INTERVIEW Merry Edwards, Merry Edwards Winery, Sebastopol, California
The Sommelier Journal November 2008 Catherine Fallis, MS
A few days before the summer solstice, during an early northern California heat wave, I was on my way to meet Merry Edwards in her new, multimillion-dollar winery.
Driving along Gravenstein Highway in the central Russian River Valley, I kept my eyes peeled for a sign. Although I knew I had to be close, I couldn’t see the structure from the road. I thought I must have missed it, but then I noticed one of those tiny Sonoma markers, indicating the Coopersmith Vineyard. How odd, I thought; that’s the same last name as Edwards’s husband. Then it hit me: the couple had built the new winery on the site of Ken Coopersmith’s vineyard in Sebastopol. They had bought this nine-and-a-half-acre apple orchard in 1999—a year after they were married—planted it to Pinot Noir in 2001, and groomed it to the point where it now produces one of the winery’s best single-vineyard offerings.
In all my encounters with this quiet, modest farmer, Coopersmith had been content to stand in the shadows of the “Queen of Pinot Noir.” Once, at a tasting, he gave me a card with the title, “Husband of Merry Edwards.” Here, the tables had been turned, at least for the moment—it was his name headlining the sign to their magnificent new structure. I sat down with Edwards in her spacious, light-filled office on the second floor, overlooking the vineyards, to learn how she had reached this milestone in her distinguished career.
CATHERINE FALLIS, MS, CWP
You actually got started as a home winemaker. How did that interest develop?
I was studying physiology at the University of California-Berkeley. My boyfriend had moved to Washington State, and I had followed him there. We were poor college kids, so I took advantage of all the wild fruit growing there, especially the blackberries. I picked up a winemaking book in the Tacoma library and made an experimental batch of blackberry wine. When I moved back to Berkeley, I took a dull lab-tech job and kept up my hobby of making wine on the side. I started getting leftover fruit from the farmer’s market—apricots, plums, whatever I could get. I made my first wine for Christmas, out of apple and cranberry juice. I blew up a bottle of wine because I didn’t understand malolactic fermentation, which didn’t actually explode the bottle, but pushed the cork up. By then I was making a lot of beer, too—I had several refrigerators with different brews at different stages of completion.
I decided to go back to grad school in nutrition at UC-Berkeley, but was getting pretty disillusioned with the whole atmosphere there, both political and academic. Meanwhile, a friend of mine had married Andy Quady, who at this time was going to UC-Davis. I started reading one of his textbooks, and I was fascinated—I didn’t realize it was such a science. Of course, the department then was antiquated, but to me it looked fabulous. I didn’t realize there were no women in the department, and I really wanted to go, so they offered me a scholarship. At that time they had no master’s degree program in enology, so I went in through the Food Science Department. To me, winemaking is just another form of cooking, maybe more complicated at this level, but at that time I looked at it as an extension of food. I made ice cream, muffins, jam, and I made beer and wine. It’s what people have done for millennia.
That would explain the extensive menus and tasting notes on your winery’s website.
When I was a student at Davis, I fell in with a group of people who loved food and wine, and we would cook for each other all the time. Of course, we were young and didn’t have kids, so we could devote ourselves to whole days of cooking. We were into all the cooking magazines and would try out all the recipes. I enjoyed it then, and I still enjoy it. Wine is a part of the meal. Either you plan the meal around the wine or you plan the wine around the meal.
Who were the most important early influences on your career as a professional winemaker?
I can’t leave out the people at Davis who influenced me—Maynard Amerine and Ralph Kunke. Dr. Amerine was a big advocate for me. He didn’t realize that there would be discrimination against me as a young woman, but he and Ralph were both very supportive. The owners at Mount Eden Vineyards knew Dr. Amerine. I had never worked in a winery before, but they valued the fact that I was respected at Davis. I’d worked hard—that was enough for them to hire me as winemaker in 1974. My first consultant there was Dick Graf; he was a wonderful professional to advise me. And then Joseph Swan—unfortunately he passed away, but we were good friends through the years. He started coming up to Mount Eden when I was winemaker there, and he was the one who led me to the Russian River Valley. He was a very important mentor.
In the late ’70s, you helped start Matanzas Creek Winery, and then you ran a successful consulting company in the ’90s. How did you make the decision to start your own winery?
