It was shaping up to be an ordinary day for Rob Mercer when he got the call. A friend from Auction of Washington Wines was on the line. Her organization had named him Honorary Grower for 2020. I bumped into Mercer in the tasting room of his Prosser winery a few days later. I was researching lower Yakima Valley restaurants, inns and wineries for this website. He was about to head off to a food-and-wine festival in Jackson Hole. It was still early March. And the world has become an entirely different place since then. Things will get back to normal. Hopefully soon. But until they do, we need some good news. So I’ll share a little more about Mercer and his family in this post. But first I’ll offer a few thoughts and observations on the COVID crisis and its impacts on Northwest wineries.

The industry and social distancing

Sparkman set up a makeshift drive-through

Spirits were high this past Saturday outside Sparkman Cellars’ new Woodinville facility, in the former Redhook brewery. The winery moved production to the space a while ago and is close to opening a new tasting room at the site. Needless to say, social-distancing orders have put its grand-opening on hold. But for one fun afternoon, the winery created a makeshift drive-through for wine club members to pick up their spring allotments.

Wineries are finding creative ways to stay in touch with their customers. Sparkman’s neighbor, DeLille Cellars, recently distributed a virtual tasting of select wines with director of winemaking and viticulture Jason Gorski. The winery also knocked 10 percent off the price of a “bundle” package, featuring a bottle of each of the seven wines featured in the tasting video. And DeLille also offers “penny shipping” on online orders of three bottles or more.

In times like these, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of Northwest wineries are small producers. Many rely primarily on sales in their tasting rooms and through their wine clubs to stay afloat. The best often don’t lend themselves to widespread distribution in stores, because they produce their wines in small, artisan-crafted lots. So, as you stock up on supplies, it’s a good time to visit your favorite wineries’ websites. Many are discounting wines and/or reducing (or waiving) shipping costs. In Oregon, the Willamette Valley Wineries Association even consolidated its wineries’ specials on its website. And taking advantage of these offers is another way to support local businesses.

The legacy of pioneers

Will and Rob Mercer on family land in Horse Heaven Hills

Rob Mercer (above right, with his brother Will) and his family are widely known and respected in agricultural and wine-industry circles across Washington and beyond. But for the unfamiliar: The family’s history in the Yakima Valley dates back to 1886, when Willis Mercer arrived from Illinois. He found work for legendary cattleman Ben Snipes and acquired land in Horse Heaven Hills, the fertile, shrub-steppe mounds that rise to the south out of Prosser. And he and subsequent generations of his family created an expansive agricultural enterprise.

In 1972, Don Mercer, one of Willis’ grandsons, and his wife, Linda, planted a small vineyard on a patch of family land. Their winery was short-lived, and the vineyard, which grew to more than 170 acres, was later acquired by a consortium of Washington wineries, including Quilceda Creek. It was also renamed for its talented vineyard manager, Paul Champoux. The vineyard—and Horse Heaven Hills—achieved iconic status after Quilceda Creek’s cabernet sauvignons, sourced largely from Champoux Vineyard, earned 100-point scores from The Wine Advocate for its 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2007 vintages. The Wine Advocate also awarded Quilceda Creek 100 points for its 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (featuring Champoux fruit) and its 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Galitzine Vineyard (sourced from the winery’s Red Mountain vineyard).

These days, Mercer Ranches Inc.’s agricultural holdings include more than 3,000 vineyard acres, with all but one vineyard within the Horse Heaven Hills American Viticultural Area. The vineyards produce grapes for several Washington wineries, including the family’s Mercer labels. Rob, a nephew of Don and Linda, oversees operations as president. His brother Will is national sales manager. (Julie Mercer, one of Rob and Will’s sisters, recently opened guest suites in downtown Prosser’s Historic Mercer. Willis Mercer completed the building in 1906, and Julie oversaw its renovation.)

A team effort

The family's winery is also overseen by Auction Honorary Grower Rob Mercer

The Mercer’s winery and tasting room is just off I-82, in the Prosser Wine & Food Park. Inside, you’ll find the full array of Mercer labels, including estate reserves and small-lot releases. One of its most unique bottlings is its Eagle & Plow Block 93 Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes for this wine are sourced from a one-acre vineyard block containing 911 vines. And the Mercers donate 100 percent of sales proceeds to charities including Children of Fallen Patriots, Friends of Flight 93 and the Semper Fi Fund. For Rob Mercer and his vineyard manager John Derrick, the 9/11 attacks were personal. Derrick’s best friend was a passenger aboard United Flight 93. And Mercer, who served in the Marine Corps in the 1990s, reappointed after the terrorist attacks and served in Iraq in 2007–08.

The Auction of Washington Wines began recognizing individuals for their contributions to the state’s wine industry in 1999. In addition to Mercer, this year’s honorees are wine educator/author Karen MacNeil (Honorary Chairman) and Mark Ryan Winery founder Mark McNeily (Honorary Vintner). In many respects, such recognition is the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. And with past honorees including such luminaries as Mike and Gary Hogue, Gary Figgins, Rick Small, Marty Clubb, Dick Boushey, David Lake, Champoux and others, it’s also a chance to join a Who’s Who of industry elites.

Still, Mercer, 52, is taking it in stride. When I asked him to describe his feelings about the honor, he credited everyone but himself. “It caught me off guard,” he said. “My thinking was that there were a lot of people who deserved this before I did. I was stunned, but also honored.

“The other part of it is, from my perspective, this is more about our company and our organization, which includes all the people who are out here working everyday. They are making good impressions and doing good quality work.”

[Photo of Will and Rob Mercer courtesy of Mercer Ranches Inc.; all others by The Grape Northwest]