Don Mercer, who planted the first grape vines in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills, passed away in Prosser on Saturday, July 6th. He was 87.

“He was a pioneer,” says Dick Boushey, owner of Boushey Vineyards in Yakima Valley. “He had this real passion about wine.”

Mercer and his wife Linda planted grape vines at Mercer Ranch in 1972, starting with Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, the Horse Heaven Hills is home to 17,000+ acres of grape vines, nearly one-third of all of the acreage in Washington. The appellation has made its name in large part with Cabernet Sauvignon, with some considering it the best area in the state for the variety.

Donald ‘Don’ Austin Mercer was born November 30, 1936 in Prosser, Washington. He was the child of Carma Sharp Mercer and Milton Mercer Sr. Mercer graduated from Prosser High School in 1955 and subsequently attended the University of Washington in Seattle, studying architecture. After graduating, he lived on Portage Bay in Seattle, working as a draftsman.

In 1964, Mercer married Linda Carpenter. The Mercers were encouraged to plant grape vines in the Horse Heavens by the late Dr. Walter Clore, a horticulturalist at Washington State University who is officially declared to be the father of Washington wine.

Mercer helped found the Horse Heaven Hills Irrigation District that would allow grape vines and other crops in the area to thrive. In addition to wine grapes, Mercer Ranches, run by Don Mercer’s father and brothers, produced corn, carrots, sugar beets, potatoes, and a variety of other crops. The Mercer’s success and enthusiasm for grape growing also inspired others to plant in the area.

In 1984, the Mercers established a winery, Mercer Ranch Vineyards. The wines received accolades, but the couple subsequently shuttered the winery in the ‘90s.

“He was ahead of his time on starting a winery,” says Boushey of Don. “There were just a handful of wineries back then.”

Grower Paul Champoux and a group of investors purchased Mercer Ranch Vineyards in 1996. It was subsequently renamed Champoux Vineyard and is widely considered one of the best sites for Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington. (The vineyard is now mostly owned by Quilceda Creek.)

Mercer was a past president of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers (now called Washington Winegrowers) and the Benton County Farm Bureau. He helped found the Prosser Wine and Food Fair, which lasted for 34 years.

For their efforts elevating the Washington wine industry, Don and Linda Mercer received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 from the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. Mercer was inducted into the Legends of Washington Wine Hall of Fame in 2015. The Mercer family continues to farm in the Horse Heaven Hills, including thousands of acres of wine grapes.

Don was preceded in death by his mother, Carma Sharp Mercer, his father, Milton Mercer Sr., and his brother, Milton ‘Bud’ Mercer Jr.

He is survived by his wife Linda, his children (Peter, Alice, Elizabeth, and Rachel) and their spouses, eight grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, his brother Rick Mercer and his wife Mary Ann, his brother-in-law Neil Carpenter and his wife Kathleen, his sister-in-law, Patsy Mercer, and many nieces, nephews, and cousins.

A private celebration of life for Don Mercer will be held at a later date.

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