I’ve had a small fan club ever since Matanzas Creek. It was something like our 10th get-together, so we went to Hawaii instead of doing something here in California. One fellow who came along, Bill Bourke, and his wife, Theresa, were sitting with me on the beach, and he said, “You have this good reputation, you’ve been making wine and helping companies become profitable—where is your future going to be? What are you doing for you?” I was divorced, taking care of two kids, making house payments, and the consultancy gave me flexible time. I had bought a piece of land, which is now the Meredith Estate Vineyard, but of course I couldn’t afford to do anything with it at that time. Bill said, “Well, what would you do if you could do something?” I said I would plant that whole place to Pinot. He said, “Why don’t we do that?” We were in Hawaii, drinking wine, and you know how these things go—I didn’t think he was serious. When I got home, he called me up and said, “So are we going to do this?” and I said, “You’re actually serious?” He had a friend who had a really good business model, so I gave him all this data, and then we called a bunch of his friends and a bunch of my friends and family, and we put together this small group, including some of my fan club, that made up the initial cash to get the things started. We never envisioned this new winery. We envisioned one vineyard, buying what we needed to get started, and then making wine. At that time, back in ’97, there were empty wineries, and space was cheap. We never envisioned bricks and mortar. What we had was the vineyard, and the good thing about that is that it gave a real asset value to the partnership from the beginning.
People say they can make your wine in custom houses, but that doesn’t mean they have small tanks or the equipment to do the job right, so I’d end up going out and buying the equipment. By the time we built this place, we already owned 30 of our 37 total tanks, but they were in place at other wineries. Three of the people on our staff were hired to help us supervise wine that we made at three different places. The good thing was that I was reinvesting everything back into solid assets—more vineyards, more equipment—and all of a sudden it all came together.
How did you decide on Sonoma County and, in particular, the Russian River Valley, as the focal point of your activities?
When I was winemaker at Mount Eden, I belonged to the Vintner’s Club, and I had friends up here; at one point, I almost went into business with John Ash before he was a famous chef. When I tasted wine on the north coast, I was always drawn to Sonoma County because the wines of Sonoma have this intensity of fruit character that is not present in Napa wines. Then I made wine from Sonoma at Mount Eden; I made Jerry Lambert’s first vintage of Chardonnay there, and he took it back and sold it at Lambert Bridge. It was my first custom winemaking job. When I moved up here and went to work for Matanzas Creek, I was buying a lot of Chardonnay, and was especially drawn to this area for fruit grown at that time by Warren Dutton. Two of my early Chardonnays—the most renowned wines that Matanzas Creek made in those days—were from Russian River. I made some sparkling wine from what is now Lynmar Winery, but then was Quail Hill Ranch. I also made their Pinot, but Matanzas Creek didn’t want to produce a Pinot. Actually, the first place I lived when I moved up here was Sebastopol; I rented a house a quarter of a mile from what is now Meredith Estate Vineyard. I knew the apple orchards there, and that was a sign it would be a great place for growing grapes.
I’d been offered jobs in Oregon, I was offered a job in Mendocino, I explored the southern coast and central coast, I bought a lot of fruit from Carneros. After a number of years, being a consultant, I had driven all over this state, getting familiar with all these different regions. I just kept coming back to Russian River. This is the place! I told someone the other day you couldn’t hire me to go make wine in Burgundy. Someone else offered to hire me to go make Pinot in Italy. Maybe I’m overzealous about our area, but I think this is truly the best place in the world for Pinot. I’ve invested here, 46 acres from nothing. That’s investment in your own beliefs.
What do you look for in finding specific vineyard sites to make your wines?
I like to make my own vineyard-designates, not make yet another rendition of someone else’s wine. What’s the point in making another Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir? There are already 20 people doing it. I like to find a vineyard and see if there is something there, and then bring out the potential with careful farming and make something great out of it. In some places, I can even say what I’d like planted—like with Ken, for the Coopersmith Vineyard here on the estate, I actually got to pick the clone that went into his vineyard. With the Duttons, who wanted to plant more Sauvignon Blanc, I said, “If you plant Sauvignon Musqué, I’ll give you a 10-year-forward contract,” and they did.
