Merry Edwards: Making Women in Wine Look Easy

Merry Edwards: Making Women in Wine Look Easy

IMG_36821965 was a big year for equality in America.  In a young civil rights movement, the important Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed.  In a millennia old wine industry, the very first woman would receive an enology degree from University of California, Davis.  Several years would still pass before woman #3 would receive her degree and emerge as a defining force in American wine.  That woman is Merry Edwards.

Four decades later I am walking into Merry Edwards Winery in the heart of Russian River Valley.  This visit was a must for my Washington-Oregon-California tasting trip.  Not only had I sold Merry Edwards wines during my retail career, but her story had been impressed upon me by another woman in wine… Deborah Brenner, the author of Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women Who Make, Taste and Enjoy Wine.

Women_of_the_Vine1Deborah Brenner and I had seen each other recently when she attended a women’s’ professional networking series I founded, Go Getter Girls & Grapes.  I was thrilled to have her attend!  Deborah is founder and president of the Women of the Vine Alliance, the world’s leading alliance dedicated to the advancement of women in the wine and spirits industry, of which I’m proud to be a member.  Rewind her story a few years and Deborah, a marketing expert, discovers on a California wine country vacation that many females in wine were under-recognized.  Inspired to share their stories, she crafted her book to profile important women in the wine industry.  Chapter 10: Merry Edwards!

With Merry’s chapter fresh in my mind, I met with Michael Ferrara who sat me down for wine tasting and began to share Merry’s story.  Shortly after graduating UC Davis in 1973, Merry really wanted to stay focused on a winemaker position, turning down job offers as a laboratory technician, then the traditional role of women industry.  Her determination especially paid off when Matanzas Creek Winery, a new producer, would offer Merry a founding winemaker position and an opportunity to launch their wine portfolio from scratch.  There, Merry vinified several vintages to critical acclaim, putting both Matanzas Creek and herself on the national map.

Merry finally founded Merry Edwards Winery in 1997, making her the second woman winemaker/owner in California to earn her own name on the label.  (I giggled at the coincidence of 1997…  I was graduating from high school, never expecting that wine, then prohibited, would lead to my career where I would sell the bottles of pioneering females like Merry Edwards.)

At her eponymous winery, Merry would focus on the terroir of the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast, continuing to earn the respect of winemakers, customers and academicians.  Exactly forty years after Merry graduated, she was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame, and became the fourth women to win the James Beard Award for Best Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional.

As a member of the Women of the Vine alliance, it’s painfully aware to me how still rare Merry’s success is.  A recent comprehensive study discovered that while half of today’s graduates at UC Davis’ enology program are female, only 10% of California wineries have a woman as their lead winemaker.  Merry has taken women part of the way… but there is further to go!

merry-edwards-at-meredith-estateMichael brought out more wines to taste and I laughed, recalling a funny Merry Edwards story I’d heard earlier that day.  My group and I had been tasting at a nearby producer, Lynmar Estate (covered in a previous blog).  We learned that in the early 1980s Lynmar’s owner, shortly after purchasing the property, found a strange woman walking through his vineyard.  That woman was Merry Edwards, and she enviously told the owner that he had some of the finest fruit in the region!

This led me to ask Michael: is Merry about viticulture or vinification?  Both, he said!  Knowing that wine quality begins in the ground, she focused very early in her career on the vineyard.  In her first position, she orchestrated the creation of the UCD clone 37, nicknamed the Merry Edwards selection, which is today one of the best clones in the industry.  She was ahead of her time, focusing on clones long before growers and winemakers in California recognized their importance.  Through her career, Merry has also maintained a hand in hand relationship with some of Sonoma’s best grape growers.

IMG_3684After many Sonoma Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, I perked up immediately when Michael brought out Merry’s 2014 Sauvignon Blanc.  Merry’s first crafted a Sauvignon Blanc in 1979.  (Again, I laughed… in 1979 I was busy being born… a taste of Merry’s signature style would have to wait many years.)  She barrel ferments in French oak, and then atypically stirs on the lees for six months.  The wine was both tropical and citric, with honeysuckle and zest, and yet had a touch of oak with brioche and toast.  So elegant and compelling!

The Meredith Estate Pinot Noir is the real expression of this unique winemaker, simultaneous viticulture and vinification expert.  Meredith Estate is Merry’s first purchased vineyard, a property bearing fruit she’s raised from infancy.  The Pinot Noir was bold and balanced, with black fruit, weighty tannins and solid acidity.  The wine feels like the sum total of a significant wine career.

I wonder if Merry Edwards thought about 2016 when she first graduated.  These days I open the door to Vintology Wine & Spirits as a female wine professional, selling female winemaker wines to knowledgeable and enthusiastic female customers, perhaps many days taking this for granted.  Merry’s career has left a changed landscape, an improved industry, where women feel confident to make, sell and love wine.

A big thank you to Michael Ferrara, Merry Edwards and the team at Merry Edwards Winery for a special visit!

Questions and feedback welcome to [email protected]

*Reposted with permission from Girl Meets Vine.