Rob Mercer can trace his roots in the region to 1886, when his great-grandfather settled there to raise sheep ultimately becoming one of Prosser’s prominent early businessmen.
Eight decades later, in 1968, the family founded Mercer Ranches, installing the area’s first irrigation and adding wine grapes—also a first in the Horse Heaven Hills—in 1972. Three decades after that, in 2005, Mercer Estates Winery produced its first vintage.
Today, the family grows more than two dozen varietals across more than 3,000 acres in the Columbia Valley and Horse Heaven Hills viticultural areas for Chateau Ste. Michelle, 14 Hands, Thurston Wolfe, Columbia Crest’s H3 wine series, and of course their own Mercer, Mercer Family Vineyards, Mercer Bros., Eagle & Plow, Subsoil, and ICAN labels.
“Our overriding philosophy is to represent Washington state in the best way we possibly can, making approachable wines for people to enjoy,” says Rob Mercer (’91 Poli. Sci.), who serves as company president and was recently named the 2020 Honorary Grower by the Auction of Washington Wines.
Mercer runs the business with his brother, Will (’93 Busi.), whose work in national sales has earned their wines a presence in all 50 states.
“I would say the Mercer Bros. Cabernet Sauvignon”—with aromas of ripe red fruit, blackberry pie, dried cranberries, brown sugar, and warming spices—“is probably my favorite,” says Mercer, noting the Mercer Cabernet Sauvignon Cavalie 7 and Eagle & Plow Block 93 Cabernet Sauvignon round out his top three. The Block 93 is particularly special; it’s the Mercers’ charitable wine with proceeds dedicated to supporting service men and women and their families. During the pandemic, proceeds are earmarked to support COVID-19 first responders.
After college, Mercer spent five years as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, re-enlisting after 9/11 to serve in Iraq. He stayed in the Reserves until 2012. From 2013 to 2019, he served on the Washington State Wine Commission and still makes it his mission to advocate for Washington’s wine industry “and its growing importance on the national scale. That’s the story I keep trying to tell,” he says.
Mercer serves on the WSU Viticulture & Enology Advisory Board and is a member of the Horse Heaven Hills Growers Association. The nonprofit Auction of Washington Wines, which recently honored him, benefits Seattle Children’s Hospital and WSU’s wine science research.
“I was obviously very pleased and honored and humbled to be given the award,” Mercer says. “Most importantly, I feel like it was recognition from leaders in the industry that the people at Mercer Family Vineyards—the employees—are growing high-quality grapes from which we can make high-quality wine. It’s really a recognition of the team rather than me personally.”
The team includes winemaker Jeremy Santo (’03 Biol.), Mercer’s wife Brenda (’90 Busi.), and their three children: Reagan and twins Rylee and Thomas. “Our kids are coming up as the next generation,” Mercer says. “The only way we can be successful in this business is to be sustainable—taking care of the ground, vines, crops, and also the people that help us work those crops.”
To that end, he says, “We focus a lot on our stewardship program. We have about 15 areas on the farm that total almost 2,000 acres that we set aside for wildlife habitat. We’ve planted thousands of trees for wind protection and replanted native grasses. And we have a very extensive monitoring program to ensure we’re being as efficient as possible with our water practices.”
The family business is three-pronged and employs 100 to 300 people, depending on the season. In addition to making wine and growing grapes, Mercer Ranches raise carrots, onions, corn seed, kale, broccoli, alfalfa, and timothy. In all, the family farms nearly 7,000 acres of agricultural land. And, says Mercer, “We look forward to building on all of those things and diversifying even further.”