Washington State wine grew by 5 percent in 2007, with 8.6 million cases consumed – ranking it eighth in the nation, according to Beverage Information Group research. The latest entry to the state’s winemaking industry, Mercer Estates in Prosser – in March launches its first releases of four white wines – Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling – with two red wines to follow next year (suggested retail for the portfolio is in the $15 to $24 range). This new winery is family owned and run by two of the best-known farming and wine grape growing families in Washington – the Mercer and Hogue families. Co-owners Mike Hogue and Bud Mercer say their main objective is to secure the best fruit from the Columbia Valley area and produce outstanding wines.
The Hogue name is, of course, already well known on the national wine scene. Hogue Cellars, the second largest winery in Washington (grew 11.6 percent in 2007 to just under 500,000 cases), was sold in August 2001 and today is part of the Centerra Wine Company, a unit of Constellation Wines, the largest wine company in the U.S. by volume. Mike Hogue continues to grow grapes for the winery that bears his name.
The son of a hop farmer in the Columbia Valley, Hogue was first introduced to the wine industry in 1978 and learned firsthand from Walter Clore, a widely respected figure in the state’s winemaking business. Here, Hogue uncorks all the details of Mercer Estates, how it got started and how he plans to build awareness for the brand, and what’s special about the Columbia Valley’s vineyards.
The Beverage Information Group (BIG): Mercer Estates launches its first white wine releases this month. But how did you get there – how long have you been thinking about operating a private winery? What influenced you to branch out on your own with Mercer Estates?
Mike Hogue: I never really left the wine business because through the last five-plus years I have continued to be a grower for many other Washington wineries. The idea of a new winery came from my daughter Barb and son-in-law Ron, when they approached me about partnering with their friends, the Mercer family. I really enjoyed the challenge and journey of growing a brand. My past success has energized and encouraged me to see if I could do it again.
BIG: What will be your role and major responsibilities at Mercer Estates, and what will be the responsibilities of your partner, Bud Mercer?
Hogue: Both Bud and me are going to be responsible for exactly the same thing we have always done – securing the best fruit. Through our family knowledge and relationships with the vineyard managers we are able to give David Forsyth (our wine maker) the best possible grapes to make the finest wine Washington has to offer.
BIG: Upper Columbia Valley is certainly an up-and-coming wine region. What is it about this region that differentiates it or is distinctive, in terms of producing wine grapes?
Hogue: With the Horse Heaven Hills appellation, its distinctive characteristics are south-facing slopes, well-drained silt loam soils, long warm days to ripen the grapes completed by cool evening and nights to preserve the grapes’ natural acidity for balanced wines, and the moderating influence of the Columbia River.
BIG: How would you describe the Mercer Estates portfolio? Just wondering, are Mercer wines in a different price tier from Hogue – Mercer ranges from $15 to $25, suggested retail -- isn’t that generally more than Hogue’s prices?
Hogue: In the beginning, we are going to make wines that showcase the best fruit from our estate vineyards. We are producing four whites – Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, and two reds – Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The sourcing, hands-on approach and quantities are just three examples of how these wines will differ from anything Hogue has and currently produces. Concerning the pricing, that is true for some of the Hogue wines but not all. Remember that Hogue produces three different tiers of wine and some of those wines are actually higher priced than Mercer is going to be.
BIG: The Mercer Estates white wines are being released in March, followed by the red varietals next year. Why the time lag in launching the reds and whites? How many bottles (or cases) of wine do you expect to produce this year; will that number be amped up next year – and next?
Hogue: We are using some new vineyard sites and they are not yet producing wine-ready grapes. An example of this is the Dead Canyon Vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills, which was planted just a few years ago. These vineyards will be coming on-line over the next few years and our red wines will increase as this maturation process occurs. We have produced 15,000 total cases for sale in 2008. Yes, that number will go to about 28,000 cases next year.
BIG: What is your strategy to distribute Mercer wines in the marketplace – both in the on- and off-premise markets? How do you plan to achieve brand recognition for Mercer on a national basis?
Hogue: In 2008, we will be launching in six states around the country – Washington, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Illinois, and Colorado. Because of our small production this year we will be focusing on restaurants, fine wine shops and some grocery channels in markets where applicable. We are planning to use any and all of the avenues that are opened to us including our website, tasting room, events, tastings, wine dinners and any and all festivals.
BIG: And finally, regarding the wine industry in Washington today – as a veteran winemaker, what do you see as its greatest accomplishments and does it face any challenges?
Hogue: Concerning Washington’s wine industry, we feel that our ability to make world class wines that have been recognized by all media channels in a very competitive and increasingly more difficult business environment has brought us our past success. Our greatest challenge is our greatest pleasure – that’s building awareness.