2020 In Review: To Next Year

We’re nearing the end of 2020 and that means Good Vitis’ annual year-in-review piece. Every year I sit down to write one of these and I think, ‘how self-indulgent can you be?’ This hesitation has been particularly acute in 2020 because of COVID, the summer of social unrest, and the election that won’t end. My wife and I got a second dog this year, moved from DC to Chicago during COVID so my wife could start a new job, and some of my work touches on the social issues most hotly debated this year, as well as the election itself, so we’ve been in the thick of things. Thankfully we haven’t lost anyone to the pandemic or suffered in any direct way, even as we take our personal responsibility to public health seriously and diligently. Life remains good to us, knock on wood, and we feel deeply for those who haven’t fared as well. So…wine highlights? I’ll tell you why the answer is yes.

During these dark days, wine has been an important part of life because it has contributed some normalcy, and offered opportunities to connect with people and experience other parts of the world while quarantining. I spent considerable time on Zoom and the phone talking to winemakers across the country, helping me stay connected to the outside world as I meet new people who share my passion. Exploring new wineries through samples has been a rare source of adventure. Opening wine from our cellar that has been aging for five or ten or twenty years has given us the opportunity to have something special to look forward to, marvel over, and reminisce about how it was acquired and what was happening that year. And, even though we haven’t seen most of our wine-drinking friends since pre-COVID days, it hasn’t stopped us from making future plans to share our favorite wines together, which gives us hope for the future. None of this is unique to COVID, but all of it has taken on added significance because of it. We all need something to keep us attached to good memories and help us generate new ones, and wine has been there for me this year in that department.

That said, 2020 was not a particularly noteworthy year in wine for us because of COVID. Sure, we drank great wine, but our inability to travel and share bottles with special people meant few exceptional wine experiences. This matters because while wine hits our taste, smell, and sight senses, it’s a story in a bottle that connects us to – and with – place, people, and history. A complete experience incorporates some of those elements in addition to the cork pop and pour that so many of us do frequently at home. Unfortunately, this became collateral damage to COVID.

Nevertheless, on balance wine was an important contribution to the good things that occurred this year. As has become the tradition, every year-in-review piece is done a bit differently from previous years. 2019 was the most revelatory moments, 2018 and 2017 the most memorable wine, and 2016 the best reds, whites, and values. 2020’s theme: The Year Of. I put a lot of thought into whether to include the incredible fires of 2020 that affected wine country, but decided to punt on that until the full impact on the vintage is known.

2020: The Year of Pinot Noir

Pinot noir has a reputation as a wine that can take people a fair amount of time to warm up to. It’s a hard variety to put your finger on: its versatility can be made into many styles and its ability to reflect terroir can produce a multitude of profiles. With infinite style and profile combinations, there are bound to be pinots that pinot lovers dislike, and pinots that pinot haters can tolerate, if not enjoy. It’s also a variety that can be quite transformational with extended aging, meaning the same wine can evolve into multiple versions of itself. And it’s prolific, made nearly everywhere in the world.

With all its permutations, it’s easy to have a few bottles you don’t enjoy and decide that’s enough pinot for you. Plus, if you’re not ready for the more traditional pinot and that’s what you get, it can be a huge turnoff. I’ve lost count of the number of stories I hear that go something like ‘a friend poured me a glass of (insert wine here) and all I could taste was dirt and mushrooms and it was the last pinot I’ll have because it was gross.’

It certainly took me a few years to warm up to pinot (I took a flyer on a Volnay early in my wine days, which I’d probably love now, that didn’t go over well then). Because of the blog, the number and quality of pinot I tasted jumped significantly in 2019, and again in 2020 because of the number of Good Vitis articles that centered on pinot. This year’s pinot posts included a profile on California’s Anderson Valley (a pinot haven); research for a forthcoming profile on California’s Santa Lucia Highlands (another pinot mecca); and profiles of pinot specialists Clarice, Beau Marchais, Siduri, Peake Ranch, Merry Edwards, and a forthcoming profile of The Hilt. Those articles alone “required” tasting over 5 dozen pinots. We put in the hard work so you don’t have to; you’re welcome. And this doesn’t even include the exceptional pinot we drank from our private stash, including Oregon favorites Belle Pente, Cameron, Domaine Serene, Penner-Ash, and Zena Crown, plus some old Burgundy.

Beau Marchais barrel samples

One of the most surprising moments of 2020 involved pinot as well. Normally an expensive wine, the best value I came across in 2020 was actually a pinot noir. Made by Lucky Rock, this killer wine costs just $22 and is a purposeful thorn in the side of upper hoity toity wine society that turns both butt cheeks at such plonk.  

This year’s exploration further confirmed pinot noir’s bona fides as one of wine’s noble varieties for me. Pinot can give one an experience that doesn’t entirely make sense, which makes it quite hard to describe in a medium like this. Pinot flourishes as an a posteriori wine, giving us a lot to experience and learn from. But it’s real value is the a priori experience it can provide, going beyond what we can identify by giving us aromas, flavors, structures, and textures that are without comparison and require some theoretical deduction to wrap our heads around.

This seemingly illogical description is quite reflective of the experience one can have with pinot, able to pinpoint flavors, aromas, textures, and structures while feeling incomplete in one’s ability to describe the experience at hand. The more pinot I experience, the less I know about the variety.

