Merry Edwards: One of America’s Wine Pioneers Is Ready for More Disruption

Merry Edwards could rest on her many laurels, but she’s not about to do that. As one of the first female students at the UC-Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, she disrupted its job placement practices in the early 1970s that had allowed male professors to recommend their best male students for the best jobs while steering female graduates into jobs in winery laboratories and not into jobs as winemakers. Gay men, in particular, helped open doors for her, perhaps because they knew what it was like to be excluded. She has paid their help forward for 45 years, supporting men and women while making award-winning, stellar Pinot Noir, breathtaking, barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc and soul-stirring Chardonnay – and raising a family.

A Sonoma County specialist, her first job as a winemaker, in 1974, was at Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountain appellation. In 1977, she helped build and was founding winemaker at Matanzas Creek Winery in Santa Rosa. At each place, she made a name for herself and the wineries. John and I first came across her as a winery owner in 1986 with The Merry Vintners 1984 Sonoma County Chardonnay. It was her first vintage of that wine under that short-lived enterprise, which was owned by her and her then-husband and her parents. We knew even then that we were onto something special. We rated it Delicious.

Because of Edwards, 70, the caps of wine bottles today are not lead, which poisons. Clones in American winemaking today are celebrated and embraced for the diversity of flavors and other properties they contribute to wine, characteristics she proved existed and should be mined here as she’d learned they were prized in France. One of the earliest UC-Davis Pinot Noir clones, UCD 37, is also known as The Merry Edwards Selection. It does extremely well in the Russian River Valley, prime Pinot country. In 2013, the Culinary Institute of America inducted Edwards into its Vintners Hall of Fame, along with Robert Parker and the late legendary wine writer Frank Schoonmaker, and the late pivotal labor leader Cesar Chavez. That same year, the James Beard Foundation named her Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional. Only two other women, Zelma Long and Jamie Davies, have won both honors.

After years of working for others, she is the owner of Merry Edwards Winery in Sebastopol in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County with her husband, Ken Coopersmith. She recently sat down with Dorothy J. Gaiter to discuss a wide range of subjects, from women in the wine industry—still too few winemakers--to American wine drinkers’ affection for vanilla.

Merry Edwards

(Photo: Merry Edwards' Coopersmith Vineyard)

Dorothy J. Gaiter: Today we have with us Meredith Edwards, better known as Merry Edwards, a serious, serious pioneer in our wine industry. It's just thrilling for me to be here talking to you because it's not often you get to meet people who actually changed the way things are done and the way people are perceived. In '73, you were one of three women in your masters class at  UC Davis, but you were the only one who became a winemaker.

Merry Edwards: Right. One of the women became a professor later, and then the third lady went off into the beer industry. I don't know what happened to her.

To pursue your desire to be a winemaker, that wasn't the norm back then. Women became lab technicians at wineries.

They did, and I was bound and determined that I would not take a job as a lab tech because people got stuck there. Zelma Long got stuck in the lab at Mondavi for a long time and I didn't know why ... I mean, that's not why I went into the wine business. I had a lot of lab experience because of my schooling and I had worked in actually a biological lab for a while. It's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to get out in the vineyards and do the real stuff. I'd had enough lab.

You needed help doing that, right? Tell us about that. You had some pretty heavy hitters in your corner.

I say that if it wasn't for my gay support team, I never would have gotten anywhere. I say that with all respect, because Dr. Maynard Amerine, who's now deceased, was a big supporter. He was my major professor, and he was very quietly gay. My other major professor was not quietly gay, but still a strong supporter, Ralph Kunkee, another famous microbiologist. The man who hired me for Mount Eden was a professor at the University of Chicago who was assigned by the board of directors to hire a winemaker. He didn't care if I was ... He was gay. He didn't care if I was a girl. My first consultant, Dick Graf, was also gay.

