Serving Wine and Country

Jun 29, 2011 8:01 am

One Marine-turned-winemaker's call back to duty

Rob Mercer on the banks of the Euphrates River
Photo courtesy of Rob Mercer
Rob Mercer on the banks of the Euphrates River, Iraq
 

Who said wine wasn’t a manly pursuit? Certainly not Rob Mercer of Mercer Estates in Washington State. The ex-Marine launched his family winery, along with his wife, Brenda, and partners, the Hogue family, in 2008. Not that he was around for the big event. Rob was overseas, serving his country in Iraq. Interestingly, his experience as a winemaker served him well in his duty. With Fourth of July coming up, we thought it a good time to talk to a wine guy who also happened to put his life on the line so that we could continue to celebrate Independence Day.

Tell me about your return to the Marines.
I suppose I am a bit of an idealist and a patriot and have a tendency to follow some old-fashioned notions, like service to my country and opening the door for women. After it had become apparent to me the United States was going to be in a protracted war in Iraq and Afghanistan, I made the decision to seek to be reappointed into the United States Marine Corps.

When had you first served?
I had served a five-year tour in the ’90s after graduating from college. My Dad had insisted that I work outside the family farm, so I opted to do something as far from it as I could get. I was reappointed in July of 2007 to the U.S. Marines to serve a tour in Iraq. I had convinced my partner in the winery over a couple of beers and a bottle of wine or two that it was the right thing to do.

You’re a fourth-generation farmer and second-generation wine grower. Did this have any bearing on your military posting?
As we were working up for Iraq, the command discovered that I had a lot of experience in agriculture. When we arrived in country, one of the focuses was to rebuild and restore the civil and economic infrastructure. Iraq has a significant agricultural base and history. However, the agricultural infrastructure had not been improved since the beginning of the Iraq-Iran war in the early ’80s, and has since been through three wars. Part of the mission was to rebuild it and I was called on to help assess the situation and make recommendations. There are not any vineyards, but agriculture has a lot of commonality throughout the world: water, soil, and a lot of hard work.

Considering that “vines must suffer,” as the French say, to produce good wine, is it safe to say the agricultural conditions in Washington are challenging?
If you look at the weather conditions in Washington, you will find that there are some pretty significant advantages to growing grapes here. We are located in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains on terrain cut and irrigated by the Columbia and Yakima Rivers at a northern latitude similar to Bordeaux with a continuous west wind much like the Rhone. Long, warm summer days, cool nights and very little rain create the kind of conditions that extend the time for fruit development on the vine. An important attribute for developing the full fruit-flavor potential without becoming overripe, something that is particularly important to growing great Merlot.

Your family also grows fruits and vegetables. How long have the Mercers been in the faming business?
The Mercer family came over from Scotland in 1747. Honestly, we got kicked out by the English after losing the Battle of Culloden, and have never drunk Sherry since. My great-grandfather settled in the Prosser area [of southwestern Washington State] in 1886 and began grazing sheep in the Horse Heaven Hills where our farm is currently located. In 1968, the family decided to pump water out of the Columbia River for an irrigation project. It was the first time my Grandfather ever borrowed money. We initially did it as a source of feed for our cattle, but quickly realized that just wasn’t going to pay the bills. We began planting vegetables — and drinking wine — and in 1972 planted the first vines. We have been developing and planting our property ever since.

You seem like a regular guy’s guy. Are you seeing more regular guys getting into wine these days?
I believe that wine is becoming increasingly popular with men and women. Even a lot of my Marine Corps buddies drink wine these days. Don't give them a saber and an unopened bottle! Honestly, I think that in the U.S., wine is gaining a real place in the culture as people become less intimidated by it as some overly sophisticated drink. It's wine. It's meant to be enjoyed with no pretense and to make food and camaraderie even more pleasurable.

What are you drinking these days?
I am excited about sitting on the deck overlooking the Columbia River on the warm summer nights drinking our Riesling with my wife. It has great acidity and just a touch of sweetness… I am referring to the Riesling. I would have to flip-flop those two attributes for my wife.

Will you be producing anything new this year?
We will be producing a Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre blend, as well as a Merlot-based blend. I believe we have a lot of potential in Washington to build on these varietals and I am planning on planting more of them in the future.


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