2020: The Year of Zoom

You might have notice that Zoom is a thing. Many of us have spent countless hours on video conference as we work, socialize, or attend school and events from home. The same is true of the wine industry. With the limitation/inability of doing in-person tastings, wineries and public relations firms embraced Zoom tastings. I certainly did my fair share of them with wine glass in hand. I don’t have a ton of poignancy to add on this front other than two interesting anecdotes to share as data points.

Lot of time spent in front of this thing

First, when I profiled brick and mortar-less Clarice Wine Company and its inaugural release (2017 vintage) in 2019, I outlined the unusual business model that owner and winemaker Adam Lee designed to offer multiple touchpoints for customers. This included an online forum for Clarice members to connect with each other, which in its first year turned out to be less used that Adam expected. However, with COVID the forum lit up, and Adam combined that serge of community with another element of his unusual business plan, offering discounts to his members on other wineries owned by friends of his, to schedule an incredible amount of Zoom tastings with other winemakers to discuss their wines and experience. This effort helped his followers and customers expand their palates and knowledge while driving additional business to these partner wineries.

Second, in a very recent discussion with Wine Enthusiast’s Winemaker of the Year Greg Brewer, Greg told me that while he badly misses the in-person interactions with customers and clients, the ability to pop in on an event via Zoom for five or ten minutes and provide some additional value for the participants is something he’s come to really appreciate, and imagines will continue to be something he does even when he’s Zoomed in on in-person events.

Zoom has been a Godsend for many people for many reasons, including the wine industry. And, it may be the gift that keeps on giving even when COVID is fully in our rearview mirror.

2020: The Year of Champagne

It became clear to my wife and I this year that when there’s something to celebrate, it should be celebrated. We shouldn’t be too picky about it. And when we think celebration, we think Champagne. It’s unfair to limit the use of Champagne to celebrations, although that’s the stereotype the industry has perpetuated in the name of sales and brand ID. It’s also a bit stupid because Champagne is one of the best food-pairing wines out there, full stop. But that’s another discussion.

At some point in 2020 we decided we wanted bubbles to be more of a fixture in our routine, and so I set out to assemble a dozen or so bottles for us to try. I went to social media, getting great recommendations from a number of people. Although we experimented with a number of non-Champagne bubbles, we always came back to three wines that have become our core sparkling wines, all of them from the region of Reims:

NV Taittinger Brut Prestige Rosé: We tried a number of rosé’s, including Billecart-Salmon, considered by many to be the industry standard basic quality rosé, and didn’t find anything we liked nearly as much as Taittinger’s Brut Prestige Rosé. A combination of pinot noir and pinot meunier, it strikes a great balance between lean acidic cut and creamy body; has the kind of lush, fine mousse we love; and drinks equally well alone as it does with food. We rarely drink more than two or three bottles of any vintage of any wine because we prize variety, but we blew through more than a case of this in 2020.

NV Egly-Ouriet Premeir Cru Vignes de Vrigny: This cat’s-out-of-the-bag grower Champagne house was a no-brainer to try, and we fell hard for this rare Premier Cru-level 100% pinot meunier Champagne. It’s 38 months on lees is, according to the winemaker, a modern regional record. The result is a savory, substantive, and succulent Champagne with great minerality and depth that drinks well now, though I’m trying to exercise patience and keep a few in the cellar to open in five or seven years because it has that kind of promise for evolution.

NV Bérêche et Fils Brut Réserve: This one came via an Instagram recommendation, and was my favorite new discovery. It’s a full-bodied, dense, cider-y, creamy, yeasty, and brioche-y Champagne that stands out very distinctively – and elegantly – from the far more common profile of what seems to be one of today’s dominant wine trends of strip-your-enamel acid. This is my favorite Champagne to drink on its own for that reason in particular.

2020: The Year of Residual Sugar

We are dedicated lovers of old sweet chenin blanc from Loire Valley, especially Domaine Huet Moelleux (the sweetest Vouvray designation). We fell in love with riesling after spending time in Mosel in 2019 while on our honeymoon, which also served as our introduction to Kabinett. This year, our official love affair with Kabinett and Spätlese rieslings began.

Kabinett and Spätlese are German designations for the amount of sugar content in the grape when it is harvested (note: neither distinction reflects how much residual sugar is left in the wine post-fermentation, meaning there are such things as dry Kabinett and Spätlese wines, which are given the additional distinction of “trocken,” “Grosses Gewächs,” or “Erstes Gewächs”).

The foundations for this love affair were laid by a 2007 Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett, a 2003 Selbach-Oster Zelting Schlossberg Auslese, and a magnum of Peter Lauer Barrel X riesling that paired well as a BYO bottle with a meal at a Laotian restaurant known for exceptionally authentic and authentically spicy food. Now, about a third of what we’re buying for ourselves are residual sugar wines, especially riesling and chenin blanc. A 1996 Schaefer Kabinett really sealed the deal.

One aspect of the beauty of varieties like riesling and chenin is that, whether dry or sweet, when aged for ten-plus years they take on qualities that make them exceptionally diverse in the food pairing department, an improvement, if possible, upon their distinction as great food wines even when young. Really great, old riesling or chenin goes equally and extraordinarily well with steak au poivre as it does Thai, and are also exceptional to drink on their own. There are no other varieties, I’d argue, that you can say that about. And that’s especially frustrating because the modern trend is dry riesling, even in the most famed areas for residual sugar. This means supply of residual sugar bottlings, both old and new, is shrinking.