He didn't care I was a woman. He just wanted to make sure I was smart and could do the work. Most of the men, of course, in the business, it’s a very conservative business, the wine business. After all it comes from farming and farming is a very conservative business. Unfortunately, as we all know, it's not just the men who inhibit women from getting to where they need to be. Unfortunately it's other women many times who discriminate and are afraid ... For instance, when I was trying to move from Mount Eden to my next position, I interviewed with a number of wineries in the Napa Valley, and the small wineries of course, there'd be usually the husband would be the one involved in the business, in the physical business, and then there'd be the wife maybe doing paperwork and different things. The wives didn't want me there either, but I was by then a married woman. Stably married, but still I was a threat in a different way. It's our culture, it's very complicated.

That is complicated. I'm so glad you persevered.

I didn't know I wasn't supposed to.

Your master's thesis was about lead. What led you down that path?

What led me down that path? Dr. Amerine, I was his last graduate student, so this was his last project. He laughed about it afterwards because he convinced me that I had to create the methodology to do the study and then I had to do this huge study of 120 California wines.

Merry EdwardsTo test how much lead was actually coming from the capsule into the wine.

He told me afterwards, "You could've just done one or the other and that would've been good, but I wasn't going to tell you that. I wanted both of them done." I did them both. Imagine, I'm this very nerdy girl from Southern California, very protected by my family, and I'm not really a rabble-rouser, I don't intentionally try to create controversy. But it seems like everywhere I went, that's what I did just because I was me. The fact that I did this work and the Wine Institute had been the one who granted me the funds to do this research, but they didn't expect me to actually find lead in wine. So they weren't prepared when I did. And so they suppressed my research for a year. This was very upsetting to Dr. Amerine because of course, I was working under the main biochemist at Davis. The biochemistry department and under the food and science department. He was very upset that they would question the fact that the work that had been done was not good. Anyway, and of course, this changed the whole game because capsules were always lead. Now all of a sudden, they couldn't be lead anymore. They had to be tin or they had to be plastic or basically cellophane-type products. That was the big upset that I was responsible for. Again, not intentionally. I was assigned this project. I thought it sounded interesting and I thought it was important. It turned out to be very important.

Lead kills, lead impairs, and you got it out of wine. That's huge.

Right, right. A girl from Pasadena.

Go, Merry. Your clone research, tell us about that.

Another interesting pursuit. When I became the winemaker at Matanzas Creek, they wanted to plant a chardonnay vineyard. They had by then cabernet and merlot, and I thought is all chardonnay the same or are there different kinds of chardonnay? I had no idea. I went to talk to my old professor, Harold Olmo, the viticulturist at Davis. He was like, "I'm so happy that you came to talk to me because no one's interested in my research." What he wanted to do was research on clones. Instead, the only funding he could get was on creating new varietals, like Symphony or there's a grape that is used as a coloring material, these weird things. He connected me with the research station in Dijon and I went to France sponsored by Matanzas Creek, or the to-be Matanzas Creek, sponsored by the owners. It was this eye-opening experience of seeing 50 different pinot noir clones growing in the same vineyard right next to each other.

Also, the French were doing all this research, which of course they were not talking about widely. They had convinced the American public that the only thing that mattered was you had to have the right terroir, which then was limited to soil. If you weren't in a limestone area and you weren't the right latitude and longitude, of course Burgundy, then just give up, right? You had to be there. Instead what they were doing was all this research, which started for them really on the basis of trying to find pinot noir selections that would not be susceptible to rot because it rained so much in Burgundy.

Along the way, of course, they realized these huge differences in the clones and the incredible quality you could get in differences. They actually had a miniaturized winery with miniaturized equipment, tiny tanks. They had five vines of each selection and they were actually making these different wines in a dollhouse ... There should've been a lot of women there, but there weren't. They were all guys.

Anyway, I came back all jacked up, trying to share what I had learned, but people in America were so into looking to the French for guidance that they were like, "No, that's not right. That's heresy. Nobody talks about clones. It's all about the soil and the longitude and latitude." I'm like, "You guys just don't get it." Anyway, at the end what happened was, not the end, but ... I went back, I made some selections of chardonnay, and planted those in Matanzas Creek. When those grew up enough, we could make wine out of them. Then Harold Olmo and I did the first clonal weekend seminar at Davis.

