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03.24.2009

Merry Edwards Wines, Russian River Valley: Single Vineyard Pinot Noirs

Meredith "Merry" Edwards drives an SUV with a license plate that matches the title on her business card: Reina de Pinot. With far too few female winemakers in this country, claiming to be the Queen of Pinot might not involve much competition no matter what your real qualifications. But anyone would be hard pressed to find a woman winemaker in the Western Hemisphere that has more experience growing and making Pinot Noir than Merry Edwards.

Frankly, there aren't many winemakers, men or women, that have been making Pinot in the state of California for more than thirty years. Edwards started working with the grape in 1973 when she got a job at Mount Eden Vineyards after being one of the first few women to graduate from U.C. Davis Enology department. At that time, interest in merry_edwards_logo.jpgthe grape in California was particularly lagging. After some limited production in the 1950s and 1960s, fewer and fewer wineries were growing it, and the general consensus was that it didn't have a true commercial future in California.

But no one bothered to tell Merry Edwards that. She gaily tended her scraggly vines along with her mentor and boss Richard Graff, and figured out how to coax wine out of them, despite viruses and poor soil conditions where the vines were planted. Edwards was happy just to be making wine of any kind in a world that was still openly dismissive of even the idea of female winemakers, let alone a U.C. Davis trained one that actually showed up asking for a job.

Merry Edwards graduated from Berkeley with a degree in Physiology and flowers in her hair. She thought she wanted to be a nurse, but a closer look at the career paths at the time made it clear that she'd most likely end up as an administrator in some office somewhere. Without a plan or prospects, she followed her boyfriend at the time up to Tacoma, Washington, where they quickly went broke, and Edwards turned to living off the land as much as she could.

With an abundance of fruit available for the picking on roadsides and in the forests, Edwards found herself searching for more things to do with it than cook. One thing led to another, and with the help of a library book on making blackberry wine, Edwards quickly became the fermentation queen of Tacoma. Blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, apples, you name it, she fermented it.

This fascination with fermentation continued even as that relationship ended and Edwards decided a steady income was a better way to live. She got a job as a lab tech in a medical lab and enrolled for a graduate degree in Nutrition at Berkeley, but every chance she got, she was buying cast-off, overripe fruit at the farmer's market and trying to turn it into beer, or wine, or something in between.

Things didn't always go quite as planned with these concoctions, and they hit a low point one Christmas with a batch of apple-cranberry wine that pushed all the corks back out of the bottle as they foamed away into disaster. But it just so happened that one of Edwards' friends had married a guy named Andy Quady who, in the course of a conversation about her cran-apple debacle, suggested that she might want to look into the concept of Malolactic fermentation. And did she want to take a look at his winemaking textbooks from U.C. Davis?

Edwards was blown away by the books, and even more awed to be invited up for a visit around what she says were, even then, broken down and generally rinky-dink facilities at Davis. But she was enchanted, and "What's more," she says, "I was like bait. There were no women in the program, and they saw this young female graduate student with interest, and all of a sudden they were suggesting scholarships, and an easy transfer."

They threw money at her, so much that they eventually had to take some scholarships away, and Edwards settled down into what was, for her, nothing short of paradise, at least from an intellectual standpoint.

Edwards ended up being Maynard Amerine's last graduate student before he retired, and her thesis on lead and wine was chiefly responsible for the elimination of the use of lead in the ubiquitous foil capsules that cover wine corks. After encountering institutional refusal to provide her the same assistance in her job search as was provided to her male classmates, Edwards forced the university to overhaul the way it distributed information about industry job prospects to all students. But that didn't mean it was any easier to get one of those jobs, so when she got the offer from Dick Graff to go work at Mount Eden, she leaped at the chance.

From Mount Eden, Edwards became a rising star of California winemaking. Over the next two decades, she would help start Matanzas Creek, and would hold winemaking positions at Pellegrini and Liparita, establishing herself as one of the first consulting winemakers whose reputation preceded them in the industry. During that time, she managed to acquire a small piece of land in the Russian River Valley, but never had the time or money do do anything with it, considering the demands of her job and being a single mother at the time.