The other frustrating thing with these wines is that, at least for us, they are so much better when they reach ten or twenty (or sometimes more) years of age and are worth the wait. This means we have to buy them at auction to support our addiction since we didn’t order cases of them when we were in high school. Our approach is to go mostly to auction, while slowly building a stock of new(ish) releases that we’ll drink when we’re (much) older.

2020: The Year of “Next year”

We were supposed to go to Japan and Belgium in 2020. We were supposed visit family, and celebrate birthdays with friends and good wine. We were supposed to volunteer. We were supposed to…supposed to…supposed to… “Next year” has become a common idea expressed towards the end of many conversations. The yearning for a better and more meaningful next year is a common theme for Jews like myself, which made it a bit easier to swallow each time I said it, though no less consequential.

At the end of the Passover Seder and the Yom Kippur Ne’ila service (two of the most important events in the Jewish year), diaspora Jews sing “L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim,” which translates to “Next year in Jerusalem.” An inherent, in-our-DNA connection to Jerusalem, the heart and soul of Israel, is a core part of many Jew’s identities, mine included.

Jerusalem means “the city of peace” and uniquely occupies the intersection of body, soul, heaven, earth, ideal, and reality. Although also biblical, the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the Land of Israel has been around for a lot longer than the Jewish religion. It comes from a time of Jewish nationhood, which preceded the Jewish religion by many generations. This is why there are numerous secular Jews for whom Jerusalem and Israel hold a special place in their hearts and souls, and why attacks on the Jewish connection to Israel, and Jewish self-determination in the Land of Israel, are attacks on Jewish identity.

A common description of Jerusalem’s Jewish significance is that you can be miles away from it even while living there, yet be on the other side of the world and be only a step away. When Jews left Egypt for the Land of Israel, they were escaping slavery and seeking the freedom of the Promised Land out of a yearning for the ancestral place where they could be free. In Egypt their bodies were owned and controlled by others, imprisoning their souls rather than being a vehicle for their expression. In Israel, and especially Jerusalem, their souls were free to pursue service to humanity, which is a core tenant of Jewish life. This sentiment remains a core value that Jews cherish today. Whether one actually lives there or not, Jerusalem is, in place and spirit, the best opportunity for Jews to live our best lives (in the parlance of our times).

In 2020, the secular “next year” took on a weightier significance then it had previously, at least in its common use. So much of what many of us have given up this year are things we do with and for other people – the things we do in service to humanity.

I’ve been working from home since 2017, so I’d been training for COVID for a few years on the work front. However, that didn’t cover things like having to keep physical distance from family, friends, friends’ COVID babies and dogs, seriously sick friends, and close colleagues. Even Next Year in Jerusalem, always a communal exclamation, became something we said in the solitude of our own homes while watching services on our television. It’s been a hard year to maintain relationships, though the shared experience of COVID at least provides for a universally understood reason (and excuse). It’s been a year where selfishness can be selflessness if done right and for the right reasons, but also a year where selfishness can be masked as selflessness or unmasked for what it is. It’s been an entirely mixed bag.

I’m really hoping that “next year” is prophetic and what we’ve had to postpone in 2020 can happen in 2021. Like you, I have a long list of people and places I want to visit, and things I want to do. I’m eager for a return to normalcy, though I anticipate it will be a new normal, with tweaks to the old normal based on what we’ve learned this year. As the year winds down, we’ll be raising our wine glasses to everyone in our family and yours, and channeling our strong desire and hope for a better 2021 for all, including a renewed focus on how we can serve each other. To next year.

Try this Wine: Fall Release from Merry Edwards

Earlier this year, I profiled legendary California pinot noir producer Merry Edwards and reviewed a number of their wines, including the spring release allocation. To conclude the article, I wrote that:

“It is hard to compare Merry Edwards’ wines to those of other wineries, even her neighbors, because the combination of Merry Edwards herself, the quality of the terroirs of the vineyards, and the meticulous and purposeful viniculture and winemaking of Heidi [von der Mehden] is unique, and uniquely effective. There are lots of reasons to choose one wine over another, but it is hard to be in the mood for Merry Edwards and settle for something else.”

This follow-up article reviews their six fall release wines. Merry Edwards was a pioneer in the California pinot noir movement, focusing on single vineyard designates. Over time, she added chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and a few other small production wines. For a long period of time, the winery was a pretty stable place in terms of ownership, management, winemaking, and general marketing and public relations. Merry put a lot of work and thought into building and strengthening the winery’s product, brand, and reputation, and like her vineyard approach kept the long game in mind. It worked.

Five Years of Important Transitions

Towards the end of her time in the business, Merry positioned the business for successful transitions to new leadership. In 2015, Merry hired Heidi to be her assistant winemaker, and it went well enough that in 2018 Heidi was made head winemaker when Merry decided to retire from those duties. In early 2019, she and her husband sold the winery, estate vineyards, and vineyard leases to Louis Roederer Champagne House. When Roederer purchased Merry Edwards, they kept Heidi, who is profiled in my earlier Merry Edwards piece, as head winemaker, and brought Nicole Carter in as President.

Merry Edwards President Nicole Carter

Nicole has been a long-time leader in the wine industry, previously serving as Chief Marketing Officer and Director of Winemaking at Hess Family Wine Estates after spending 18 years in global marketing and public relations for Treasury Wine Estates. Before her move to California, Nicole was a public affairs professional in Washington, DC, the same line of work that pays my bills.

