Nearly half a century ago, a handful of women quietly worked their way into the California wine industry. More than trailblazers, these pioneering women helped set the course of the industry for the next 50 years. Along the way, each has become an icon. No one more so than Merry Edwards. Merry has a Master’s Degree from the University of California at Davis. In 1974 she was hired as the winemaker of Mount Eden Vineyards on the Central Coast where the late Richard Graf (co-founder of Chalone) became her mentor, and where she began to forge a new quality direction for California pinot noir. Merry went on to become the winemaker at Matanzas Creek, and in the 1990s began making her own wines. In 2006 she built Merry Edwards Winery in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, specializing in pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. In February of 2019, she sold the winery to Louis Roederer Champagne for an undisclosed sum. Merry was recently awarded a Wine Business Leadership Award from Wine Business Monthly.
Karen MacNeil interviewed Merry Edwards for WineSpeed in May 2019.
Karen MacNeil: What was the toughest part of your early years as a winemaker?
Merry Edwards: When I started at Mount Eden Vineyards, there was one vineyard guy and me. I knew how to do lab work but I had to teach myself farming and viticulture which they didn’t teach winemaking students at U.C. Davis back then. And I had to figure out how I should make pinot noir and what pinot should taste like. I had no point of reference which was probably a good thing because in California at the time, pinot noir was pretty god-awful.
KM: When you began in the California wine industry, there were very few women in it. Was that an absolute disadvantage or was it, in some ways, an advantage?
ME: At U.C. Davis back then, I did have professors who discriminated against me and I reported them to the chancellor of the university. But I also had a great support group of colleagues and professors, most of whom were gay. Richard Graf, Ralph Kunkee, and Maynard Amerine were all gay. None of these men ever questioned my ability and they never thought of me as being different in any way… maybe because they understood what that felt like. I don’t know what I would have done without them.
KM: Do you think women and men experience wine differently?
ME: Yes. I think women have a certain advantage not just in experiencing wine, but also in making it. It takes a good team to make wine. It helps to have a mom-like figure who nurtures everyone. I also think women are, because of childbirth, more emotionally durable. I’ve never heard of a woman having a breakdown during harvest. But I know a lot of men who’ve had one.
KM: You live and work in Sonoma, California. What other wine region inspires you?
ME: I find Champagne very exciting. Sparkling is difficult and it’s the thing that I don’t think we do well enough here in California yet. I have a bottle right now in my refrigerator. I love wines that are textural.
“Great wine is always a whole picture.”
KM: Is there a type of wine you don’t like?
ME: I don’t really care much for zinfandel. I’ve kind of moved past cabernet. I find pinot so much more interesting. I look at the money that’s paid for top cabernets and I think it’s backwards. Pinots should cost $150 and cabernets should be way less.
KM: When you taste a really great wine—a wine of a lifetime—would you be more likely to scream, laugh, or cry?
ME: None of those. But if it’s a wine I made, it’s more like a joy that something I created actually turned out that good. It’s a combined sense of relief and just being knocked out by the fact that all the work you did, all the angst you went through, was worth it. So I wouldn’t scream. But I do remember being really stunned once when I went to a tasting of 1999 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines. It was not only the wine that impressed me, but also Aubert de Villaine the owner. Great wine is always a whole picture.
KM: How do you know when a wine is great?
ME: I guess it’s like love. Greatness is in the eyes and perception of the beholder. I know what I like and I’ve always tried to make the kind of wine I like. So is it great? I can’t say. But I do have a lot of fans and that’s all I can go on. In the end, that’s what feeds me—trying to get a wine right, trying to get it to be better than right.
Parts of this piece first appeared in my article on Merry Edwards for the Aug/Sept 2019 issue of Somm Journal. –KM