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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.

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