Between the spring and fall releases, I had a chance to join Nicole on a Zoom tasting and later connect directly with her by phone. I have found her to be professional, insightful, and thoughtful: a combination of vinicultural, enological, marketing, management, and business skill rarely found in one person. Notably, Nicole is dual-hatting as President of the venerable Diamond Creek Vineyards as well. Merry Edwards is in great hands with her and Heidi at the helm. One exciting thing to watch for, in addition to future wine releases, is a label redesign in the next six to eight months that will bring some modernization while retaining the classic labels’ iconicism.

The 2020 Fall Release Wines
A map of Merry Edwards’ vineyards. The fall release vineyard designates include Bucher, Warren’s Hill, Meredith Estate, and Flax.

Getting down to the new wines, the release includes five pinots and a late harvest sauvignon blanc. I tasted the four vineyard designate pinots over a period of four days, which facilitated great evolution in all four, and gave me a good feeling about the promise they hold. These are seriously dense wines that are going to need time in the cellar to fully express themselves. Nevertheless, they spirit the fall season with some funkiness and earthiness, showing a nice dichotomy from the more fruit and spice-oriented spring release wines. For those who prefer more earthy wines, these fall release pinots are great New World picks. The fifth pinot which I reviewed in the spring, is the Sonoma Coast blend, but was included in this fall release.

While my preference would be to stick these in the cellar and forget about them until at least the 2025 Presidential Inauguration, if you want some seasonally appropriate wines that you can enjoy over a number of days this holiday season, look no further. These wines remain consistent with my previous claim that while there are many pinot noirs out there, there remain no others like Merry Edwards.

Let’s begin with the 2018 Bucher Vineyard Pinot Noir, a tiny parcel of a vineyard (just 2.13 acres) in the Russian River Valley. 2016 was the first vintage of this leased vineyard designate for Merry Edwards, making it one of the few vineyards as new to Merry Edwards as head winemaker Heidi von der Mehden, who was challenged by Merry to make the first rendition of it. Among this fall release, it was the most accessible vineyard designate, though that’s not saying much. Tasting note:

Day 1: The nose features raspberry, blackberry, tar, and black pepper. On the palate, it’s medium bodied with a nice core of juicy acid. The flavors are equal parts fruit, earth, and salt with plum and raspberry, graphite and pepper, and saline. Accessible now with a decant, I see this improving over the next three or four years.

3 Day Update: Left corked in the kitchen for three days. Original tasting note is solid, including the drinking window, though there’s a slightly fungal note on the backside of the palate that adds something interesting to the mix.

92 points. Value: B-.

Next is the 2018 Meredith Estate Pinot Noir, a vineyard at the center of the winery’s identity. Merry purchased 24 acres in the Russian River Valley in 1996 and planted 20 acres of vines on its eight to 12 degree slopes. In the spring article, I reviewed the 2017 vintage of this wine, calling it “full-throttle” wine that would benefit from three to five years of aging. While I awarded it and the 2018 93 points each, I found the 2018 to be even denser and  in need of more cellar time. Tasting note:

Day 1: The nose features sweet plum, red currant, blood orange, dried cherry, and dried herb. Full bodied with spread out, densely grained tannin and significant acid, this is quite primary in structure and flavor, which includes salty plum, tar, rhubarb, raspberry and fungal forest floor. A bit backwards at the moment, this needs at least five to seven years of cellaring.

Day 3 Update: Corked and stored for three days in the kitchen. The nose remains sweet and decadent, as does the palate. Aromas and flavors remain consistent, but it has reversed its backwardness. Aging window seems spot on as it should help the structure resolve and the flavors deepen. Adding a point (from 92 to 93) because it deserves it.

93 points. Value: B.

Warren’s Hill Vineyard

As the funkiest of the bunch, the 2018 Warren’s Hill Pinot Noir was my favorite. The vineyard had been used for nearly two decades to produce top notch pinot, and was replanted in 2012 using vine cuttings from the original planting that were propagated in nursery before being planted. At the same time, the vineyard was renamed in tribute to Merry’s late son, who was named himself after two respective Warrens whom Merry was close with herself. Tasting note:

Day 1: The funkiest nose affixed to a Merry Edwards wine that I’ve come across, it’s as if the grapes have absorbed the mushroom mulch used to treat the vineyard’s soil. Aromas include black tea, burnt cherry, forest floor, marjoram, and dried oregano. Medium bodied, it coats the mouth in fine, grippy tannin and sparkling acid that delivers flavors of strong black tea, licorice, dried sage, blackberry and salty dark plum. There is a uniqueness to the wine that sets it apart among Merry Edwards pinots, and indeed apart from other American pinot noirs. I think its best days will come roughly five years from now.

Day 4 Update: Left corked in the kitchen and revisiting today. It’s softened a bit, but is still pretty tight. The funkiness, which remains noteworthy and tasty, is more integrated with the fruit, making it a more interesting and pleasant wine to drink. While it’ll be better in five years, I’m revising my drinking window to say that its best days are probably eight to ten years from now.

94 points. Value: B.