Merry EdwardsIn '85?

Something like that. Yeah. That was the beginning of people learning about the importance of clones, and I would do these clonal tours where I'd take people around and say, "Okay, here is this specific clone of pinot noir growing in this location, this location, and this location. You can see the relationship between the three locations. In other words, you can see the clonal influence even in these separate areas." I started working with Simi on their vineyards that Zelma planted. She was a big proponent of both chardonnay and cabernet and clones. This all goes back for me actually to the research too with Carneros Creek because Francis Mahoney was an early proponent of the importance of clones, and he planted a vineyard way back when with 20 clones, and then narrowed it down to 10, and then five. I was part of those tastings. Anyway, it's been a long track, but I laugh when I see the winemakers of today, young winemakers, who think that this clonal toolbox was always there. It wasn't always there.

That's great vindication.

Yes. It's really fun to have that as part of something I could contribute to the wine industry.

There's a pinot noir clone named after you, right?

Yes, a selection that I made from Mount Eden. I sent that to UC Davis for a virus clean-up back in 1975, and that was put into the collection as UCD 37, and today it's known by that number, but also by my name.

Isn't that a blast?

Yes. It's cool because it's a really good clone and the amazing thing about it is, this is just totally bizarre, that it is so far ... This is wood, right? (knocking on the table.) It is resistant to even all forms of red leafroll virus, including the red blotch, which has been a godsend. There is a lot of the material we have today that has failed with red blotch. A lot of the imported clones, the Dijon series clones, a lot are infected. It's very hard to find something clean to plant today, but I have my own little miracle.

That's amazing.

That's just pure luck really.

Was it? You made the selections.

I made the selection, but the fact that all these ... Back then we thought there's red leaf virus, one type. Now of course we know every year we find a new one. Fifteen, 20 different ones. Then when red blotch came out, it didn't even test positive for the regular leafroll virus test, so it required development of a whole other test. The fact that it would be resistant to that is just amazing to me and I guess it's my gift from the universe, a gift from the universe to Merry. Yes.

It's a star performer, that clone.

It is a star performer. Yes.

You're not a card-carrying member of the too-much-alcohol club, but you have some strong opinions about it.

I'm on the more moderate side. Alcohol is popular in America and the press in general, I'm not saying everyone, but certain major publications have really supported the high alcohol versions of all wines. The problem with that is that wines with high alcohol don't age well. They taste good for maybe six months and then they start an earlier decline, especially if they're coupled with another way to make wines look good when they're first released is a high pH and low acid profile. But again, these wines don't hold up and I really don't like to make wines that don't go the distance.

High alcohol wines don't really pair well with food I've found. You're a serious gardener, so I know food is important to you.

Yes, we have a huge garden. I think that people in America love vanilla. There's vanilla in oak. The higher the alcohol, in particular wine, it will bring out the smell of vanilla. That is an immediate response that people have sometimes to high-alcohol wines, and people started using this verbiage of this wine is a fruit bomb. Now a fruit bomb is really not a fruit bomb. It's actually an alcohol bomb. Usually there's not a lot of fruit connected with it because when alcohol is too high, it actually suppresses the fruit, but it brings out things like vanilla and secondary characters. That's my take on alcohol. Yes, I love to cook and I cook at home every night from the garden during the season. I left Monday, so Sunday night, we had fresh asparagus because that's what's coming in right now. Sauvignon blanc goes really well with asparagus and shrimp.

Merry EdwardsYou make a late harvest?

I make a late harvest sauvignon blanc. People always say, "Are you going to make another varietal like Syrah?" I go, "No, but okay, I'm making sauvignon blanc. I'm making the late harvest. I'm making pinot and I make some sparkling wine from pinot. Make chardonnay, make some sparkling wine from that." I'm diversifying within those three varietals.

Where do you think the American wine culture is going? You talked about Americans liking vanilla. They do. They talk dry, but they still drink sweet, but I think that's happening less.