Then in 1997, after Liparita was sold to Kendall Jackson, Edwards found herself on a trip to Hawaii with what amounted to something along the lines of a Merry Edwards fan club. Sitting around after dinner one night, she was all but badgered by one of her dinner companions to admit that if she could do anything at that point it would be to plant her property with Pinot Noir and make wine under her own label. The persistent guest offered to help her put together a business plan, and Merry Edwards Wines was born.

Today Edwards makes around 20,000 cases of wine (25% of which is her popular Sauvignon Blanc), in a brand new winery on the corner of her property that was completed in 2007. The core of her portfolio are six single vineyard designated Pinot Noirs, made in quantities between 200 and 1000 cases.

These wines are made from carefully hand-harvested grapes from several vineyards around the Russian River Valley with whom Edwards has long term relationships, as well as from her own two estate vineyards. The grapes typically undergo a cold soak for a few days, and a mix of fermentation regimens depending on the clone she is working with. She performs methodical punchdowns three times per day to mix the fermenting wine with its skins, and the wine is pressed off into barrels deliberately "dirty" to allow lots of contact between the wine and its sediments, or lees. The wines are aged in 60-80% new French oak barrels.

TASTING NOTES:

2007 Merry Edwards Olivet Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a nose of cranberry and a lightly spicy cherry liqueur quality. In the mouth it is smooth and silky with very nice balance and a core of cranberry and raspberry flavors, that give way to a cocoa, and light smoky quality on the finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $60.

2007 Merry Edwards Coopersmith Estate PN Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of cranberry, pomegranate and an exotic note of cinnamon. In the mouth it is round and cool with nicely balanced, deep cranberry flavors and a, light woody quality that persists through a very nice finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $54.

2007 Merry Edwards Meredith Estate Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine has a very pretty nose of raspberry and an interesting dichotomy between an airy sweetness and a briary quality that speaks to deeper complexity. In the mouth it is lithe and slippery, and almost more aromatic than it is flavorful. Beautiful bright raspberry flavors with hints of cedar swirl on the palate coursing over nice smooth, faint tannins that are balanced with excellent acidity . Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $54.

2007 Merry Edwards Flax Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells appealingly of raspberry and hints of green herbs. In the mouth it is a beautiful concoction of tart cherry and raspberry flavors, underscored by light tannins that stretch nicely into a long finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $54.

2007 Merry Edwards Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cranberry, mixed with some plummy qualities and a note of wet wood aroma. In the mouth it has a light cocoa powder shell and a core of dark raspberry that dips even deeper over time into earthier zones. Nicely balanced and finely grained, it lasts through a long finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $57.

2007 Merry Edwards Tobias Glen Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nice nose of plummy fruit with hints of lavender. On the palate it offers distinctive, dark fruit characters that hint at black cherry, plum, and blueberry around a core of raspberry. Smooth tannins emerge in the lengthy finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $54.


These wines will be released in the fall to mailing list customers and restaurants. Current vintages can purchased online.

Comments (19)

Michael wrote:
03.25.09 at 8:56 AM

So this is very interesting because I tried a Merry Edwards wine for the first time last night. I drank the '06 RRV Pinot. First let me say that as a Burg fan I tend to dislike most CA pinots. The last I tried was an '05 Pisoni that I found to be rank. I'm sorry to fans of this style, really I am, but I can't stand that syrupy style of pinot. Syrah I can at least understand it as a meme perhaps, appreciate it even, but not pinot.
SO, Ms. Edwards RRV PN was a revelation. I really enjoyed it, fruity but still fresh, with good acid and some legitimate PN funk. Judicious old oak gave nice spice to the balance. Looking forward to future bottles.

Mike Panczak wrote:
03.25.09 at 9:39 AM

"But anyone would be hard pressed to find a woman winemaker in the Western Hemisphere that has more experience growing and making Pinot Noir than Merry Edwards."
How about Kathy Joseph, Lane Tanner or Chris Curran?
Ever get south of SF?