The final vineyard designate is the 2018 Flax Vineyard Pinot Noir, a site well known to followers of Williams-Selyem who have enjoyed its old block Flax designate for some time now. This year’s Merry Edwards is a great example of the wondrous wines that can be produced off vineyards where land, climate, viniculture, rootstock, and clone (Pommard 4 in this case) are well matched for each other. Vines themselves, the combination of rootstock and clone, get shortchanged in discussions on Good Vitis and in 99% of wine journalism and blogging, mostly due to the boring nature of the discussion that neither writer nor reader can easily appreciate. If you want to drink the discussion rather than read it, look no further than this wine. Tasting note:

Day 1: The nose is quintessential Russian River Valley Pommard, dropping seemingly endless dark cherry, plum, and mild cigar tobacco aromas. Extended air reveals wiffs of wet pavement minerality and clove. On the leaner side of pinot, the palate is tight at the moment with fine tannins that build grip with time, and lean and long acid. The flavor profile includes beautifully balanced blackberry, blueberry, tar, licorice and spiced plum. A bit light in the middle at the moment, a few years in the cellar will help the tannins move inwards from the outer edges to fill in the palate. Give this three to five years if you can.

Day 4 Update: Left this corked in the kitchen for four days. The nose is surprisingly muted, more so than when initially tasted. The mid palate has filled out a bit, thankfully, as the tannins have released a bit and moved inwards. It’s picked up a tasty cinnamon note. I think this is going need at least five, if not six or seven, years to hit a solid place. It’s got a ten year lifespan, easy.

93 points. Value: B-.

The 2018 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir represents a compelling high quality representation of the appellation. Tasting note:

A deeply-rooted nose offers aromas of concentrated cherry juice, mountain strawberry, baking cinnamon, cigar tobacco, scorched earth and prune. Surprisingly light and tangy, it offers long, finely grained tannin and sharp, juicy acid. The good bits are all there, but need time to come together. Flavors include bright Bing cherry, strawberry, black plum, blood orange and tar. Not as welcoming as the 2017, but needing just as much time, this will be a very good wine. 92 points. Value: B-.

Finally, we come to the super delicious 2018 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, which achieves a level of depth and complexity that belies its existence as just a third leaf wine, and the first (production) harvest, from the Maefield Vineyard that Merry Edwards planted in 2015. Given its youthful source, the promise of this vineyard for late harvest wines is incredible, as is the amount of effort that goes into producing a late harvest wine in Sonoma.

Merry planting Maefield Vineyard

Normally, late harvest grapes are left to hang as long as possible to achieve high sugar accumulation in the grapes, and picked just early enough to preserve some acidity. In Sonoma, however, with the tapering of the hot weather (needed to develop sugar) in the fall and the concomitant fog development, it gets complicated to let grapes hang past the harvest dates used to make dry wine. To balance the need for extended hang time to achieve concentration with the need to harvest earlier in the grape’s development than would be ideal for a late harvest wine to safeguard against fog-induced disease, Heidi and her team reduce the crop by half and remove the canes (young branches that suck up nutrients but aren’t yet producing production-worthy grapes) to coax the vine into pulling less water into the plant, thereby dehydrating the remaining grapes and allowing them to concentrate more rapidly. They were also lucky to find that Noble Rot, a beneficial fungus that shrivels the grapes (thereby inducing concentration), was quick to develop in the young vineyard. I wasn’t able to let this one last more than one night. Tasting note:

The sweet, tropical nose offers boisterous peach, candied mango, orange creamsicle, white tea, and Sprite. Full bodied with gorgeously smooth and thick acid that envelops the mouth in silkiness before piercing the finish with crispness. The very sweet palate includes flavors of yellow peach, orange marmalade, Angel Food cake, guava, and salmon berry. This is downright delicious, but I imagine will do cool things in ten to twenty years. 94 points. Value: B+.

The League of Merry Edwards

Mery Edwards, legend.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a (relatively) new winery in the Sta. Rita Hills called Peake Ranch that I said was on the path to becoming a winery with few peers. In this piece, I get to write about a winery that is already part of that exclusive club, Merry Edwards Winery and Vineyards.

Merry Edwards the woman was a pioneer in the California wine industry in several ways. Not only did she enter a male-dominated industry in the 1970s when sexism was a both a systematic and casual force holding women back, but she also helped shape the development of pinot noir, especially in the Russian River Valley. It is anything but hyperbolic to say that without her, California’s wine scene wouldn’t be what it is today. The Culinary Institute of America inducted Edwards into their hall of fame in 2013 along with the impressive company of Robert Parker, who himself deemed Edwards “one of the masters and pioneers in California.” My recent exploration of a range of their wines from 2017 and 2018 vintages offer evidence of what makes the winery so legendary.

Merry’s path to Merry Edwards Winery and Vineyards is a bit circuitous. She began at one of the most esteemed estates in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Mount Eden. While there, she formed a friendship and mentor-mentee relationship with Joseph Swan, a relationship that would often take her to Sonoma Valley in those years. Her interest in Sonoma and the Russian River Valley developed as a result of these travels, and led to her move from Mount Eden to Sonoma’s Matanzas Creek in 1977, where she was the winery’s inaugural winemaker, to fully immerse herself in the area.

In 1984, she launched Merry Vintners, though production lasted just five years before the financials went south, a victim to a wider downturn in the wine market that wiped out a good number of wineries in California at the time. After consulting for a number of wineries, she launched Merry Edwards Winery in 1997. Her impressive portfolio of vineyards would increase over time, growing to today’s count of twelve owned and leased.

