Fruitful Partnerships: Family-Run Vineyards and Wineries

Mercer Family Estate, Horse Heaven Hills, Washington

By: Cheryl Gray

From grapes to glass, teamwork is at the top of the list of requirements for any successful vineyard  or winery.  And what of the extras that come into play if that team happens to be family? 

  Just ask Brenda Mercer of Mercer Family Vineyards, whose family settled in the Prosser, Washington area in 1886, before Washington became a state.  Three Mercer brothers, Don, Bud and Rick, founded  the fifth-generation enterprise right in the heart of what is now the world-renowned, grape-growing Yakima Valley. 

  “They moved out to the Horse Heaven Hills after World War II to run a cattle and sheep operation, initially.  As things progressed and irrigation water became available, the Mercer (Ranches) began growing row crops such as sugar beets and potatoes.  Under the recommendation of Dr. Walter Clore, Don and Linda Mercer planted the very first wine grapes in the HHH in 1972 on what is now known today as Champoux Vineyard.” 

  Mercer adds that the family has incorporated education and technology into the variety of wine grapes they produce, spread across at least a half-dozen vineyards totaling nearly 1,000 acres.  ”There is a great deal of education and training happening in our neck of the woods in the field of agriculture and viticulture.  We are blessed to have the WSU (Washington State University) Wine Science Center in our back yard.  But even with education and outside training, a lot of knowledge is still gained by hands on experience. “

  John Derrick, Vineyard Manager for Mercer Ranches, has been with the family for three generations.  Derrick points out that the success of this family-run business has always included collaborating with educational partners who are in the region. “We are lucky enough to work with WSU, WSU Tri-Cities, Yakima Valley Community College, Walla Walla Community College and LAEP (Latino Agricultural Education Program).  We also work directly with educators and extension in the vineyard doing experiments and collaborating on new ideas and products. Working with the programs above, we have built up a great team here at Mercer Ranches. “

  Derrick adds that Mercer Ranches has recently placed emphasis on expanding its vineyard operations, providing, he says, the perfect opportunity to try new methods and ideas.  “I have always appreciated     the family’s willingness to try something new and I have seen that first hand with three generations now.  Mercer Ranches was well positioned to mechanize the vineyards because of the vision and drive  provided by Rob (Mercer).”

  Brothers Rob and Will Mercer, both of whom attended Washington State University, have been running the family business since 2010.  Rob is in charge of the farming and viticulture operations.  Will serves as General Manager at Mercer Estates.  In fact, many of the Mercer family offspring either currently work or have worked the farm and vineyards    Liz Mercer-Elliott, another WSU graduate who also trained in winemaking at Hogue Cellars, runs the company’s Carma Wine Club out of its Prosser Tasting Room.  Calvin Mercer, another WSU graduate, runs Austin Sharp Vineyard.  Still other family members have worked in many different facets of the company.

  According to Andrew Martinez, Head Winemaker of Martinez Vineyard & Winery, the Mercer family helped to bring to life his own family’s dream of operating a vineyard and winery in Yakima Valley.  Martinez says his immigrant father, Sergio, and mother, Kristy, a Washington native, bought and planted clones from Don and Linda Mercer back in 1981, planting three acres of Cabernet Sauvignon on property the Martinez family bought on Phinny Hill in the Horse Heaven Hills in 1978.  Martinez was born a year and a half after his father planted the family’s first vineyard. 

  “Helping to lay irrigation, plant grapes, sucker, prune, hoe weeds, shoot thin, and harvest are all things that were fairly normal chores in my upbringing. All the hard work that is spent in the vineyard is the reason for realizing the need to go to college for a better life.”  Martinez graduated from Yakima Valley Community College with a degree in Science and attended as many wine-making seminars and other educational outreach programs as he could.  He honed his wine-making skills four days out of the week while working as a dental hygienist part-time.  In the meantime, Martinez says that his wife, Monica,   who also grew up on a farm and whose grandfather, he says, was among the first winemakers in Prosser making wine from Washington grapes, earned her MBA.  The couple’s return on investment in education, Martinez says, has greatly benefitted the family business.  “Needless to say, wine and grape growing runs thick in our blood.  Monica’s MBA and my Science degrees have helped the vineyard and winery be elevated with tools they needed to be more successful.”

  Martinez says the family made the leap from grape growers to wine makers in 2005.   “… I talked my dad into making two barrels of wine for our first 50 cases. For years, we had sold the grapes but now, it was time to start utilizing them ourselves. It was time to show all the hard work and dedication in the vineyard to everyone!  Barrel-aging wines for 24 months, we had time to stockpile vintages and slowly increased amounts until 2007, where we started selling in a corner of a shared room at Winemakers Loft.  In 2009, the facility was sold and new owners wanted to fill actual tasting rooms. So, we were up with a hard decision. Was it time to have an actual tasting room of our own?  Being a microscopic winery, it was either sink or swim and we decided to go for it.  Thirty-eight years after the vineyard was planted, 14 years after our first two barrels of wine made, and 10 years after having the tasting room opened, we are making over 2,000 cases of wine and selling 95% of that through that same door each year.”

  Martinez says the business tasks are now split among the family members.  While he serves as Head Winemaker, Sergio Martinez is Grape Grower, Kristy Martinez is in charge of Tasting Room/Hospitality and Monica Martinez is Business Manager.

  Two Mountain Winery is a fourth generation enterprise headed by brothers Matthew and Patrick Rawn.  Located in Yakima Valley near Zillah, the Rawn brothers oversee 228 acres of wine grapes on seven vineyard sites used not only for their own wine production but also for their winery grape clients.

  Patrick Rawn, who is General Manager and Head of Vineyard Operations, says that once the brothers returned to their family’s land, they focused their interest, passion and skillset(s) on producing grapes for making wine, transforming what was once a family-owned tree fruit farm into a successful vineyard and winery.  They planted the first vineyard in 2000.  “Our production facility and a couple of our vineyards are located on the farm our grandparents started in 1950, near where our grandfather grew up farming… it is very important to us we honor our history and their legacy. “

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