The Napa Valley vintner Juan Mercado, founder of Napa’s coveted cult wine Realm Cellars, has launched a new wine venture RIISE — appropriately incorporating the Roman numeral II in the label, thus referring to his second act — this time in Paso Robles.

Anthiny Juan
Anthony Yount and Juan Mercado
Photos: Mira Honeycutt

“This [Paso] has always been a place I’d admired especially the camaraderie here,” said Mercado when I met him at his hilltop home on a blustery rainy afternoon. The camaraderie he’s referring to is a group of winemakers he initially met located mainly in Paso’s Willow Creek District. Among them were such original Willow Creek rockstars as Justin Smith, Eric Jensen, Scott Hawley and Chris Cherry. 

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Long before that, Mercado’s introduction to Paso came through Pax Mahle, his winemaker friend noted for the PAX brand of Syrah wines from Sonoma. 


“My first stop in Paso was at Justin’s house,” Mercado recalled of his initial visit in 2003. “He was just starting Saxum and his 2001 [vintage] hadn’t been released yet.” Mercado soon met other local winemakers and cemented a connection with Paso. “It was a natural move for me to come down here.”

That move would take over a dozen years, however. During that time, Mercado launched Napa’s cult wine Realm Cellars in 2003. The former nurse, who ran the pulmonary unit at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland for nine years, got bitten by the wine bug during visits to nearby Napa.“The last five of those years, I was moonlighting,” he said, “nurse by night and vintner by day.”

Looking back, he reflected: “Realm was just a concept I was buying fruit, we had one vintage in barrels and we were trying to figure it out.” Mercado’s initial partner was Wendell Laidely and the two were later joined by Scott Becker and Benoit Touqette.

Mercado compares the evolution of Realm to kids growing up and going to college. “That’s how I look at Realm — it kinda developed its own momentum and [now] I can step back. It’s not relying on me like initially.

“Realm turned out to be amazing. I think it’s the hottest brand in the last 20 years. A lot of it is timing: it’s the right place, right time, right people, there’s a lot of factors involved.”

RIISE wines eye-popping artwork

But Mercado was ready for a second and solo venture. “I knew I had another one in me.” When he stepped away from his ongoing duties from Realm (he continues as a partner and investor) it was time to set his sights finally on Paso.

“I wanted to do something that wouldn’t compete with Realm,” Mercado remarked. “It would look odd if I did another project in Napa.”

Mercado’s RIISE is a personal project with a small 1200-case production. The 2019 vintage consists of three wines — Doyen, Peace and Jovian produced at Denner Vineyards. Mercado has no partners. His gold-star team is led by winemaker Anthony Yount with Lucas Pope and Kevin Wilkerson as viticulturists. 

Dressed in black with a matching baseball cap and socks (sans shoes), Mercado sports a friendly relaxed persona. “Black house with a yellow door,” are his directions to the hilltop house surrounded by his 22-acre Arbor ranch in the Willow Creek District. Mercado divides his time between Paso and Napa. 

RIISE Jovian, Doyen and Peace

Mercado credits Paso winemaker Eric Jensen (founder of Booker Vineyard) as his mentor. “For sure, no doubt, Eric has been a good mentor. He definitely helped facilitate my move down here.”

In 2019 Mercado acquired the 42-acre Shadow Canyon ranch which had 16 acres under vine atop York Mountain, the AVA now getting on the radar of many local winegrowers. 

A year later he acquired two more properties in the Willow Creek District: the 22-acre Arbor ranch planted to 16 acres of vineyards and in 2023 the 85-acre Heaton Ranch with 48 acres under vine. So, a total of 80 acres are planted mostly to red Rhône varieties with some Bordeaux plantings. Plans include a tasting room and a winery at Arbor ranch. 

Mercado’s team practices organic and biodynamic farming but there’s no certification yet. “I’m not going to spray anything that’s going to harm the vines and affect the ecosystem here,” he affirmed.

Juan by door
Juan Mercado at his Arbor ranch home

Mercado favors blends. “I like the ability to be able to layer.” Plus being new to Paso, he’s getting to know the sites and the vineyards. “Why am I going to try to make single varietal wine or single vineyard when I’ve never made wines from some of these sites before? The fewer restrictions I put, the better the wine is going to be. I’ve got more flexibility.”

The flexibility of blending fruit from multiple vineyard sites offers an exciting challenge for Yount, who makes wines for Denner, Sixmilebridge and his own label Royal NoneSuch Farm. 

“We found the right sourcing of fruit and developed the right vineyards to create the flavor profile we’re looking for,”  Yount explained. From a winemaker’s point of  view, he noted that working with several different vineyards creates a unique style.

And that style is about texture, richness, mouthfeel and length, “all the things in my book that make an incredible wine and we do that naturally within what Paso has to offer.”

Hedonistic, textural and, yes, gutsy wines as we tasted them at the kitchen counter of Mercado’s home. The three 2019s, all blends, are produced from Shadow Canyon and supported by fruit sourced from some of Paso’s prized vineyards. 

The wines are bold, powered by bright fruit offering a sensory explosion on the palate; yet they are elegant, layered and well-knit, offering an engaging complexity.

The Grenache-driven muscle-flexing Doyen is supported by Syrah and Mourvèdre. The deep-hued Syrah-dominant Peace is blended with Mourvèdre, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon. In the Jovian, Tempranillo is joined by Petite Sirah and old-vine Graciano from Paderewski vineyard. All labels are graced with eye-popping Dali’esque artwork created by Barcelona artist Sergio Albiac.

Each label carries a thoughtful meaning, Mercado explained. “Grenache is a chameleon grape; it does well everywhere,” he said comparing Grenache to Paso as a chameleon. “The people [Paso] attracts, the maverick individual that’s very adaptable, it has a wild west vibe.” 

About Jovian, an alien and extra-terrestrial, he explained: “The Tempranillo is not from here and I’m not from here. Someone not from here is like an alien.”  The clock in the image represents the early ripening time of Tempranillo.

The Syrah-dominated Peace is a nod to his friend Pax. “His name translates to peace and he introduced me to Syrah.” 

All three wines are priced alike at $130 per bottle (available through allocation only). “The idea was that it’s all at the highest level and you get to decide which one you like. They’re all world-class wines. I don’t want there to be a hierarchy [by creating different prices for each].”

Mercado is impressed by Paso’s diversity — access to so many varieties and the ability to create blends, not to mention Paso’s signature limestone soil. “There’s no limitation in a region like this. For me, that’s part of the intrigue.”


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