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle's red winemaking facility.
When Munnell arrived, Mercer was producing 22,000 cases and sales were tepid, even though the wines were superb. A few months later, Rob Mercer's brother Will joined the operation. He had spent the prior 15 years in retail sales with carrot giant Bolthouse Farms.
As Munnell increased production, Will Mercer began to build a distribution system, which now includes 48 states.
Thats a big jump from where we were just five years ago, Rob Mercer said. We were in 23 states then.
Mercer is pleased with its production levels but also isn't afraid to expand. It has the ability to produce nearly 100,000 cases in its current facility.
I dont have a number in mind, Rob Mercer said. We have the capacity to grow if theres demand and interest out there. Having strong family-owned wineries is great. Its what the wine industry is all about.
Mercer bottles wines at three tiers: Mercer Canyons is the most affordable label, while Mercer Estates is in the midrange and the reserves are made in small, high-end lots.
In each of the past three years, a Mercer wine has landed in The Seattle Times top 50, with Munnells 2012 Dead Canyon Vineyard Syrah reaching No. 17 last fall. Two wines made it in Great Northwest Wines top 100 list for 2015. Her 2012 Sharp Sisters red blend and 2014 Spice Cabinet Vineyard Rosé each merited a Platinum in the 2015 Wine Press Northwest Platinum Judging. The Meritage-style 2012 Reserve Cavalie was chosen best red blend at Houstons Rodeo Uncorked international wine competition.
Munnell is quick to credit the outstanding grapes she receives.
Im a little bit like a kid in a candy store, she said. There are a lot of tools to pick from because we have a lot of great fruit.
She is particularly excited about Malbec and believes Mercer can make its mark with the delicious red Bordeaux grape.
I think its a variety that consumers are excited about, she said. Theres just not that much widely planted in Washington. A lot of growers are looking at planting it right now.
Rob Mercer anticipated that and has put in a lot of effort to position the winery to receive more Malbec.
We have three separate locations on our property that we're growing Malbec, he said. Thats the direction we're headed. It has a distinctive quality, a character thats recognizable from the Horse Heaven Hills. Were working on more clones and trying to refine the Malbec program.
Munnell looks forward to making more Malbec in the years to come.
Everybody thinks theyre about to have a massive glass of red wine, and then unlike Cabernet, it tends to be balanced, she said. It is more elegant.
Andy Perdue is editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine and wine columnist for The Seattle Times.