When I arrived for my first wine tasting in Washington last month, in addition to the abundant sun, I was surprised by the overwhelming and enduring sense of community, especially among the wine professionals, of which there are many. I have experienced this sense of communal cooperation in various wine regions around the world, but here it seems to span all 940 wineries and 14 AVAs. Everyone knows each other, and it seemed as if everyone I spoke to was involved in wine growing, winemaking, wine tasting or the science behind the wine – and a majority are Cougs.
Cougs you ask? A word as much a part of the local vernacular as wine, Cougs are Cougars – the alumni and supporters of the local university, Washington State. It’s not surprising to find so many Cougs in one place. WSU offers a well-renowned Viticulture & Enology program both at the main campus in Pullman, but also in a secondary campus located in Tri-Cities wine country region where research is conducted at the cutting-edge Wine Science Center and the Irrigated Agriculture Research & Extension Center. Cougar roots run deep.
So, as I was tasting my first pours of Washington wine, I began listening to other patrons – tourists, club members and locals alike sharing recommendations for other wines, producers and of course, talking Cougar sports. I had planned to spend the next day visiting Walla Walla, but instead became intrigued with the words I was hearing: Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope and Prosser, so I decided to ask for recommendations.
“Go to Prosser. You must go to Prosser. You will love Prosser.”
Sensing the passion and sincerity of these folks, the next morning I plugged Prosser into my GPS and found my way to the first recommended winery, Mercer Estates. I could see Mercer from the Interstate, a large industrial building sitting at the base of the dry dessert hills. I exited the highway, crossed a set of tracks and drove down the frontage road of an industrial park. At this point, I admit, I became skeptical, wondering where the locals had sent me, but then I realized this road was lined with store-front tasting rooms, and at the end of the road was the entrance to Mercer Estates.
Pulling up the drive for Mercer I found myself among an oasis of vines and flower gardens. I was the only one in the tasting room at the time, which is when I met my host, Shelly. Shelly expertly walked me through the tasting and offered me a tour of the production area and cellars. But while the wines were remarkable, and the winemaking process intriguing, it is the history, sense of family and fellowship, and the spirit of Mercer Estates that has left an indelible impression and why it’s a must for Winetravelers visiting the region.
Winetraveler (WT): When was Mercer Estates established?
Mercer Estates (ME): Laughing: When we first planted grapes? Or when we poured our first Mercer wines? Or when we first settled in Washington?
WT: How about all of the above?
ME: Willis Mercer settled in Prosser in 1886, before Washington became a state. The family eventually established the Mercer Hill Sheep company, becoming shepherds. Mercer Ranches followed in 1958 with both sheep herding and cattle ranching as the main source of business.
In 1968, irrigation was introduced and then our good family friend and WSU scientist, Dr. Walter Clore s to the idea of planting grapes (in addition to our vast vegetable production at the time). So, in 1972, Don and Linda Mercer, with encouragement from Dr. Clore, began turning water into wine. Upon planting the first vines of the Horse Heaven Hills, we became the founding wine grape growers of the region and Block 1 later became the highly acclaimed Champoux Vineyard.
Today there are now a total of 16,200 acres of wine grape production in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA (25% of Washington State production) with Rob Mercer owning and operating 2000 of those acres. We originally solely produced our grapes for St. Michelle and other wine producers in the region, but in 2005 we started to make our own wine Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. We currently only utilize 10% of the grapes we grow for our own production, the rest remain for the whole umbrella of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. They love Horse Heaven Hills AVA grapes, and we love that they do! As for our tasting rooms, we opened the Prosser location in 2009 and a new Seattle location in 2017.
WT: Do you still supply your grapes to others in addition to growing for the Estate?
ME: We do. The wine community here is like a family. In fact, right now we’re partnering with Columbia Crest and St. Michelle on a vineyard in the Columbia Valley AVA. We have about 1,500 acres planted and we’re in the process of establishing a new AVA for this area – The Burn.
WT: Why Horse Heaven Hills?
ME: The conditions are ideal for grape growth from the sandy loam to the sun, and the wind helps to drive away pests and prevent disease. The Columbia River also moderates the temperatures, helping us to stay cool at night and hot in the day.
WT: What grapes do you grow?
ME: We have about 12 different grape varieties, more red than white and are entirely estate grown. We find the climate more suitable to black grapes, but we do well with our Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Riesling and Chardonnay as well. Overall, we produce between 25 and 30 different varietals and blends each year.
WT: What is your winemaking philosophy?
ME: Our winemaker, Jeremy Santo, likes to use his experience combined with the modern equipment to make a wine that is true to varietal flavors and shows the characteristics from area it’s grown. His wines are a true expression of all that is Horse Heaven Hills from the grape and soil, to the wind and sun.
WT: What is your favorite experience at the winery to-date?