You’re looking very carefully at the environment. The site is really, really important—the exposure to the sun, the lay of the land. You cannot just buy Pinot grown every which way; the rows have to be going in exactly the right direction. There has to be excellent drainage. Then you have to be able to work with a person who understands the modern farming relationship. There are people still around—maybe they’re older farmers, maybe they’re just not educated—who have this old way of thinking, that you can grow grapes and deliver them to the winery door. You can’t do that, especially with Pinot. It’s impossible; I couldn’t make the kinds of wines that I make if I did that. Sometimes growers don’t realize the extent of involvement I need to have, because the winemaking starts there, not at the winery door. I went and visited this one vineyard owner and asked, “What’s your watering program?” and they said, “Oh, we’re doing water deficit.” So I asked, “So last year, when did you start watering?” He replied, “We started watering in early June.” In my mind, I’m already out of there because I don’t want to have to educate them—we’re just too far apart.
I’ve been working with Ted Klopp since he planted his vineyard. It’s really the relationship, understanding that we’re willing to pay for the work that goes into farming the grapes, but that we also have to have pretty strong input because we know what it takes. You have to be able to eat dinner with them and talk through the tough times, like this year’s spring frosts. It’s not just a one-year deal; it’s like a marriage. The other thing is that as we’ve grown, I’ve also needed to cover the expanse of Russian River, both to come up with the different personalities that make up our single-vineyard wines, and because I’m making so much Pinot Noir that I need the grapes to come in over an extended period of time. We’ve stretched out now to the north, up to Westside Road with the new Georgeanne Vineyard, all the way south to the Meredith Estate Vineyard, and out to the Sonoma Coast, so we’re covering a wide range of harvest times. If everything came in at once, we wouldn’t be able to handle it.
You’ve been known throughout your career for the development of particular Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc clones. How have you determined which clones work best in the vineyards you use?
In the late ’70s, I was probably one of the first people to really look at clones in California because of my work with Dr. Harold Olmo at UC-Davis, and then my trip to the University of Beaune in France, where they were beginning to study that. I started giving seminars and clonal tours, and I worked with Simi Winery after they planted an experimental clonal vineyard of Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot. Of course, my exposure in France had been to Pinot Noir and all the clones available there. I had also collected a lot of older California clones to plant, selections that had stood the test of time. During the mid-’90s, when I was making decisions on what to plant at Meredith—my first big adventure, my first 24 acres—was the time when the Dijon clones had just been released, and a few of the bigger names like Saintsbury were trying them. So I started tasting those wines to see what I perceived compared to the clones I’d worked with up at Carneros Creek for their big experiment, where they had 20 different clones planted and narrowed it down to five over about 20 years. People had been ga-ga about Dijon 777; I could never figure out why people liked it, but I said, “Well, I should plant some anyway because everybody else likes it.” I liked the 667 and the 115, but I also planted some 777, worked with it for five years at that site, and then decided I really didn’t like it and started taking it out.
Here at Coopersmith, we planted two different rootstocks, Schwarzmann and 10114, and a few different clones. We put in some 37, which is my own clone—I selected the budwood from Mount Eden, brought it to Davis, had the virus removed, and now it’s known as the Merry Edwards selection. We also put in some Dijon 828 because everyone in France was raving about it. For the first time, I had not looked at the wine nor at the vineyard—big mistake. It looked like Pinot on steroids or a cross with Gamay, with huge clusters, upright growth, all kinds of extra suckers and shoots. We’ve now taken all that out, and we just finished budding over, so this will all be 37.
I’m looking at how clones behave as wine, how they behave at certain sites, and now, as I’m spreading out in Russian River, I’m looking at more of a temperature influence. It appears to me—and I’m investing in this—that certain clones do better in certain areas. It’s my theory that some of the older California clones actually do better in the warmer areas. For instance, Flax Vineyard is 100% Pommard and does excellent in that area of Russian River. At Georgeanne, we’re putting in all Clone 37, and I’m focusing on more of the Dijon clones for the cooler areas. Remember that even 15 years ago, we didn’t know what these things tasted like. Nobody had made the wine. So all this clonal knowledge is really new.
What’s the relationship between clonal selection and vineyard-management practices?
Well, it’s kind of a complicated question. You’ve got to have the right rootstock to pair with whatever budwood you’re going to use. Now they’re finding that the 110R, which is used in some places because of low water availability, is not doing well budded to Pinot. It makes a big gall at the bud union and overgrows, so when it gets to about 10 years old you start to lose plants. Some rootstocks, like 420A, cause all clones to be more fruitful. The group of clones that we’re talking about, you know, is probably the top 10 clones grown in the world. It’s not like you’re walking into the Agricultural Station at Dijon and you’re seeing 50—or some say there are 200—clones of Pinot Noir. What we’re working with is not so clonally dependent, unless you’re looking at time of ripening. For example, why would you plant a Dijon clone on Westside Road? It would be ripe in July.