Today’s pantheon of Merry Edwards Russian River Valley vineyards

It is hard to talk about the boom in Russian River Valley pinot noir without talking about Merry Edwards because of what she has done there under her own name. However, her earliest mark on the Valley came before she planted roots there. While working at Mount Eden in the Santa Cruz Mountains to the south of San Francisco, she helped treat and propagate a pinot clone that became known as UCD  37, or the “Merry Edwards selection.” It would go on to be a star of the Russian River Valley AVA.

In a sign of the significance of the Edwards brand, Merry and her husband Ken Coopersmith (who himself had been instrumental to the winery’s success) sold the business to Louis Roederer Champagne in 2019, which announced that no changes, including to the winemaking and vineyard staff, were going to be made.

One person thankful for Roederer’s staffing decision is Heidi Von Der Mehden, Merry Edwards’ head winemaker since 2018. Recruited by Merry in 2015 to be associate winemaker, she was promoted three years later when Merry retired from head winemaking duties. It went without saying that she was glad to remain on the payroll after the sale to Roederer.

I spoke with Heidi after tasting through a few of the wines sent to me for this article. One of the first questions I asked her was how closely she could identify with the sexism that Merry overcame in her career. Thankfully, Heidi herself had not experienced such systemic sexism. She observed that her career had been largely a series of positions under men who were looking to retire, and perhaps because of that did not see her as a threat, but rather for her talents and intelligence. It was some of the younger men around her who were more competitive, which could be a sign of sexism, or less harmful competition between talented people. At Merry Edwards, she says, it’s not gender that helps someone advance, but talent.

Her instinct was that the kind of sexism that Merry faced was both more numerous and more blatant than what exists in the industry today. “There is less of it today, but it’s probably more subversive and harder to prove. Now, it’s someone gets a job and you’re told it’s because they’re more qualified but you realize it’s actually because of gender.” Though she’s seen that kind of dynamic from time to time, Heidi says she hasn’t experienced it herself. “I’ve been lucky that I’ve not faced the kind of gender discrimination that Merry did. She has ridiculous stories.”

Heidi Von Der Mehden

We also talked about her recent transition to head winemaker. Having taken over recently from a luminary, it would be understandable if the process was challenging. However, calling it “smooth,” Heidi noted that she had previous experience taking over head winemaking duties coming to Merry Edwards. “I had taken over for another luminary, Richard Arrowood, at Arrowood Winery, but in both cases I never looked at it as an opportunity to take over from a big name, but rather as an opportunity to learn from one of the best. I knew I wanted to get into Russian River Valley pinot, so when this opportunity came along, I was going to grab it.” Because Merry intended for Heidi to eventually take over when she was hired to be the assistant winemaker, “I learned a ton from her. She wants the brand to succeed; after all, her name is on it and it’s her baby. So we worked together very well to make sure the transition was seamless and the legacy of great pinot continues.”

Coming into the job, Heidi had very little pinot experience. While her first winemaking job was at Kenwood, a large(r) scale Russian River Valley winery that makes pinot noir among many other varieties, the approach was different than it is at Merry Edwards. Though both wineries did a few similar things like whole cluster, the scale was very different.

“It was very large format and we only had large, closed top fermented and did pump overs, things you wouldn’t do for high end pinot [like at Merry Edwards].” After Kenwood, she would work mostly with Rhone and Bordeaux varietals for a number of years, leaving pinot behind. However, “Merry actually liked the fact that I had little in the way of pinot experience because it meant I came in with few notions and ideas of how it should be made. I didn’t push back against her approach.”

Merry’s approach included a few things that surprised Heidi. One example she gave me was the use of relatively large five ton fermenters. “A lot of small producers like small fermenters and small lots, but Merry likes bigger fermenters to get as much phenolic extraction as possible.” Extraction requires heat, which is naturally produced during fermentation. So, in order to bigger extraction, larger fermenters are needed to achieve the requisite temperatures.

Another difference is how the vineyards are planted. Rather than the more traditional north-south orientation, Merry Edwards vineyards are planted at 20 degrees off magnetic north. Paired with appropriately oriented leafing, the fruit gets more sun protection during the hottest parts of the year while increasing exposure to the cooler morning sun, an approach to avoid sunburn while still developing sufficient tannin. An added benefit to this approach is that while it necessitates even more leafing than usual, it results in concentrating more nutrients in the grapes. They begin leafing right after fruit set, which also gives the young fruit early training in sun exposure, building the grapes’ tolerance to heat young to prevent sun damage later in the growing year.

A Merry Edwards vineyard

These vineyard decisions and practices are instrumental to developing the tannin structure of the bottled wine. Heidi explained to me that one of the things that drew her to Merry Edwards was the in-house phenolics lab, which helps track what otherwise must be detected by taste and sight. Heidi and her team take full advantage of this capability, testing phenolic levels (the chemical compounds of tannins) on all pinot lots. “It’s awesome that we have our own lab, because it means we get real time numbers. I’ve trialed outside services, and it takes longer and is harder to trust.” Further, “the research that’s been done on phenolics is heavily weighted towards Bordeaux varieties, so there’s relatively little solid data available on pinot. That doesn’t help us very much, so being able to test as we want and build our own dataset is huge.”