I don't know. We all know about some very large brands out there, even pinot, that are quite sweet. Typically what happens is that these less expensive wines do bring people to the table and they are still going to learn about pinot. Inevitably what I see is when people taste a better wine, they can never go backwards. People instinctively know quality. They really don't have to be taught quality. You don't teach somebody about a steak. Okay, this is a good steak or this is not a good steak, right? People know a good wine. When I was young, I remember I would have parties and I'd think okay, I'll serve my friends the good wine first and then when they all get loaded, then I'll give them the cheaper stuff later, and they would go, "What's this?" I got them hooked on the really good wine. They don't go back. I see a very good future for the wine business.

You've seen a lot of change come to Northern California wineries. What do you think of it? Has it been good, most of it? Is there any of it that's worrisome to you?

I think the hard part for new people getting into the wine business today is the limited amount of land that's available at very expensive prices. Then people are stuck with purchasing grapes, which is not the same experience as growing. If you have to buy grapes and then you try and make great wines out of purchased grapes, it's a lot harder than if you, again, control your destiny and can make the wine from the ground up. I think that's a challenge. A lot of this started back in 2008 when we had the (economic) downturn and a lot of the Napa cabernet producers started coming to Sonoma County to make pinot because they thought “we need to diversify.” That put a lot of pressure on real estate prices and upped the ante, then preventing the starting vintner from getting into the land ownership game. There's a lot of factors that come into play.

Lately there's been a lot of discussion about wealthy people ruining wine country. The cost of land and that they're lifestyle vintners, they're not real, true vintners. That they buy into the glamour.

Of course it always seems glamorous from the outside. I think that yeah, we do have our movie stars and our rockers and musicians, or golfers. Everybody wants to make a wine with their name on it, but I don't think, really think, that's ruining the ability of people to purchase land. Like I said, I think it's really, a lot of it is Napa is a lot wealthier. Cabernet producers are a lot wealthier because they're making more than double or triple the amount per bottle that we're making in Sonoma County. I say that they're bringing the Napa dollars to Sonoma. They can afford to pay whatever it takes to get that land. That has had a big influence on land prices. Of course, our recent firestorm did not help with making land more affordable or housing more affordable. There's never just one factor.

How about how far women have come?

Not too far actually. I'm not saying that just out of pulling that out of thin air. UC Davis has done recent studies on this, which I'm sure you've read. When I got into the business, the statistics were supposedly that, in America at least, about 6% of the winemakers were women. Now we have more wineries, more winemakers, so there are more women that are winemakers, but the percentage today is about 12%. In over 40 years, I think that's pretty slow progress. The university's saying that, I think ,in 10 more years, they're expecting the number to be 20%. I think that's a little optimistic, but it's a very demanding career. To be a woman winemaker and if you want to have the typical American dream with your family, your kids, being married, and having your career, that has to be carefully orchestrated. You have to have a husband who's going to be supportive of you. You need family members around you to help because raising kids takes a village.


Tasting notes:

The 2016 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc: Great, heady, varietal nose. Lots of body and nice weight.  Barrel-fermented (some new French oak) and lees stirred twice a day for six weeks. Lovely spices and minerals. Majestic. One third of the fruit is Sauvignon Musque clone, which the Dutton family planted for Edwards in 2005 in the Dutton-Jewell vineyard in Green Valley. Last year, I wrote about Dutton-Goldfield Winery and her history with the Dutton family.
The 2015 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is a blend of 12 lots from six individually fermented clones grown in  six vineyards. One of the clones is her namesake, Merry Edwards Selection, also known as UCD 37. Rich blackberry, blueberry fruit, with abundant earth and herbal tones. Elegant.

Dorothy J. Gaiter conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010 with her husband, John Brecher. She has been tasting and studying wine since 1973. She has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist and editorial writer at The Miami Herald and The New York Times as well as at The Journal. Dottie and John are well-known from their many television appearances, especially on Martha Stewart's show, and as the creators of the annual "Open That Bottle Night" celebration of wine and friendship. The first bottle they shared was André Cold Duck.   

Read more of Dorothy J. Gaiter on Grape Collective.

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