Alder wrote:
03.25.09 at 9:51 AM

Mike,

Kathy Joseph: Early 80s
Lane Tanner: Early 80s
Kris Curran: Late 80s

Merry Edwards: Early 70s

Bill in Chicago wrote:
03.25.09 at 10:02 AM

Alder,
Thanks for such an insightful and interesting story about a truly great winemaker and her unique history. I have been on Merry Edwards mailing list for the last few years and have found her wines to be great regardless of the vintage. In my mind this is mark of a truly great winemaker.

But I have one issue - the price. Even if there are no price increase for '07, it is getting hard to justify $54 to $60 plus about $6ish per/bottle for shipping (and because I live in Chicago there is a new tax for mailing to IL, another $3ish p/b in tax) making it $63 to $70 all in.

And I fully understand there is almost nothing that can be done about the price. The wineries need money to operate, shipping and taxes are never going lower just higher. So...

This is why I read your blog. You help people like me find wines before they become the next big superstar - Your blogs on Harrington, Rivers-Marie, Outpost, Parallel, and too many more to mention have been great early finds. Thanks for these stories and please continue to keep an eye out for the "value" buyer along with updates on these great wineries too.

Keep up the great work!

03.25.09 at 10:03 AM

Thanks for the report, Alder. While some Merry Edwards wines do make it to Michigan, they're rather hard to get at. Quantities are limited and they're designated for restaurant only. Still working on a way to get to know them better I am!

Troy wrote:
03.25.09 at 2:44 PM

Great article and this is the first time I've heard of Merry Edwards - I'm definitely going to hunt down a bottle.

I have to admit the "woman winemaker in the Western Hemisphere that has more experience growing and making Pinot Noir..." comment did rub me the wrong way. Experience is measured in more ways then just years. I'm sure you didn't mean to make light of the contributions other female winemakers have made to Pinot Noir in the states, Patricia Green comes to mind, but I could see how it could be interpreted that way.

Seems you can count the good ones on one hand and that really is a too few.

BaroloDude wrote:
03.25.09 at 5:06 PM

Her Klopp Ranch is just as good as the best single vineyard Rochiolis imho.

For Bill in Chicago... try Failla and Lynmar. A bit less expensive (for now) and real up and comers.

Alder wrote:
03.25.09 at 9:19 PM

Troy,

Your last sentence captures the heart of my intent, but definitely:

1. This is editorial not science. I base my description of Merry on some facts, but my description is just an assessment (an interpretation) and others are free to disagree, though I hope they do it politely, and I hope they provide the grounds for their disagreement.

2. By lauding Merry I do not in the same breath lessen, make light of, or disrespect anyone else's contribution to the field.

3. I agree that experience is measured in more ways than years, but when one's focus and passion is Pinot Noir, all other things being equal, the amount of time that someone has spent studying it, working with it, and making it may generally be used as a gauge of their level of expertise.

Alder wrote:
03.25.09 at 9:57 PM

Bill,

The price of California Pinot Noir (and great Burgundy) is definitely one of the great injustices of the wine marketplace, and one of the horrible effects of the Sideways movie, however much those who are selling the stuff (in CA at least) might disagree.

Jordan Mackay wrote an article in this month's Wine and Spirits lamenting this fact in much detail.

I don't know what to tell you other than I feel your pain. I buy very very little CA Pinot Noir for the same reason.

laura wrote:
03.26.09 at 10:36 AM

Don't forget Pat Howe.


Doug Danzer wrote:
03.26.09 at 10:47 AM

Annette Hoff at Cima Collina Winery is making very good burgundian style Pinots from Monterey County fruit at reasonable prices--$24-$48/btl

Bill in Chicago wrote:
03.26.09 at 1:12 PM

Alder, I picked up the Wine and Spirits article you referenced and it does a good job of addressing the cost of wine production and how the value of the land drives the cost of farming grapes (no doubt about it). By the way - nice shout out to you in that article as well.

Although I think the effect of the movie Sideways has been over played. And yes the movie may have had a short term effect on Pinot demand, but that movie came out five years ago. Today there are many wine drinkers who never even heard of the movie. Also, if Sideways was responsible for the increase in Pinot prices then Merlots prices should be a super bargain. Yet, when I hunt for top quality Merlots, they are just as expensive as their Pinot cousins. Although I would love to read your debate on the issue of Pinots vs Merlots, in aggregate, price, quality and value, in a pre and post-Sideways world.

