With wineries, breweries, distilleries and cideries qualifying as “essential businesses” due to their agricultural foundation during this pandemic, it is fitting that Wednesday is the 50th anniversary for Earth Day. “Farm to glass” is a lot easier to understand these days as more and more people are planting gardens and expanding their hobbies to maintain regular life from home, a concept Rob Mercer grew up with. The grower-owner of Mercer Wine and Mercer Ranches, he says his mission is to use the best science and sustainability to create the highest-quality wine grape, which in turn produces the perfect glass of Washington wine.
The Mercer family first planted vines of Cabernet Sauvignon in 1972, with Rob putting his own roots down in 1998. Since then, Mercer Ranches in Prosser grows wine grapes and other culinary crops and, in addition to 6,800 acres of agricultural land, the farm has 2,500 acres of native vegetation and wildlife. Mercer has also planted thousands of trees as an extensive windbreak system and has implemented a curved road system through the vineyards, which aids air movement through the contours, slows workers down and keeps the dust under control — a natural tactic of pest control.
In light of his recent accolade of 2020 Honorary Grower by the Auction of Washington Wines, Mercer talks with us about family, sustainability and Washington wine.
1) Why did you get into grape growing?
It was a family operation but, personally, I got involved partly because the family but also I saw the unique way of have a product you can differentiate when you have an area of the world that is as special as here. You have the ability to say, “this is what we do in Washington state in the Horse Heaven Hills and this is what we can create.” It was an aspiration to show of the Horse Heaven Hills and a unique opportunity, one of a kind point of differentiation… As it turned out, luckily we planted Cabernet first and that turned out to be well suited for this area. Same with Syrah and Merlot.
2) You call yourself an agriculturist, what does that mean in regards to how you farm?
A lot of people talk about sustainability, organics, et cetera. I was trying to figure out a way to frame what we do and “agriculturists” seemed to fit. To me, that is “smart farming,” doing the best you can to be as sustainable as possible, to be as efficient as possible and smart as possible as you can for farming with a long-term vision.
3) What are steps Mercer is taking to be a steward of the land it operates on?
One of the things we’re always doing is we’re trying to incorporate new technology, always looking for the best and greatest research and development. Not just in the mechanical side but in the agricultural and cultural side of the business. Practices that reduce pesticide, fertilizer and water use, ones that encourage soil health. We try to look for what is the best research out there that’s saying, “this is the long-term, most sustainable practice you can use.”
The primary motivation for me was to provide an area that my kids could have fun with, be a part of and see that the farm is more than just a 7 to 5 work opportunity, it’s also an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and provide a place for solitude.
4) What does it mean to you to be the Auction of Washington Wine’s 2020 Honorary Grower?
It means a lot that we were nominated and thought of. To me, it means people in the industry recognize that our team is doing some pretty awesome things in the vineyard, in terms of improving the quality of wine and making it possible to promote Washington wines in this unique marketing environment. We have the highest-quality wine for the best value because we have such incredible growing conditions here.