What methods do you use in the winery to bring out the character of particular clones and sites?
Olivet Lane, for instance, which I’ve been making for many years, is planted to one single clone—the Martini clone, which seems to be quite successful when 25% of the whole clusters are included in the fermenter. I used to add more whole clusters in general, but some clones, especially those from Dijon, don’t do well including whole clusters. They’re already tannic enough, and don’t need extra stem tannins. Sometimes the Swan likes a little bit of whole-cluster; again, it’s the stem component you have to be careful about—they need to be ripe. The Dijon clones as a family have more tannin, although some, like 777, don’t have as much as others, like 115, which makes a wine that’s not very juicy—it’s more of a structural, good-backbone kind of wine. In that case, you have to be relatively careful about the length of maceration, because you don’t want it to be too hard. Dijon 667 makes a much more luscious kind of wine, with very forward fruit. It needs a little bit more extraction, but again, not like Pommard or Swan. Those wines need help with extraction—they tend to have less tannin, less color; their whole phenolic structure is weaker. They’re more of what I call the classic California clones. Of course, wood is a big factor with all of them—what kind of wood, what cooper, what toast level.
We talked about the food pairings you include with your tasting notes. How do you like sommeliers to think about your wines?
In my mind, Pinot Noir goes well with many different foods, and that’s why most sommeliers really like it, because it’s so flexible. Sauvignon Blanc has similar characteristics—it goes with lots of different dishes—and that’s why it’s also becoming more popular over the last few years. With our wines, what sommeliers are going to want to think about is the range of Pinots we make. The Sonoma Coast and the Russian River—the regional wines—are more elegant, as is the Olivet Lane. With the Meredith, Flax, or Coopersmith, and then building up to the Klopp and Tobias Glen, they tend to get bigger. It’s the same way you develop a menu. So if I’m going to serve a winemaker dinner, I’m pairing the Olivet Lane with things like quail and salmon—not that it can’t go with steak, but it would be better to serve Klopp or Tobias Glen with steak. Or pair the Windsor Gardens (which we no longer make) with venison; it’s got that nice, earthy component. Once they get to know our wines, they’ll intuitively know where to put them in which part of the meal.
What if the restaurant menu isn’t Pinot-friendly?
When I went in for a lunch in Chicago with our distributor there and a group of sommeliers, they took me to Topolobampo. We ate cuitlacoche enchiladas (cuitlacoche is a rich, black, mushroom-like food that is actually a corn fungus, or corn smut) and I thought, “Pinot goes fine with Mexican food.” To me, it’s hard to see a problem. In Texas, we sell a lot of wine at steakhouses. Granted, most of it is the Klopp Ranch.
What’s the best way for a sommelier to get some of your wines?
Call Jackie Tisthammer at (888) 388-9050 or (707) 823-7466, or email her at jackie@ merryedwards.com. She’s the gatekeeper. Be nice to Jackie to get some of Merry’s Pinot!
What’s on the horizon for Merry Edwards Winery?
We want to keep moving forward with becoming what one would call more of a true estate. We started off with our first wine being produced totally from other people’s grapes. We progressed from that to 20 producing acres and now 46, and we just want to keep on going. I can’t say we’d make wine totally from our own fruit, because I don’t want to give up Olivet Lane or Klopp, but we’re not trying to start relationships with new growers for vineyard-designates. We’re looking for more Russian River land, either to lease on a long-term basis or buy. I’m training a young staff now, so eventually I can take a little more time off. We have all these kids and grandkids now, and I want to make sure we have a little time to enjoy them, and maybe some time for snorkeling and kayaking.
Some of my ancestors are from France, but they’re from Lorraine, which is right on the German border. The men were from France, but the women they married were all from Germany. I think I have that same controlling nature as those women—I want to control the wine from the growing to the winemaking. People come in here and say, “It’s so clean.” Yes, we like things clean and tidy, and we make good wine that way. There’s an order about what we do, but it’s order created out of striving for excellence.
Merry Edwards Winery
2959 Gravenstein Highway N.
Sebastopol, CA 95472
(707) 823-7466 www.merryedwards.com