But that's for another day.
Thanks again.
Bill

Alder wrote:
03.26.09 at 2:22 PM

Bill,

Here's my take on the Sideways effect: we have seen a very real and substantial increase in the cost of pinot noir grapes in the industry. Growers can now sell them for much more per ton than before Sideways. We have seen a corresponding drop in Merlot grape prices in the industry. I think Merlot prices have come back up a little, but are still lower than they should be. Unfortunately this doesn't mean that the consumer prices for Merlot have dropped much.

I think Sideways turned a lot of people on to Pinot Noir, and they have actually genuinely liked it, and there is definitely a higher demand for those wines in the market. Talk with any Supermarket wine buyer about where Pinot sales are versus 5 years ago and they will tell you they are an order of magnitude bigger, most likely.

Dylan wrote:
03.26.09 at 6:49 PM

Isn't life amazing? Edwards was literally scraping by on fermented blackberries, and after ups and downs, her experience lead to a fascination with fermentation which eventually turned into a successful education and wine career. She couldn't even have guessed where she would end up. It's a lesson, as long as you keep the right attitude, to never lose hope in possibility. Follow your passions, all labors should be of love.

04.11.09 at 12:34 PM

I'm delighted to read this story and find out that Merry Edwards is making pinot noir wines. I remember her remarkable chardonnays from years back so I can only imagine how spectacular her pinot noir wines are. I hope to be able to find them in Michigan. If not I just might have to hop a plane to California.

ScottS wrote:
04.11.09 at 4:39 PM

I stopped by the new Merry Edwards facility a week ago and was not as impressed, especially on a QPR basis. They were only pouring one 07 Pinot, it was the cheapest bottle being poured, and it was more interesting and complete than the 06 SVDs, so I wouldn't be surprised to find the rest of the 07 lineup to be pretty impressive. The salesperson kept talking up the ageability of the 06 SVD Pinots. OK, sure. I expect more. The Pinots down the road at Hartford Court were better. Most of the Pinot I drink at home is better. The 06 Williams-Selyem version of the Flax Vineyard bottling is a whole order of magnitude superior to the Merry Edwards, and priced the same (although harder to obtain).

The Chardonnay they were pouring was boring, typical Cali Chard and at $50 was a joke.

They were sold out of the Sav. Blanc, rated 96 by WS as it was, but I had ordered a couple of bottles a few weeks back. Very good. Not the best S. Blanc of all time, but very good.

All in all Merry Edwards was a bit of a disappointment. Too much good juice out there to justify the QPR of the lineup I sampled.

Bill in Chicago wrote:
04.14.09 at 8:14 AM

I am sorry to be writing so late after your original blog but..

I received my Merry Edwards wine order form in the mail this week. And I have to say I was impressed and touched by the writing in this season's release notes. Additionally I am thankful that she held her pricing flat (at $36 per bottle for Sonoma Coast, $42 for RRV, $60 for Olivet).

First in her release notes was the update on the new facility she built; the attention to conservation in building her new facility is to be applauded. And hopefully she will be able to turn out even better wine in the future now that she has her new home!

But the second story really touched my heart. Merry writes that she lost her son at harvest time in 2006 and has created a tribute to him and an expression of her emotions in a new wine, RRV Angel Wing. I was going to pass on my allocation this year, for financial reasons, until I read that story. Even at $90 a bottle, I am ordering just the two Angel Wings that I was allocated. For me, I understand the loss and the need to do something. I send my prayers and thoughts to her, because I know that even two years later it is never easy to say good bye.

Bill

Carrie wrote:
06.28.09 at 1:56 PM

I was fortunate enough to meet and write about Merry recently. She is an amazing woman and winemaker, a true inspiration.

Merry Edwards wrote:
02.21.11 at 6:32 PM

Wow! I was so surprised to see my name on a bottle of wine. I have enjoyed reading the history of this entrepreneur and look forward to ordering this unique wine!

Thanks!
Merry Edwards
Raised WV hills/1971-

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