Wine & Beer

Merry Edwards’ 40 years in wine

Merry Edwards
Merry Edwards

Women winemakers are common in the industry these days, but as recently as the 1970s, they were almost non-existent. That was the situation facing Merry Edwards when she started looking for a winemaking job in 1973.

More than 40 years later, Edwards is still going strong. She’s a pinot noir specialist, crafting bold, flavorful but elegant wines at Merry Edwards Winery in the Russian River Valley. Her pinots are full-bodied, but they are unmistakably pinot. They would never be confused with, say, syrah.

Edwards didn’t originally set out to be a winemaker. She was interested in wine and had experimented with fermenting beer and fruit wines, but she studied physiology at the UC Berkeley, with the goal of writing about nutrition. But her interests shifted after a visit to UC Davis, and she went on in 1973 to earn a master’s there in food science, with an emphasis on enology.

But it wasn’t easy to find a job as a winemaker. Edwards was offered jobs in winery labs, which is where women were often relegated to in those days, but she held out for something better. Finally, she was hired at Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where she first worked with pinot noir. “It excited me more than the cab or the chardonnay or the merlot,” she says.

Mount Eden is best known for its estate chardonnay. So why pinot? “Why do you fall in love with your partner?” Edwards says. “It’s hard to give a reason.”

After three years she moved to Sonoma County, where she put aside pinot and helped develop Matanzas Creek Winery. In 1984, she left Matanzas Creek to consult and run her own short-lived brand, Merry Vintners.

Edwards purchased land in 1996 in the Russian River Valley, which became her Meredith Estate vineyard. At the time, she says, people thought the site was too cold, but since then, vintners have been planting in ever more marginal places. She started Merry Edwards Winery the next year.

Coopersmith Vineyard, named for her husband, Ken Coopersmith, was planted in 2001. It was at Coopersmith that she built her winery, which was completed in 2008. Edwards also works with grapes from a number of other vineyards in the Russian River Valley.

In 2013, her 40th year as a winemaker, Edwards was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame in St. Helena and won the James Beard Award for best wine, beer or spirits professional.

Edwards makes a range of pinots, and I recently tasted some of the fall releases.

The 2013 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($48), a blend of six vineyards, offers full-bodied cherry and raspberry fruit, some spicy notes and a hint of wet stone. The 2013 Georganne Pinot Noir ($60) is more structured, with lively fruit, baking spice, a hint of forest floor and a supple finish. And the 2013 Olivet Lane Pinot Noir ($65) is more structured still and a good one to age.

Pick of the Week

Tangent 2014 Pinot Gris ($17) This white from the Niven family’s Paragon Vineyard in Edna Valley is perfect as an aperitif or with shellfish. It’s bright and a little fleshy, with apple and white stone fruit flavors. Very refreshing.