By Elizabeth McManus, Brelsford WSU Visitor Center

PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University alumni Rob and Brenda Mercer of Mercer Wine Estates will discuss their Prosser, Washington, winery, its several Cougar ties and wines at 1 p.m. during a tasting at 12-3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Brelsford WSU Visitor Center.

The tasting will feature 2-oz. pours of Mercer Wine Estates’ 2016 Cougar V — the latest edition in the WSU Alumni Association’s Cougar Collectors’ Series — as well as an estate vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. The Mercers will be joined at the tasting by winemaker and fellow Cougar alumnus Jeremy Santo.

Tickets cost $10 and can be purchased at the door. Those tasting must be 21 or older. Identification will be verified. Tickets include a commemorative Brelsford WSU Visitor Center wine glass while supplies last and qualify participants to be entered into a raffle featuring a bottle of Cougar V.

A wine and winery for Cougs

During “Meet the Makers of Cougar V” event, Rob and Brenda Mercer will share how farmland first settled in 1886 on Horse Heaven Hills by the Mercer family became the home of Mercer Wine Estates and its 13 WSU alumni employees – and the excitement their team felt in being selected as this year’s featured winery.

“WSU came to the right place if they’re looking for Coug representation because it’s big in this family and this company,” Santo said. “It was just the perfect opportunity.”

Santo, along with former winemaker Jessica Munnell and assistant winemaker Ashley Stephens, wanted to put their best foot forward in crafting the red blend for their alma mater. Munnell served as a mentor for Santo as he transitioned into Mercer Wine Estates in 2017 as winemaker.

Inspiration for Cougar V stems from the Mercer family’s history as the first to plant grapes on Horse Heaven Hills in 1972  —  a region known for quality Bordeaux-style red wine grapes  —  and a desire to showcase varieties grown on estate vineyards, Santo said.

The final blend  —  39 percent merlot, 31 percent Syrah, 16 percent Malbec, 5 percent Grenache, 5 percent petit verdot and 4 percent cabernet sauvignon — is grounded in one of the winery’s favorite blends and intended to be enjoyed with fellow Cougars. Mercer Wine Estates produced 1,000 cases of Cougar V and the team recommends pairing a glass with any kind of barbecue.

“We’re really honored and excited to do it,” Brenda Mercer said. “As collectors, it’s fun to be a part of it.”

About the winemakers

Rob and Brenda Mercer are both Washington natives, growing up in Prosser and Walla Walla, respectively, and met in Walla Walla while Rob was in school and Brenda was home visiting from WSU.

They returned to Pullman together. Brenda graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and Rob in 1991 with a degree in political science.

“I just always wanted to go there,” Brenda Mercer said. “It was a natural, easy selection for me. Lots of friends and family went there.”

The same was true for Santo, who graduated from WSU in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Santo, also a Prosser native, said both his older brothers attended WSU and his parents worked at WSU’s Prosser research and extension center.

“WSU has kind of been in my blood,” he said.

Moving back to Prosser after his college graduation ultimately set Santo on his path to Mercer Wine Estates and back home in 2017. Santo took a laboratory position with Snoqualmie Winery after being nudged to get a job by his father and learned he enjoyed making wine.

He worked at various wineries from 2003-2017, when Munnell recommended him at Mercer Wine Estates. Santo said the opportunity was a “dream job” and the transition was made easy by the tight-knit environment.

“Coming here was like family, like hometown family,” Santo said.

The Mercer family has resided in Prosser since the late 1800s when Rob Mercer’s great-grandfather, Willis Mercer, settled near Horse Heaven Hills. It was nearly a century later when the first wine grapes were planted on the property by Rob’s uncle and aunt Don and Linda Mercer.

“That vineyard is still out in the center of our ranch,” Brenda Mercer said.

In 2000, Rob and Brenda Mercer decided to start Mercer Wine Estates on the property and produced their first vintage in 2005. They opened their first tasting room in Prosser four years later and recently opened a second in Seattle. The winery now consists of about 3,000 acres of grapes.

Will Mercer, also a WSU alumnus and Rob’s brother, joined the winery team and has led the national sales effort since 2014. His work has established a presence for Mercer Wine Estates in all 50 states.

“We like it. It’s fun,” Brenda Mercer said. “It’s a great industry – a lot of fun, food, wine. A lot of work, but a lot of fun.”

For more information, see the Mercer Wine Estate website.