There is nothing I enjoy more in my role here at IntoWine than when I get to interview wine industry pros. "Peeking under the hood" and hearing what an accomplished winemaker has to say about their passion is simply fascinating. Recently I had the great fortune of chatting with Sonoma winemaker Merry Edwards about her career, her winemaking philosophy, and Merry Edwards Wines, her eponymous wine label and life-long dream. A pioneer for women in the winemaking industry, Merry Edwards is a renowned viticulturist and winemaker. Her work over the past 30 years has garnered her numerous awards and accolades including being named the "2004 Winemaker of the Year" by the San Francisco Chronicle.
30+ years of winemaking, what are you most proud of thus far?
I am proud that my wines continue to evolve and improve and that my growing commitment to estate farming is giving me better grapes to work with. Our recent completion of our new winery facility also opens a new chapter for improving our wines.
What inspired you to choose winemaking as a career path?
I started out as a home winemaker. I became fascinated with the fermentation process to begin with, extending my love of cooking to making fruit wines & beer. When I discovered The UC Davis program, I felt that the career of winemaking would give me lots of diversity and would fully utilize my education, love of the outdoors and fascination with the process. It turns out that the hole in my education was viticulture. I should have obtained a degree in that also; as it is, I have had to obtain my viticultural “degree” on the go.
You have been a leader and a standard bearer for gender equality in the winemaking profession. How far have we come since you started in the industry and how far do we still have to go?
Winemaking is not a woman friendly career in general. It’s not wise to miss a vintage due to child bearing or child rearing responsibilities. Certain times of year require very extended hours including bottling season and harvest. A strong support network of family is needed to be successful on both fronts, and employers also have to be the right match. Women winemakers still constitute a minority although I am proud to say that I have nurtured many young winemakers or nascent winemakers and among this group are a healthy proportion of women.
Tell us about the people who influenced or mentored you as a winemaker:
Dr Maynard Amerine oversaw my thesis research at UC Davis. He was also a strong champion as I attempted to navigate the not-so-receptive world of winery owners & managers once I completed my work & attempted to find a job. Dr. Ralph Kunkee, who was my major advisor at UCD, was also very supportive at school and in my early years in the industry. Joseph Swan, a pioneer Pinot Noir vintner here in the Russian River Valley, was a good friend and inspiration. Both Zelma Long and Mary Anne Graf led the way for me in terms of models of women winemakers. Richard Graff of Chalone Vineyards was my first consultant and gave me great support and education in my first position at Mount Eden Vineyards.
How would you describe your winemaking philosophy?
My winemaking philosophy is really a winegrowing philosophy. We focus intently on our own vineyards which we have now expanded to four properties. In addition, we work very closely with our growers following a carefully developed, individual vineyard care plan each year. If the grapes are properly grown, the winemaking is easy!
Your pioneering work in clonal research has had a significant impact on the California wine industry. Share with us some of the background on your work with clones and why it has been so important.
The most important aspect of my clonal work has been with Pinot Noir where a myriad of poor selections and clones obscured America’s and California’s potential for so many years. The impact on wine improvement has been incredible. Other varieties have shown less important results, although in Cabernet and Chardonnay the effect has still been substantial. Even with Sauvignon Blanc, we now have delineated Sauvignon Musque as a separate varietal from Sauvignon Blanc.
You spent many years as a consultant winemaker and earned many accolades along the way. What are the major pro's and con's associated with being the winemaking "hired gun"?
One of the most rewarding aspects of consulting is the challenges presented by each situation and the associated problem solving. Seeing substantial improvement in wine quality was another, along with the nurturing of young winemakers. I like to call the consulting experience a “wheel of learning” as the teaching I have done and in turn prompted me to continue to learn. The “con” would be the focus on other brands rather than your own and always being an outsider to the success of an individual winery. You’re part of the team, but not really. Although, I must say that as I had to wind down my consulting business, it was very hard for some clients to “let me go” – that certainly made me feel essential.
After so much success as a consultant winemaker, what prompted you to launch Merry Edwards Wines back in 1997?
There is always the internal drive to produce wine where you are “completely” in control. Of course with the vagarities of nature and making our brand as a guest in other wineries for ten years, being in control has never truly been possible. We are coming closer to that model with our own production facility now a reality and our growing stable of estate vineyards. I was encouraged to participate in the success I had created for others by friends who became partners in Merry Edwards.
If you could go back in time and tell Merry Edwards circa 1977 what the winemaking world is like in 2007, what would she be most surprised by?
That I am so involved in the vineyards! When I was winemaker at Matanzas Creek and at Laurier, I had a vineyard manager sample all of our grapes in preparation for harvest. Today I’m in the vineyards every day prior to harvest taking my own samples and evaluating conditions. During the remainder of the year, my husband & partner, Ken Coopersmith, or I are in the vineyards daily.
Rising wine alcohol levels are a hot topic in wine circles. What are your thoughts on the subject?
I think it’s a shame that levels are so high in many wines and feel we have a responsibility to our customer’s health & safety to moderate the trend. It’s a shame that some of the technological support available to correct these excesses is vilified by the press.
Much is written and debated concerning the ubiquitous 100 point rating scale, made popular by Robert Parker and emulated by seemingly everyone. Some say it has empowered the consumer, others claim it has distorted wine prices, while still others say it has gone much further and actually changed the quality of the wine being produced. What do you see as being the long term impact of the ever-so-powerful 100 point rating system?
Unfortunately, the winemaking community has accepted this system for so long without complaint that I think we’re stuck with it. There are some publications that have made a conscious decision not to use this system, and this is a refreshing change.
Lastly, what advice do you have for today's aspiring winemakers?
Get a degree or strong background & experience in both viticulture and winemaking.