California has been the birthplace of some of the most important personalities and minds in the wide world of wine, including one woman so integral to the area’s evolution that she’s practically royalty. Merry Edwards, affectionately and almost reverentially referred to as the “Queen of Pinot”, has helped change both the image and actual substance of what California Pinot Noir means.
Education and Entry into the Wine World
After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1971 with a degree in physiology, Merry Edwards pursued graduate work in nutrition. It was around this time that she met Andrew Quady, then enrolled in UC Davis’ renowned winemaking program and he himself destined for delicious thing in the form of Quady Winery. Merry recalls thumbing through her new friend’s books and being fascinated, saying, “I was surprised to learn one could study winemaking as a discipline.” She quickly transferred to the UC Davis program and graduated in 1973 with a master’s degree in Food Science with an emphasis in Enology.
In the early 1970s, women working in the wine industry typically did so behind the scenes. Merry Edwards was determined to be a winemaker, but the positions she was offered were as a laboratory technician. She refused, holding out for something better, which came in 1974 in the form of a job offer from Mount Eden Vineyards to be their winemaker. Not only did Edwards’ first three vintages at Mount Eden make her compatriots sit up and take notice, she also made a significant contribution to the science of vinification after cuttings she send to UC Davis from Mount Eden’s Pinot Noir vineyard became known as UCD clone 37, aka the “Merry Edwards selection.” This Pinot strand is now planted throughout the Russian River Valley.
Merry Edwards spent the mid-late 1970s exploring winemaking and developing an affinity for Sonoma County. That new-found affection and a friendship with winegrowers David Steiner and Sandra McIver (nee Steiner) led to a partnership. Together, Sandra, David, and Merry would build Matanzas Creek Winery and a signature style of Sauvignon Blanc – both the winery and the unique Edwards-esque wine are still popular today.
Seven phenomenal vintages later, Edwards was ready for a change. She and her family founded a small Chardonnay- only winery in Russian River Valley called Merry Vintners. Though the wines were critically acclaimed, financially the winery floundered. After it officially ceased operations in 1989, Merry became a full-time consultant, building other brands for almost a decade until something wonderful happened.
Merry Edwards Winery
In 1996, Merry Edwards bought land in a part of Russian River Valley called Sebastopol Hills. A year later, she went whitewater rafting in the Grand Canyon and met Ken Coopersmith. Together, these two events would change her life entirely. She gained a husband and a business partner and beginnings of what would become Merry Edwards Winery.
The landscape surrounding the tasting room is a lush as you might expect; a spacious patio perfect for soaking up the Sebastopol sun lead down to terraced gardens dotted with purple and white flowers and then and rows upon rows of vines. Casual tasting are available on a walk-in basis throughout the day, or you can make an appointment for a more expansive tasting that will allow you to taste through several wines from the Merry Edwards portfolio while gazing through a wall of windows out to the vineyard.
Not surprisingly, given Edwards’ association with Pinot Noir, the winery produces six Pinots from six vineyards: Coopersmith, Olivet Lane, Meredith Estate, Flax, Klopp Ranch, and Tobias Glenn.. There’s also a single-vineyard Chardonnay and, at times, a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc and a sparkling wine. There is a definite emphasis on sustainability, eco-friendly techniques, and terroir, with Edwards saying, “Thinking long term about the health of our land, and the future of our family, is embedded in all that we do. My belief is that terroir is not simply longitude, latitude and soil type, but also reflects the input of the farmer.” The winery installed a solar system in 2010 (not only saving energy but actually generating and contributing back into the communal power grid) and uses renewably harvested natural cork.
Merry Edwards Winery produces wine indicative of the local terroir and the varietals themselves. That makes the process sound simple, but it isn’t. A great deal of hard work, both manual and scientific, goes into vinification, although Edwards’ is prone to downplaying her role as merely attempting not to screw up what the grapes and land already provide.
The Legacy – and Yet-to-Come Contributions – of Merry Edwards
2013 marked Merry Edwards’ 40th anniversary as a wine maker. In honor of this milestone and of Edwards’ indelible contribution to the wine industry she was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame, as well as becoming just the fourth woman to be given the prestigious James Beard Award for the Best Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional in the United States.
Back in 1973, Merry Edwards was one of only three women in her UC Davis masters program, and the only woman who would go on to become a winemaker. She has spoken on numerous occasions of the gender discrimination she faced while pursuing a career in a massively male-dominated filed, and many times it was sheer preservation – and a not inconsiderable amount of perspiration in the form of long hours and hard work – that led her to the next step in a journey that she swears in not nearly finished. “People frequently ask what is the best wine I have ever made. I tell them it’s not made yet!” Dear Merry – that’s wonderful to hear, as there are an awful lot of wine lovers out there who can’t wait to taste it.
Merry Edwards Winery
2959 Gravenstein Hwy North
Sebastopol, CA 95472