Northwest Wine

Northwest Wine: Rob Mercer adds to family’s legacy as Honorary Grower

The Mercer Estates tasting room in Prosser is a stone’s throw from Carma Vineyard, named for the daughter-in-law of Willis Mercer, who moved to Washington in 1886 and helped pioneer farming in Horse Heaven Hills.
The Mercer Estates tasting room in Prosser is a stone’s throw from Carma Vineyard, named for the daughter-in-law of Willis Mercer, who moved to Washington in 1886 and helped pioneer farming in Horse Heaven Hills. Courtesy Richard Duval Images

This summer’s Auction of Washington Wines will be unlike any in its 33-year history as the marquee week in August transitions to virtual events, but it’s already been a time of appreciation and reflection for Rob Mercer and his storied farming family.

Mercer, president of Mercer Estates Winery in Prosser and Mercer Ranches, Inc., in the Horse Heaven Hills, has been singled out as the 2020 Honorary Grower for the Auction of Washington Wines.

“I am humbled to be recognized by leaders in the Washington wine industry,” Mercer said. “This honor really belongs to my team, as they have worked hard and worked smart to create high-quality fruit we are proud to say is from Washington state and competes at the highest level with other world-class fruit-growing regions.”

Alas, news of his award came back on March 10, just days before the wine industry changed around the world and S-I-P became known as “shelter-in-place.”

And because all of the events associated with this year’s Auction of Washington Wines in Woodinville have moved online, among the opportunities Mercer won’t experience will be shaking hands with this year’s fellow honorees — Mark McNeilly as the Honorary Vintner and best-selling author Karen MacNeil, the first woman to serve as the auction’s Honorary Chair since 1997.

“Growers are used to being behind the scenes so there is no disappointment for us,” Mercer said. “It feels like the Auction is preparing to create a much larger and dynamic online presence in lieu of the physical auction this year, so we are hoping that people step up and reach out to support the Auction of Washington Wines from afar this year.”

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Since it was created in 1988 by former Ste. Michelle CEO Allen Shoup, the Auction of Washington Wines has raised more than $50 million for Seattle Children’s and Washington State University’s wine program. It now ranks among the top five wine charity auctions in the U.S.

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Rob Mercer has been recognized as the 2020 Honorary Grower for the Auction of Washington Wines. Courtesy of the Auction of Washington Wines

Mercer’s standing within the industry includes a six-year term on the Washington Wine Commission in addition to long-term support for the Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center in Prosser and the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Wine Science Center at WSU in Richland.

As president of the family operation, Rob oversees more than 3,000 acres of vineyard as he follows in the footsteps of his father, Bud, and uncle Don.

Bud helped oversee the family’s farming operations prior to launching Mercer Estates in 2007 with longtime friend and fellow farmer Mike Hogue. Bud died three years later, and in 2014, the family donated $250,000 to WSU for the Bud Mercer Greenhouse in his memory.

However, the family’s roots in Washington reach back to 1886 when Willis Mercer moved from Illinois to the Yakima Valley and worked for cattle rancher Ben Snipes. Don, a grandson of Willis Mercer, became the first to plant wine grapes in the Horse Heaven Hills when he established Cabernet Sauvignon in 1972.

As a result, many consumers recognize the Mercer name both as growers and vintners, and the history includes being named Washington Winery of the Year in 2016 by Wine Press Northwest magazine.

One of the family’s new brands is Mercer Bros., and the wine label proudly features “ESTD 1886” as a tribute to Willis Mercer’s arrival in Washington — three years before it became the 42nd state in U.S.

More than 130 years later, the Mercers produce more than 65,000 cases of Washington wine. One of their few setbacks, a casualty of the pandemic, has been the Mercers’s young tasting room in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood.

“Right as the coronavirus got intense in Seattle, we had to close our doors,” Mercer said. “We are making plans to increase our footprint on the westside going forward, but for now we are back to our full tasting bar and facilities in Prosser.”

This summer, Mercer, his wife, Brenda, and brother, Will, begin to roll out their family’s new ICAN hard seltzers, a lineup that features wild berry, peach and watermelon.

“We will launch here in the Northwest to see how they are accepted,” Mercer said. “If it works, we will expand from there. We did just purchase a whole new canning line to continue to can our own wines and seltzers.”

Here are several recent releases from the Mercer portfolio that our panel has evaluated this spring.

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The Mercer Bros. 2017 Merlot is part of a new brand distributed nationally through a partnership with the California-based Delicato family. Courtesy of Mercer Estates

Mercer Bros. 2017 Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills $20: Jeremy Santo returned home to Prosser and took over the winemaking for the 2017 vintage — just in time to help launch this stylish brand for the brothers. Merlot from Zephyr Ridge and Dead Canyon Vineyard near famed Champoux Vineyard gets a heady boost of Syrah (14%) off Spice Cabinet Vineyard near Crow Butte Park along the Columbia River. The 20 months in 25% new barrels yield aromas of toast and Bing cherry with ground savory, cola and iron shavings. Sweet cherries set the tone for a delicious theme that’s framed by managed tannins and capped by Marionberry juice in a beveled fashion.

Subsoil 2018 Chardonnay, Horse Heaven Hills, $17: This Chardonnay under this new brand for the Mercers serves as a reminder that America’s most popular white wine has a home in some of their top vineyards — Eagle and Plow, Spice Cabinet and Zephyr Ridge. While a portion of these lots were barrel fermented, the focus remains on bright fruit as the nose of melon, white peach and Uncola lead to juicy flavors of the same with a touch of rich tropicality that makes for a long finish.

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Mercer Estates Winery achieved early acclaim for its work in the Horse Heaven Hills with Malbec, a red Bordeaux variety that Argentina has helped make famous. Courtesy of Mercer Estates

Mercer Estates 2017 Malbec, Horse Heaven Hills, $25: The first Mercer winemaker — David Forsyth — wowed critics in 2013 for his work with Malbec from the 2010 vintage. Jeremy Santo continues that excellence in this expressive example. Aromas of black plum and toast include black olive, a hint of soy sauce and a scratch of slate that’s often sensed in wines from the Horse Heaven Hills. The flavor profile is focused on rich blue fruit akin to juicy blueberry and elderberry with a nibble of Western serviceberry in the finish.

Mercer Family Vineyards 2017 Reserve Heritage Blend, Horse Heaven Hills $25: While the Horse Heaven Hills first became famous for Cabernet Sauvignon, the region’s work with Syrah should not be overlooked and it drives this blend by Jeremy Santo that’s backed by Merlot (41%) and Malbec (6%). Enticing aromas of black cherry, Baker’s chocolate and Douglas fir tips lead to muscular wine with pleasing balance that’s focused on flavors of Bing cherry, blackberry jam, cocoa powder and lime zest.

Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at greatnorthwestwine.com
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