With wine, it's the fruit that counts

Winemaker Merry Edwards talks about her passion for pinot noir

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Merry Edwards thins fruit at her Meredith vineyard. (HANDOUT / May 10, 2010)

Pardon the pun, but if anyone has reason to be merry these days, it's Merry Edwards. Her signature pinot noir wines from California's Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast continue to garner kudos and reviewers' points. Her sauvignon blanc enjoys a rapidly growing reputation as one of the nation's best.

Edwards is used to acclaim. Her 36-year career in the pursuit of great wine done her way has brought fame, respect and her own vineyards. But she also has experienced gender bias and economic downturns along the way.

Still, she has persevered. "Merry does not rest on her laurels; she grows," her eponymous Web site (merryedwards.com) states.

In 1997, she co-founded Meredith Vineyard Estate and produced the first vintage of Merry Edwards pinot noir. In 2004, she was named winemaker of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle and, a year later, a "pioneer woman winemaker" by the National Women's History Project. Her own winery opened in 2007 in Sebastopol, Calif.

Despite her fascinating story, Edwards has remained true to the precept that it is the fruit, not the winemaker's personality, that needs to speak from the glass.

"I have focused on what works, continued to learn, to experiment and have kept my focus and passion," she said in a recent e-mail exchange. "All this has led to better and better winegrowing."

QPinot noir is considered your grape. What is it about pinot that provides you with such satisfaction?

AA lot of satisfaction comes from the realization of my dream: Some 30 years ago I believed that American pinot noir would "have its day." That day is now! Certainly this grape is the most challenging of any varietal; to succeed with pinot noir in itself brings a true sense of achievement.

It has been rewarding to tackle the problems presented by this finicky varietal and solve them, one by one. I speak from a communal point of view as many have collaborated in this work, and the explosion in pinot noir quality in our country has only been possible by the joint efforts of passionate pinot noir producers.

QThe movie "Sideways" made a star out of pinot noir. What has been the price of fame for the grape, both good and bad? Is there anything the consumer can do, besides knowing specific labels, to weed out the good from the bad? (Price? Location?)

AThe market for pinot noir was growing dramatically prior to "Sideways." We really noticed this in restaurant purchases. I believe that the movie was a result of this popularity and not the reverse.

The price of fame has been, until the downturn, increased competition for pinot noir (newcomers and cabernet producers getting into the game) and consequently an increase in grape and hence wine prices. Our philosophy has been to keep our quality high and our prices reasonable, with consistency and reliability from vintage to vintage.

QIn what directions are you going now, stylistically or technically? Will you be doing more sauvignon blanc, other wines?

AMy winemaking has evolved into winegrowing. My focus is continually improving grape and wine quality. We are doing this by making a major commitment to purchasing and leasing more land to plant vineyards or leasing existing vineyards. The increased control achieved by doing our own farming allows us to enhance quality in our pinots dramatically.

In 2010, more than 60 percent of our pinots are grown by us. Within four years, about 50 percent of our sauvignon blanc will also be "homegrown." Our sauvignon blanc production has increased with demand. We are making a late-harvest sauvignon blanc, combining drying the grapes on the vine with a touch of botrytis.

We also make a small amount of sparkling wine from pinot noir. Our current one is a 2008, late-disgorged wine that will be five years on the yeast — release date 2015.

wdaley@tribune.com

Tasting notes

Here are our tasting panel comments on Merry Edwards pinot noirs tasted in the last two years.

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