by Kelly Gates
Four generations of Mercer family members have done everything from raise livestock to grow a wide variety of produce on a fertile patch of land in Prosser, WA. The Mercers expanded over time to encompass more than 12,000 acres of farmland that, along with row crops like potatoes, carrots, garlic, onions and kale, the farm, Mercer Canyons, is also used to grow wine grapes.
According to Rob Mercer, president of Mercer Canyons, while the family has cultivated grapes for many years, it only began making wine in 2005.
“My family actually planted our first vines in 1972, so we’re really longtime growers of wine grapes. But, we grew forother wine makers until about nine years ago,” said Mercer. “In 2005, we partnered with another family to produce wine and in 2011, we bought them out and now own the winery wholly.”
The first few wines to be produced at the place, aptly named Mercer Wine Estates, were cabernet and merlot. Both grape varieties grow particularly well in the Horse Heaven Hills region where four of the company’s vineyards are located. The undulating geography of the land and its close proximity to the Columbia River makes it the perfect spot for producing an array of different grapes.
“Our vineyards sit on south facing, slightly elevated grounds with great slopes, all of which is conducive to growing wine grapes,” said Mercer. “One slope sits along the Columbian River and its unique micro climate allows us to experiment with different varieties like Grenache, Syrah, Petit Syrah, Mouvedre, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Counoise, Carignan and Malbec. We call that vineyard the Spice Cabinet Vineyard.”
Spice Cabinet Vineyard covers 18 acres and boasts a deep sandy soil that has blown in over the rock bluffs above and a steep southeast aspect creates site characteristics that are similar to areas in the Rhone. The early morning sun warms the site. And its proximity to the river ensure a constant movement of airflow which provides the advantage of extra frost free days and lower mildew pressure. Seven other vineyards make up the balance of Mercer Wine Estates growing spaces, enabling the company to create a long list of wines with individual characteristics derived from the soils and unique atmospheric conditions.
The family’s journey from grape producers to operators of a full-fledged winery required a different focus than the general farm. The crew created a whole new brand and hired a skilled wine maker to guide them through the process of making their first cabernets and merlots. All new facilities had to be constructed and new processing equipment was acquired, with only some of the existing grape tools used for the new vineyards.
Presently, more than 95 percent of the red varietal grapes in Mercer Wine Estates’ wines are grown on-site by the Mercer family. Most of the grapes for the company’s white wine varietals are grown in other vineyards by the winery’s partners, the Hogue/Harle Family.
“We process everything at our facility using pretty standard equipment, like crushers and fermenting tanks,” said Mercer. “Once everything is harvested and processed, we spend much of the winter bottling and sending out shipments to retail customers across the nation. In total, our wine is distributed into 42 different markets.” Along with retail sales, the company also sells its wine directly to customers through its on-site tasting room. Many vino aficionados also order online or are members of the Mercer Wine Estates wine club.
As with many wineries, special events are also part of the annual routine. According to Mercer, the company hosts two major charity events there and a collection of weekend activities that vary from year to year.
It takes a full team of employees to keep the place up and running. Rob oversees much of the business with help from his brother Will, who is vice president of winery operations. Their cousin Pete manages the farm’s shop and fleet operation while another cousin, Calvin, runs a separate vineyard near the main produce farm and partners with Mercer Wine Estates on a regular basis.
“My wife Brenda helps with marketing and wine label development too,” said Mercer. “This is truly a family business and we like to pay homage to that whenever we can. Recently, we created an ‘Ode to Brothers’ wine to honor my father and uncles who started the family business back in 1959.”
Along with honoring family, the company also pays its respects to the environment.
According to Mercer, conservation measures have been part of the farm operation for many years. Low pressure watering equipment has been installed in the produce fields and the vineyards are outfitted with drip irrigation.
“We also do soil moisture monitoring and use neutron probes,” noted Mercer.
“These things also add layers of complexity to our general soil monitoring processes, which help us grow high quality grapes and incorporate overall efficiencies for our business. But sustainability is always on our minds as well.”
In the future, the family hopes to continue increasing sustainability efforts.
Other plans include building the volume of wine sold through the winery or, “adding vines and adding wines,” as Mercer put it.