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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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+.