Lessons From 40 Years of Winemaking

Hall of Fame winemaker Merry Edwards delivers Walt Klenz lecture at UCD

by Jon Tourney
Walt Klenz Lectureship Series speaker Merry Edwards appears at the University of California, Davis, on Tuesday.
Davis, Calif.—Reflecting upon her “40-year journey” in the wine business, Vintners Hall of Fame inductee Merry Edwards provided practical advice about lifelong learning and following one’s passion—and expressed great satisfaction in the industry’s advances in technology, quality improvement and sustainability—during a lecture Tuesday at the University of California, Davis.

Edwards spoke as part of the Walt Klenz Lectureship Series sponsored by Treasury Wine Estates and named in honor of former Beringer Blass CEO Walt Klenz. Started in 2006, the series is presented by UC Davis’s Robert Mondavi Institute and the Department of Viticulture and Enology to feature wine business leaders who share their insights and experiences with students, faculty and industry attendees.

Career background
Merry Edwards completed an undergraduate degree in physiology at UC Berkeley in 1971. While doing graduate study in nutrition at Berkeley she met Andrew Quady (who later founded Quady Winery in Madera), who was studying winemaking at UC Davis. She became intrigued by winemaking and soon transferred to UC Davis, where she graduated in 1973 with a master’s degree in food science with an emphasis in enology.

Edwards began her winemaking career in 1974 at Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She was the founding winemaker at Matanzas Creek Winery in Sonoma County, where she worked from 1977 to 1984. The winery owners asked her to design a new Chardonnay vineyard, which led her to research different grapevine clones in France.

She built a successful winemaking consulting business beginning in 1984, and she continued to consult after starting her own brand. “I had trouble giving up consulting. I call it ‘the wheel of learning,’ because you’re teaching other people, but you’re also evaluating and re-evaluating everything you do as well,” Edwards said.

With husband and business partner Ken Coopersmith, she founded Merry Edwards Winery in 1997. They planted their first estate vineyard in 1998, built a state-of-the-art winery in the Russian River Valley near Sebastopol, Calif., in 2006, and opened a tasting room in 2008. Coopersmith, who built his own successful career in insurance sales, manages sales for the winery. Today, Merry Edwards Winery farms six different estate vineyards and produces 25,000 cases per year of Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Bottle prices range from $32 to $90.

In 2013, Edwards was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame, and she received the prestigious James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professionals—only the fourth woman so honored. Although this would be a career capper for many, Edwards shows no signs of slowing down. Edwards plans to plant two new vineyards in 2015, and she aims to produce 100% estate wines by 2018.

Edwards acknowledged assistance from UC Davis faculty throughout her career. She was the final graduate student of professor Maynard Amerine, who helped her obtain her first winemaking job. She cited viticulture professor Harold Olmo, who arranged visits with French researchers involved with grapevine clones, as having helped her select seven different Chardonnay clones to plant at Matanzas Creek. She later worked with Olmo to present the first UC Davis extension class in 1985 about the importance of clonal selection for American vineyards.

More recently, professor Doug Adams provided advice for setting up a phenolics lab at Edwards’ winery, to be used for vineyard-management decisions such as fruit thinning, and for wine-processing decisions such as extraction. “We can now do phenolic chemistry work so I know what we’re facing, and we can see patterns in how phenolic profiles are developing, so we can determine what will work for that vintage,” Edwards explained.

Sustainability is good business
Edwards toured the UC Davis Teaching and Research Winery and the Jess S. Jackson Sustainable Winery Building for the first time just prior to her talk, and she said it gave her ideas for her own winery.

“Sustainability is important, and it’s working because it makes good business sense,” Edwards said. “It can save resources and expenses, and it can produce a better quality product,” she added. Her own winery is nearly 100% powered by a 150kW rooftop solar PV system installed in 2010. The winery uses energy-efficient lighting and refrigeration controls, and the parking lot is paved with permeable concrete to allow rainwater to penetrate into the soil below and recharge groundwater. Edwards also noted how sustainable vineyard practices such as reduced chemical use, the use of cover crops and reduced water use with drip irrigation have also improved wine quality.

Lessons from a 40-year career
Offering advice to UC Davis viticulture and enology students, Edwards listed and discussed important lessons learned from her career:

• Pursue and expand knowledge throughout your career. “I make a point to learn something new about the wine business every year,” she said.

• Discipline and dedication to craft are essential. “Our winery has always been profitable,” she said. As an indication of her brand’s strength with customers, the winery sells to 500 restaurant accounts, and it’s rare when one asks for a sample bottle from a new vintage before ordering more wine.

• Be true to your own goals—listen to your own voice. She explained, “Don’t let others tell you what style of wine to make. You have to run your own business, and if you believe in what you produce, you’ll do much better.” She added, “I’m promoting the important attributes and the wine style I like, and I like to highlight the fruit flavor of the vineyard.”

• Follow your passion. She said: “I have to make what I like. How do I sell it if I don’t like it?”

Edwards made observations about major wine industry changes during the past 40 years. When she attended UC Davis, students had to choose a course of study in either enology or in viticulture; the two were not combined, as they are today. “This represents a major change in the industry’s attitude—winegrowing as the foundation for good wine,” Edwards observed.

Edwards learned about vineyard management on the job, and it now occupies a major part of her time and decision-making. She said a reason her winery is going to all-estate wines is to better control vineyard practices to produce her desired wine style. “We spend a lot of money developing and managing our vineyards, and we couldn’t justify this expense if we only sold the grapes,” Edwards said. She also admitted, “The most difficult decision I make is the first picking day of harvest.”

Another major change in the American wine industry was from a winemaking philosophy that emphasized “the stamp of the winemaker on the grapes,” to a new focus on terroir and an appreciation of regional and appellation character, rather than making all wines in a “Euro-centric style.” Edwards summarized, “I’m proud to be in California, and I’m proud to be making the wines that we grow here.

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