Phenolics are tested as soon as the fruit arrives from harvest, giving Heidi a baseline to use throughout production as they are again tested at various points during the winemaking process. “I’ll run anthocyanin [the tannin extracted from the skins] to see how color is developing during cold soak [which occurs prior to fermentation] and whether we’ve gotten all we want from that phase to determine when fermentation should be started. I’ll run it again mid-fermentation to decide if we need to do delestage [a process that gently extracts tannins by adding oxygen to the juice], or hold back on punch downs, or implement any other extraction regime.” In addition to the taste test, the lab helps Heidi more preciously develop her tannin profile.

Perusing the Merry Edwards website prior to our conversation, I noticed lots of vineyard pictures showing generous cover crops, a term referring to the vegetation covering the ground between the rows of vines. Using covers (as opposed to not using them) is a tactic many winemakers and vineyard managers use because they want to add or remove something from the soil that is affecting the vines in a positive or negative way, for example adding vegetation that helps replenish potassium in the soil, or a using type of plant that improves aeration in soil that otherwise may suffocate the vine roots. They are often used as an alternative to fertilizer.

It turns out that Heidi is a big believer in cover crops. “I used to have a lot of organic vineyards at Arrowood, cover crops are a huge point of pride in that context [because without non-organic pesticides and fertilizers, they become very important]. At Merry Edwards, I’ve always wanted to do more cover crops. We decide on it vineyard by vineyard, focusing on what the vineyard in question needs.”

In one vineyard, “the soil was just so vigorous and the canopies were so huge that they kept the fruit from coming in, so we planted a modest amount of orchard grass to introduce competition for the nutrients and water so the fruit had a chance. We got a better crop and better flavors.” In another vineyard, “we had an issue with Pierce’s Disease–it was a big issue in the Russian River Valley in 2014 and 2015–so we targeted a cover crop that increased the number of beneficial insects and wasps by sprouting a lot of flowers, which in turn attacked Pierce’s.”

In her quest to continue improving the quality of the wine, Heidi is excited because she was recently greenlit to do soil sampling in the vineyards, which hasn’t been done in many years. While many wineries do a lot of soil sampling prior to planting a vineyard to inform which varieties, clones and rootstocks they choose to plant, it is rare that they are done once a vineyard has been up and running for as long as some of Merry Edwards’ plots. “The soil changes over time, especially when it is feeding vines,” Heidi told me. “I’m hoping I can start focusing more on each vineyard and giving them what they need to produce better fruit.” Updating the winery’s knowledge of its soils can uniquely help her achieve that ambition.

Merry Edwards wine is not exactly cheap. A major driver of cost is the choice to use a high percentage of new, versus previously used, oak barrels. If every vintage requires new oak, that means a larger barrel order each year. Merry Edwards uses “quite a bit of new oak,” Heidi explained, “with a minimum of about 45% new oak depending on the vineyard and vintage.” For the sauvignon blanc, one of the few non-pinot wines that Merry Edwards produces, “it’s about 18% [new oak] and 100% barrel fermented.”

The pinot noirs see exclusively French oak. “We work with different coopers and every year when we taste the vintage [before blending and bottling], we taste each barrel set blind so we can see the difference in cooperage.” She then ranks them, and that ranking informs her barrel purchasing decisions for the next year. “This process has also helped be see how the vineyards themselves change with age. As the vineyard matures, the tannin structure and fruit profile change, so a barrel that worked for the vineyard five years ago does not always work as well when the vineyard gets another ten years into its life.” Despite the judicious use of new oak, the wines show little in the way of oak-dominated aromas and flavors.

In addition to a range of pinot noirs, Merry Edwards produces a revered sauvignon blanc and a spectacular chardonnay from the sourced Olivet Lane vineyard. The sauvignon blanc entered the winery’s portfolio after Merry became frustrated pouring other people’s white wines at her winemaker dinners and industry events, feeling like she was giving free advertising to other wineries. Merry had worked with the variety at Matanzas Creek, and decided to give it ago. She originally produced just enough for these small events, but after receiving multiple requests from restaurants and others to purchase some for their lists, she decided to make it part of her annual production that now represents about half of all wine produced each year. In its own right, it has become a collectable wine widely recognized as one of the best examples of the variety from California and is, like the pinot noirs, very age worthy.

A Merry Edwards tasting featuring its own sauvignon blanc

If there is any theme to draw out from my conversation with Heidi and experience with the wines listed below, it’s that we’re essentially talking about one effort undertaken over many decades to produce the best possible pinot noir from the Russian River Valley in a style that reflects the woman whose name is the winery. The approach is manically focused on fine-tuning every part and component of the process, and hyper localized to a distinct set of vineyards that, while each has its own personality, allow the winery to make a signature style of wine.

The wines have significant, sometimes stout, structures while displaying a harmonious array of fruit, earth and floral aromas and flavors at high levels of concentration. I was particularly taken by deftness of the tannins, which were long and especially thick for pinot, yet somehow elegant. The balance between power and beauty is a rare, rare find. All of them, even the sauvignon blanc, appear to benefit from at least short term aging, if not ten years. I found the 2017s to be significantly more accessible at this point than the 2018s, suggesting to me that the more recent vintage is going to need longer in the cellar to present their best selves.

It is hard to compare Merry Edwards’ wines to those of other wineries, even her neighbors, because the combination of Merry Edwards herself, the quality of the terroirs of the vineyards, and the meticulous and purposeful viniculture and winemaking of Heidi is unique, and uniquely effective. There are lots of reasons to choose one wine over another, but it is hard to be in the mood for Merry Edwards and settle for something else.