ME: We love interacting and creating experiences for our guests and wine club members. Having our production facility at the same location as our tasting room, we can offer visitors tours of the facility, introduce them to our winemaker and cellar master and make them feel a part of the process. It’s so much fun to share where the grapes come from, how we work with them, and give guests a true personal connection to our wines.
WT: What has been one of your challenges?
ME: Brand identity – for the state, the region and for Mercer. We want people to know we represent quality, family and expert winemaking; and it’s a challenge to get the story out there and know how or why people choose you.
WT: Which wine has received the most industry accolades and what is your personal favorite?
ME: Well, our 2012 Cavalie, a Bordeaux-style blend was very well-received and after a wine club release sold out within weeks. We expect the 2015 vintage Cavalie to be as successful. Personally, we love our 2015 Reserve Syrah and 2015 small-lot Merlot, both big, old-world style wines, but one of our most surprising was our small lot Grenache from 2015. It’s lighter than most of the wines we produce, delicious and elegant – highly recommended for Thanksgiving.
WT: Speaking of Thanksgiving, what other Mercer wines would you recommend for Thanksgiving or the holiday season?
ME: Aside from the Grenache for Thanksgiving, we’d recommend our small lot, dry Riesling which can also age for about 20 years – either the 2016 or 2017 (although we don’t have much of the 2017 remaining), or our dry Rosé produced from our Grenache. The Rosé pairs very well with Thanksgiving dishes and holiday hors d’oeuvres.
WT: Do you distribute your wines?
ME: We do distribute our new label, Mercer Family Vineyards, wines nationwide. These include a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, two Cabernet Sauvignons, a Malbec and two red blends. However the majority of our wines are only available in or tasting room or via our online store, including our Cougar wine.
WT: Cougar wine?
ME: Yes, each year WSU selects a local winery to bottle and label a Cougar Wine of the Year. This is the fifth year of the program, so we’re excited to have the Roman numeral “V” on the label, because you know, it also stands for victory! Go Cougs!
WT: Does the University then promote this wine?
ME: They do. The wine is served at many University events and sold at a charity auction. All proceeds from the auction go to a combination of the local wine industry, the WSU wine program and a local children’s hospital. It’s a wonderful program, especially for all of us Mercer WSU alums and we are excited to have been chosen this year.
WT: What would you say to wine travelers not familiar with your region as a destination?
ME: Prosser is unique. Although we haven’t been growing grapes for as long as many wine regions, we are passionate and at the forefront of winemaking. We’re a community within a community of friends and family and it comes through to our visitors. We’re not stuffy here. We believe wine is meant to be shared with family and friends, so anyone coming to Prosser becomes part of the family.
WT: What advice would you give those traveling to the region for wine tasting?
ME: Plan enough time. There is so much to explore and so many wines to taste. Also, look into our local B&B’s for your stay and ask the locals for recommendations. We’ll guide you to the best wine and food we have to offer.
WT: Do you host events at the winery?
ME: Absolutely! We have live music, food, wine dinners and wine club release parties throughout the year. We also host a Glassybaby road show twice a year where our visitors can browse and purchase the Seattle-made, hand-blown glass candles. We love this show, not only because the candles are stunningly beautiful, but because 10% of the proceeds go to local charities.
WT: Describe a tasting experience at Mercer. What can a visitor expect?
ME: If you come for a tasting in Prosser, chances are your host will be a Mercer. If not, you’ll likely meet one on your tour of the production facility. We believe in connecting our guests to the wine through our history, our production techniques and of course, our family.
WT: Tell us more about your wine club.
ME: We do two releases per year and members can choose from a 6-bottle membership or 12-bottle membership. Each of the wines we release is personally selected by the Mercer team. Our members also receive 20% off bottles and 30% off cases in addition to free tastings. For our 12-bottle members we also offer VIP tickets to events and a free dinner with the winemaker in our vineyards.
WT: Are you also a Winetraveler? If so, what’s your favorite destination outside of home?
ME: Laughing – We wish we were able to travel more!
Liz Mercer-Elliot: While I haven’t been to many other wine regions, my favorite experience was a visit to the Stellenbosch wine region of South Africa. I had the opportunity to meet several South Africans working at Hogue Cellars in Prosser as part of an intern program. Twenty years later, after having stayed in touch, I was able to meet with the now amazing winemakers in their home region of Stellenbosch. I was so impressed with their wines and winemaking process, especially given that many of them grew up during the apartheid with little in the way of resources or community cooperation. However, the region has a long history of growing grapes and these winemakers have since formed a small and tight-knit community, much like Washington state, and they are doing amazing things with wine. If you have a chance to visit, the Chenin Blanc is a must, as is the Pinotage – which even more inspiring when tasted alongside the local cuisine.
Winetraveler tip: Visit Prosser! And get to know the Mercer family, as well as the many other growers, producers and winemakers in this familial community.
Winetraveler Bonus Tip: Stay tuned for our follow-up piece next Tuesday about what makes Mercer wine so special. It absolutely deserves its own post.
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