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Pinot Noir Crush

September 10, 2013
by Lexi Pandell
Merry Edwards in a vineyard

An alumna pursues her passion in the vineyard.

Merry Edwards ’70 describes her fascination with pinot noir like a romance. “How do you decide who you fall in love with?” she said. “You can’t really respond to that. You fall in love because you fall in love.” The comparison makes more sense when you know that Edwards, one of California’s pioneering female winemakers, has built her reputation on being the Queen of Pinot Noir.

This crush, or harvest, will mark her 40th year of winemaking, though the year has already been eventful for Edwards, whose contributions to the winemaking community are as notable as the quality of her wines. Recently, she was inducted into the Vintner’s Hall of Fame and named the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional.

Though wine has consumed much of her adult life, it was not a part of Edwards’s upbringing. “My family wasn’t into wine and nobody that I knew could afford any kind of good wine,” Edwards said. Raised in Michigan and Southern California, Edwards first learned about cooking from a woman she babysat for. Her own mother had been encouraged to be a career woman and never learned to cook. (Instead, she made mostly canned food. The worst concoction, according to Edwards, was cream of mushroom soup and plain tuna over instant white rice with sliced green olives on top). In an act of self preservation, Edwards decided to take up cooking and discovered California Wine Advisory Board cookbooks around the house. She made a beef bourguignon, which brought wine into the home. Food appealed to Edwards from a scientific perspective and, after she graduated as a physiology major at Cal, she experimented with home brewing. “I thought, if I can make stroganoff, I can make beer,” she said. Eventually, she began fermenting fruits, such as overripe apricots from the Berkeley farmers’ market, to make wine.

While she was doing graduate work in nutrition at Berkeley, a friend and current winemaker named Andy Quady told Edwards about studying enology at UC Davis. Edwards had always thought winemaking was an intuitive process, and was amazed to discover that there were scientific methods to be learned. She transferred to the program. There, Edwards was one of the last students to study with renowned researcher Dr. Maynard Amerine. Edwards’s research on lead in wine capsules (the thin metal seal that covers corks on wine bottles) helped abolish the practice.

At Davis, Edwards also experienced gender discrimination. Traditionally, men have dominated winemaking, as is the case with most farming-based industries. “In most parts of the world back then, everything was a man’s world,” Edwards said. She was not invited by the school to winery job recruitments and was pushed toward lab work that was thought to be more gender-appropriate. Many employers avoided hiring women, who tend to have less upper-body strength and might take time off to have a family. “Even during bottling, you’re working 11 hours a day…. It’s very hard to integrate a family into that setting.”

After getting her Master’s degree in food science with an emphasis in enology from Davis in ’73, her first job was at Mount Eden Vineyards, where she had to find creative ways to do the same work as her male peers. Back then, natural barrels were stacked by hand instead of a forklift. Edwards had to use leverage to lift the barrels. “Men can approach things with brute strength because they have that,” she said. “Women have to figure out intellectually how to do something.” But she also encountered employers who wanted to help her get ahead. While at her second job at Matanzas Creek Winery, Edwards gave birth to the first of her two sons (who would also later graduate from Berkeley). She brought him to work for a while, and her employers opened a day care center.

Edwards became an innovator early in her career. Before producing wine at Matanzas Creek Winery, she was sent to France to learn about clones, genetically identical plants derived from a single vine. At the time, few American winemakers thought the practice was important and research was not being funded. The French were trying to create plants resistant to mildew, but along the way had found clones that had good winemaking characteristics. “They weren’t sharing this information,” Edwards said. She returned to California, advocating for the use of these clones. “I was considered a rebel. What I was saying was outside anybody’s experience.” She planted different selections, including a chardonnay for Matanzas Creek that was later made separately from the other wines. The experiment was a success and, in 1985, Edwards gave the first grape clonal seminar at UC Davis.

In 1984, Edwards left Matanzas Creek Winery to become a consultant and to nurture Merry Vintners, a winery devoted to chardonnay that she started with her family. Her wine was praised, but she had to cease production in 1989 after lenders called back loans. A year later, a company Edwards had invested in called Vintech filed for bankruptcy. She switched to full-time consulting until 1997, when she and her husband Ken Coopersmith co-founded the Meredith Estate Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. That enterprise would eventually spawn Merry Edwards Winery, which they share today.

Edwards and Coopersmith’s production has grown from 2,000 cases their first year to 25,000 today. Everything from tasting and sales to aging and shipping the wine is done in-house with 20 employees. Last harvest, four of the six interns were women. There’s even a small laboratory on site.

As a self-described pinot noir fanatic, Edwards says she has encountered a lot of bad pinot noirs from California. The grape is sensitive to temperature and susceptible to mildew. What’s more, though pinot noir is typically lower in alcohol content, some makers will sacrifice the fruit essence to jack up the percentage of alcohol.

A great pinot noir must be highly controlled in the fields, and Edwards says she is as much a wine grower as a winemaker. She and Coopersmith grow their own estate pinot noir and sauvignon blanc and buy grapes as necessary from longtime business partners. That depth of involvement, Edwards says, results in a balanced and drinkable wine that ages well for many years. Pinot noir attracted Edwards because of its aromatic properties, which are closer to white than red wine. For Edwards, wine is all about the fruit, and that, to her, is a defining characteristic of pinot noir.

Her wines have been well received. As of 2012, Wine Spectator had given Edwards’s sauvignon blanc at least 92 out of 100 points for six consecutive vintages, and in 2006 hers was named one of the top 30 pinot noir–producing wineries.

Edwards isn’t sure why she received two major industry honors in one year. She had been nominated for the James Beard Foundation award six years in a row, and joked that she felt like Susan Lucci, who was nominated for an Emmy 18 times before she won. “I was like, what, am I not old enough yet?”

Edwards is happy about the recognition, but would still like to see more women doing what she does. Today, only 10 percent of winemakers in California are female. “There are a lot of good young women coming out of school,” Edwards said. “But where they end up and what they do, I don’t know. I’ve certainly nurtured women as they’ve come along, but how it’s all going to wash out and progress is still to be seen.”

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