Wine Reviews

2017 Merry Edwards Chardonnay Cuvée Olivet Lane – The decadent nose offers toasted aromas of creme brûlée, burnt lemon peel, marzipan and lime spritz. Full bodied and creamy, it is offset high-toned acid that runs through the core of a structure that is as elegant as it is substantive. Flavors include a roof-coating brioche and a very pure core of sweet clementine, mango, slate, white pepper and lime zest. Tasty enough to be tempting now, there is huge upside to those who wait five-plus years, after which time the oak influence will integrate and allow more complexity and depth to develop. 94 points. Value: A-.

2017 Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir – There is a deep core in the nose of crushed dark cherry, muddled blackberry and seasoned leather. There are also light notes of violet and scorched earth. It’s full bodied with big, dense and round tannin balanced nicely by bright acidity. There is strong graphite minerality that establishes a serious tone, allowing the bold fruit flavors of blackberry, plum and cherry to feature prominently without entering jammy territory. This full-throttle wine is quite tasty, but warrants another three to five years of bottle age to hit its early stride. 93 points. Value: B.

2017 Merry Edwards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir – The nose has a heavy backdrop of scorched earth, wet bark, graphite, dark cherry, blackberry and black plum. It’s medium in weight, but spreads across the palate with fine tannin and juicy acid. Flavors include salty and sweet cherry, blackberry, plum and raspberry; black pepper; black tea; and cassis. This is a very intriguing wine aromatically, structurally and flavorfully. There are a multitude of layers that will take a solid five years to start unwinding. I’d love to try this in ten years when everything has sorted out and come together. 94 points. Value: A.

2017 Merry Edwards Meredith Estate Pinot Noir – There is a deep core in the nose of crushed dark cherry, muddled blackberry and seasoned leather. There are also light notes of violet and scorched earth. It’s full bodied with big, dense and round tannin balanced nicely by bright acidity. There is strong graphite minerality that establishes a serious tone, allowing the bold fruit flavors of blackberry, plum and cherry to feature prominently without entering jammy territory. This full-throttle wine is quite tasty, but warrants another three to five years of bottle age to hit its early stride. 93 points. Value: B.

2018 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc – A beautifully refined nose wafts aromas of guava, pineapple, green apple, banana peel, crushed chalk, lime ice and white pepper. It’s on the heavier side for the variety owing to barrel fermentation and routine lees stirring, but the acid is juicy and keeps the structure feeling flirty. Flavors include sweet green and Opal apples, pineapple juice, lime sorbet, canned mandarin wedges, spring florals and white pepper. A beautiful and beautifully made wine, this has the stuffing to improve over the next 5-7 years and hold tough for another 3-5 beyond that. 93 points. Value: A-.

2018 Merry Edwards Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir – This really benefited from a two hour decant. A dark, concentrated nose featuring Bing cherry, strawberry preserve, rose hip, smoke and blood orange. The aromas are reticent to give themselves up at the moment, there is more buried beneath the surface. Nearly full-bodied, it has a juicy quality that splashes the tongue, balancing nicely with the long, slightly grippy tannins that coat the cheeks. The structure holds a lot of promise. Flavors, like the aromas, are hesitant to present themselves fully but are edging towards a richness that should only develop further. Right now it offers cherry juice, Acai, raspberry, scorched earth, graphite, tar and a sort of blood orange burst on the finish. This one ought to be put in the back of the cellar and forgotten about for a good five years, and the consumed over the following five to seven years. 93 points. Value: B+.

2018 Merry Edwards Olivet Lane Pinot Noir – The under ripe and primary nose offers aromas of crushed strawberry, pastel florals, red plum and tar. Medium plus in weight, the broad tannin offers surprising depth and smoothness give their tender age. The acid is likewise smooth and lush. Together, they form a pleasant substantive structure. Flavors include bright muddled strawberry and raspberry, sweet huckleberry tartness, scorched earth, unsweetened cinnamon, red plum, and red currant. There is a lot going on with this wine, but in order to transform its prettiness into depth, the fruit will need to shed its tart edge. Only time will tell, and on that front I’d be tempted to give it at least four or five years of aging. 92 points. Value: C-.

2018 Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir – Really benefited from a 3 hour decant. The saturated nose features aromas of muddled black cherry, black pepper, blackberry liquor, scorched earth and a hint of juniper berry. Almost full bodied, it offers modest grainy tannins and robust, bright acid that gives the wine a sheen over its still-forming dark, earthy flavors of blackberry concentrate, Bing cherry, tar, graphite, lavender, rose petal and blood orange. Attractive at the moment, two to three years of bottle age should help the tannin and acid integrate better, which I imagine will help the flavors fatten a bit. On its way to a gorgeous RRV AVA pinot. Scored for today, but this has another 1-2 points of upside. Score: 92 points. Value: B+.

2018 Merry Edwards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir – A deeply-rooted nose offers aromas of concentrated cherry juice, mountain strawberry, baking cinnamon, cigar tobacco, scorched earth and prune. Surprisingly light and tangy, it offers long, finely grained tannin and sharp, juicy acid. The good bits are all there, but need time to come together. Flavors include bright Bing cherry, strawberry, black plum, blood orange and tar. Not as welcoming as the 2017, but needing just as much time, this will be a very good wine. 92 points. Value: B+.