Mercer Estates Washington State Wines
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Mercer Estates Washington State Wines

Though only a single family name appears on the labels of Mercer Estates wines, the wine itself is actually a close collaboration between two families: the Mercers and the Hogues. The families have been involved in grape growing and winemaking in Washington State for more than twenty-five years, but their ties to the region go back generations and involve a number of agricultural ventures and crops. Mike Hogue, the son of a hop farmer, made a name for himself (and his state) when he founded Hogue Cellars, which he sold in 2001. The Mercers have been farming Horse Heaven Hills for four generations, turning to the grape in 1978. Two generations of each family are involved in the venture today.

Think Washington State and we always think of Seattle, which in addition to coffee shops, maverick restaurateurs, and grunge rock brings up images of rain, and lots of it; last time I was there I got soaked, and the time before. As Mercer co-owner Ron Harle (of Hogue lineage) pointed out to me, however, “the Cascade Mountains act as a rain shadow, leaving most of agricultural central and eastern Washington arid. A dry climate can be ideal for winemaking if irrigation water is abundant as it is in the Columbia and Yakima River valleys, where we source many of our grapes.” Columbia Valley's hotter climate favors varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, while cooler Yakima lends itself to whites like Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. The Horse Heaven Hills appellation near the winery's headquarters in the town of Prosser is the location of Mercer's Champoux Vineyard and the recently planted Dead Canyon Vineyard. These two adjacent properties showcase the winery's reds.

“We plant some Syrah,” co-owner Rob Mercer told me over a lunch of gnocchi with prosciutto, escarole and parmesan broth at the Market Table restaurant in Manhattan recently. “We would like to produce more Syrah, since the conditions in Horse Heaven Hills are ideal, but the market wants the Cabernet and Merlot.” Winemaker David Forsyth addressed the small group gathered at the restaurant (brick walls everywhere and you don't leave hungry) to taste the Mercer range of wines. “An acre of prime vineyard land in Washington costs us maybe $25000,” he related. “An acre of the same quality in Napa might cost a quarter million or even half a million. We can produce equivalent wine for less.” The acreage math was not difficult for me to do, but I could have added that the cost of one essential, water, must also be dramatically less than it is in most of hydro-challenged California. What the Golden State lacks in water they make up for in image, however, leaving Washington (and the other 48 states) with an uphill market climb. I for one am convinced that ultimately markets show wisdom, or at the least frugality.

My first wine was the Mercer Estates 2007 Columbia Valley Pinot Gris. This PG retails for $15, and is the product of three different vineyards, all newly producing. The grapes are whole cluster pressed, cold fermented entirely in stainless steel, and bottled in screw-cap. I enjoyed a nose of white flowers, lime and powdery stone. The wine has firm acidity and medium body with palate notes of green apple, lime, pineapple, a touch of mango and a bit of mineral. The wine finishes dry and quite clean.

The Mercer Estates 2007 Yakima Valley Riesling, $15, is also an oak-free product of stainless steel vinification, bottled in screw-cap. The color is lovely, the first time I've likened a wine color to green gage plum. I did not get much of a nose on this wine, but it made up for it once in the mouth: lime, green plum, peach, apricot. This Riesling has a residual sugar level of 1.37%, making it sweeter than most dry wines but less sweet than many other Rieslings. You don't taste the sweet, however, because of the wine's formidable acidity; sweet and acid coexist nicely here. Riesling tends easily to reflect terroir; the four Yakima vineyards used for this one make a direct, fruit acid tang (rather than mineral) statement. It works.

The Mercer Estates 2007 Columbia Valley Chardonnay, $17, is a joint Yakima and Columbia Valley effort, sourcing from five mature vineyard sites. I love the bright clear lemon color. The nose is fresh, bringing white flowers, stone fruit, and some stony minerality. The wine is mouth-filling and engaging, with a good balance of acidity, body and flavor. This Chardonnay reflects a fairly sophisticated vinification process. Most of the wine is fermented in French oak and left on the lees eight months. A tenth ferments in stainless steel and then is blended in with the rest. As a non-aromatic grape, Chardonnay needs a level of artistry in the winery; this gets it. My palate recorded notes of pear, mango, grapefruit, lime, a light mineral, a hint of banana, just a little butter, and just a touch of oak (so many Chardonnays overdo these latter two options). Well executed.

The Mercer Estates 2007 Columbia Valley Sauvignon Blanc, $15, is four-fifths fermented in stainless steel with the remainder seeing the light of day (and two months aging) in American oak. The wine is bottled in screw-cap. Generally I do not care for admixtures of oak with Sauvignon Blanc, but this mix is a success because of the intelligent levels involved. The oak adds a pleasant clove and nutmeg spice without overpowering the other elements on the nose; these are a refreshing grassiness, green apple, pear, and a hint of grapefruit. On the palate, there is no mistaking this Sauvignon Blanc for anything else; it shows an impish grassiness, firm rather than playful acidity, and medium body with a good deal of fruit, a richly extracted pear note in particular. The finish is about as refreshing as you get with this breed.

I enjoyed all four of these whites, but the Mercer reds are the real news, and though both sell at price points of $24, they compare (remember David Forsyth's math) extremely well with pricier California offerings. The group had a barrel sample of the 2007 Columbia Valley Merlot, a deep purple in color, with a nose of baking spice and dark fruit. This is a full bodied, mouth filling wine with spicy dark black plum, blackberry jam, blueberry, black cherry and cola notes on the palate. The tannins bring structure and weight, working on the sidelines, holding back at the finale to let the wine finish fruity and long. I'd like to experience this wine again in three years (if there is any left).

The Mercer Estates 2006 Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon sees considerable aging in both French and American oak; it is 95% Cabernet Sauvignon with 5% Merlot. Compared to the Merlot this wine shows more wood and greater acidity. The nose has the blackberry and cassis one would expect, with some herbaceous notes of fresh basil and mint. The wine shows black cherry and a highly concentrated cassis on the palate, chocolate, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and cedar. Tannins are soft. The wine finishes with ripe concentrated fruit. Ultimately, this is medium-bodied wine, flavor forward, bringing us a nice lagniappe in its lush mouthfeel. Cabernet makes its willful statement all over the world, but it flourishes in Horse Heaven Hills. Now pardon me while I fetch my boots so I can saddle up.

Verdict: Honest and Fresh

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Washington State: misunderstood (it's not all Seattle). Excellent values now with many more to come.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

Mercer Estates winemaker David Forsyth

Mercer Estates winemaker David Forsyth.

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