Merry Edwards admits she’s never been good at sitting still. "I’m always doing research," she says. She's currently conducting experiments on how lower alcohol levels in wines impact aroma and mouthfeel; she's also partnering with the University of California at Davis and an Israeli company to record vine stress via Wi-Fi–enabled moisture readers implanted in vines. "These things are what keep you interested and moving forward."
Edwards' energy and curiosity have left an indelible imprint on the wine industry. Over her 45-year career, her experimentation has led not just to higher quality wines, but safer wines. Even as she steps away from her namesake winery, Edwards hopes to remain engaged in new things.
Last week, Edwards sold the winery and vineyards that she and her husband, Ken Coopersmith, built from the ground up to France's Louis Roederer Champagne house. "It’s so unpredictable; I never thought I’d find a buyer I’d like," Edwards jests. She adds that her philosophy has always been to do something because she felt like she should. "I didn’t have a long-term goal in mind when I started."
"I didn’t come from a family with money; I grew up in a middle-class family in Pasadena," says Edwards. "I had to create my own future, and my goals unfolded along the way."
Edwards originally planned to study nursing in college, and graduated in 1970 from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in physiology. It was at Berkeley that she became enamored with wine, leading her to shift the focus of her graduate studies to enology at U.C. Davis.
Over the course of developing her master’s thesis, Edwards discovered that lead-based bottle capsules were leeching lead into wine. She conducted a comprehensive survey supported by a grant, testing hundreds of bottles. The study's backers weren’t happy with her findings. "They suppressed my work for an entire year because they feared it would change capsules for the entire world," says Edwards. Of course, she was right. Once her thesis was published, the production and use of lead capsules ceased.
Edwards earned her master’s degree in food science, with an emphasis in enology, in 1973. But she was confronted with more opposition, this time in the form of gender discrimination. At the time, women enologists were not being hired as winemakers, but Edwards, unwilling to accept a position in the lab, persisted. She found her first winemaking job a year later, at Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
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While there, Edwards sent Mount Eden Pinot Noir cuttings to Davis. A previously unidentified clone, the selection would be officially named UCD-37—what many know today as "Mount Eden," or as the "Merry Edwards Clone." Cuttings from those vines would later propagate her estate plantings.
Edwards spent three years at Mount Eden before moving north to Sonoma County, becoming the founding winemaker at Matanzas Creek Winery. While there, she continued her investigation into clones, studying Pinot Noir at the University of Dijon in Burgundy.
She was amazed by the diversity among the hundreds of clones she examined. "I tried to talk to people about it, but they thought I was crazy," laughs Edwards, noting that there wasn't much clonal diversity in California in the 1970s, and few understood how the clones performed. "Viticulture is a whole different field now, and I could talk about it for hours."
Forging a New Path
In 1984, Edwards left Matanzas Creek to pursue consulting and start her own wine label, Merry Vintners. The label eventually failed, but in 1996 she purchased 24 acres that would become the site for her Meredith Estate Vineyard. The following year she met her future husband, Ken Coopersmith. They co-founded Merry Edwards Winery, and produced the first vintage of Merry Edwards Pinot Noir from purchased grapes.
As a young winemaker, Edwards admits to underestimating the importance of viticulture, but over time she developed an acute focus on the vineyards. "We recognized that we couldn't make the kinds of wines we wanted to make without our own vineyards," she says. Following the planting of Meredith Estate Vineyard in 1998, she developed five more sites, the last being a 10-acre parcel surrounding her home planted in 2015 and bringing her estate vineyard total to 79 acres.
Over the past two decades, Edwards' wines have swelled in popularity. The 28,000-case brand focuses on terroir-driven Pinot Noirs, including single-vineyard wines from her estates, as well as from long-term leases. She also makes a small amount of Chardonnay and a barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc.
Looking back, Edwards says milestones have hit her in stages. "It wasn’t until the early 2000s, when the brand started getting recognized that things started to sink in," she says. Her wines have been included in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of the Year on six occasions, including a Top 10 spot for her 2007 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc, and she is part of the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame. "I’ve always tried to not let anything go to my head," Edwards says. "If you’re on top, you have to keep performing and make the next best wine."
The Next Chapter
Last year, Edwards handed over winemaking duties to her assistant, Heidi von der Mehden, as part of her succession plans. "A decade ago, I started thinking about what I needed to do in my physical health so I could live until 90," quips Edwards, now 71, noting a regimen of Bikram yoga, gardening and keeping up with two grandchildren.
Both Edwards and Coopersmith plan to stay on for at least the first year during the transition phase with Roederer. She says even though she won’t be making the wines and running the business, she won’t be sitting still. "We’re used to traveling a lot for business, but not enough for fun, and there are lots of places we’d like to go."
Edwards credits her success to not getting too rigid about anything when it comes to big decisions. It’s her flexibility, after all, that lead to selling the winery and vineyards. "I [initially] hadn’t thought about what to do in the future," she admits, noting that she also never thought she’d be able to afford to build a winery, or have vineyards. "And now I stop and go, 'Wow, a lot has happened.' We’ve made a lot happen, and put the money back into what we’ve made," she says, pausing, "Not bad for a girl from Pasadena."