This story originally ran on Austin Woman Magazine.
The wine world can be a bit of a good-old-boys club, but Sonoma County-based winemaker Merry Edwards has broken through the gender barrier in her 40-year career. Edwards, who makes pinot noir and sauvignon blanc at Merry Edwards Winery in the Russian River Valley, will be honored as the featured winemaker at the 29th Annual Rare & Fine Wine Auction March 22 at Four Seasons Hotel Austin.
This honor adds to a long list of accolades for Edwards, including recognition as the Outstanding Wine Professional at the 2013 James Beard Awards, just the fourth woman to be so honored, and she has been inducted in to the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame. Her wines have also piled up the hardware, including landing the number nine spot on the Wine Spectator’s list of Top 100 Wines of the Year with the Merry Edwards sauvignon blanc Russian River Valley 2007.
The Rare & Fine Wine Auction, hosted by The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas, will benefit the Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, which will receive a portion of auction proceeds. The foundation awarded Dell Children’s $60,000, earmarked for nutritional programs and education, from proceeds from last year’s auction.
Edwards is the first female selected as the annual auction’s featured winemaker and joins a stellar list of who’s who in the wine industry, including Robert Mondavi, Paul Hobbs, Chuck Wagner and Christian Moueix. Wine & Food Foundation auction chair Daniel Bleier has collected Merry Edwards’ award-winning pinot noirs for years and says he’s thrilled to introduce the wines to the audience in Austin.
Austin Woman recently visited with Merry Edwards to learn more about her participation in the auction.
Austin Woman: How did you get connected with the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas for the Rare & Fine Wine Auction?
Merry Edwards: The call came through my daughter, Leslie. They asked if I would be interested in being honored as the featured winemaker. I was thrilled because, while I support a lot of charities, I have a big interest in children’s health. I have two sons and one left the earth when he was 19. He was severely disabled. Because of that, I have spent a lot of time in hospitals. That, coupled with my background in physiology and nutrition, has led to support for charities that help sick and needy children. I like to support medical centers like the Dell Children’s Medical Center to put money in to saving a child. There is also another personal connection, as a friend of my daughter was treated at Dell Children’s.
AW: What does it mean to be the featured winemaker at the 29th Annual Rare & Fine Wine Auction?
ME: It’s an honor to be a featured winemaker. I like doing an event that puts my wine in the spotlight, as it’s a great opportunity to share deeper information about it in my seminar. I enjoy speaking and educating people about wine. More focus on our brand.
AW: What inspired you to become a winemaker?
ME: I came to winemaking through food. I started cooking when I was pretty young and I carried that forward to college, when I started brewing beer and making fruit wine. Wine is an extension of cooking. You start with a recipe, just like cooking. While I was in graduate school studying nutrition at UC Berkeley, a friend introduced me to the wine program at UC Davis, where I earned a master’s degree in food science with an emphasis in enology. When I started in 1972, there were no women professors teaching in the program and there were only three women studying in the graduate program. The study of winemaking was a natural extension of interest in chemistry and nutrition. I got hooked. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t even drink. I introduced my parents to wine back then and my mom is still my winery partner at age 93.
AW: Do you have any female role models in the wine industry?
ME: The two women that led the way for me were Maryann Graf and Zelma Long. They were the only women I knew in the industry when I was starting out. They were both successively hired by a French winery in Sonoma called Simi Winery. Maryann was a pioneer for women’s winemaking and she was followed in that position by Zelma, who was previously an enologist at Mondavi. Between the two, there were at least 20 consecutive years of a female winemaker at Simi. Zelma also went on to start Vilafonte Wine Estate in South Africa. There have been many women role models in other places around the world. Most of the women in Europe who came in to the wine industry did so through the death of their husband. Women like Madame Jacques Bollinger in Champagne made a profound mark on the industry, and so many innovations in the industry came from women.
AW: When you first entered the business, you were one of the few female winemakers. Did you meet any gender bias?
ME: Oh, yes, of course I did. I credit my dad, in part, with how I overcame it. I was very close to my dad. He never told me I couldn’t do this because I was a woman. The second influence was that there were a lot of gay men in my life in the time when I was getting in to the wine business. They didn’t think there was anything weird about a young woman trying to get in to the wine business. Among those gay men, I had a professor, counselor and advisor who supported me and stood beside me. I was really discouraged in the beginning when I was applying for jobs. The winemaking business is farming-based, and there is no business more conservative than farming. A recent survey by UC Davis found that today in America, only 9.9 percent of winemakers are women. When I got in to the business, there were probably only six female winemakers total. Now there are more women winemakers because there are more wineries, but the percentage is still pathetic.
Merry’s Favorite Wines:
Littorai Mays Canyon Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, $90
“Ted Lemon is an excellent winemaker who produces elegant pinot noir and chardonnay in Sonoma.”
Peter Michael Winery L’Après-Midi Estate Sauvignon Blanc, $55
“I like sauvignon blanc from America. I make a barrel-fermented style and like similarly made wines. I’m very loyal to our area and don’t think they are as hard on the teeth enamel as wines from New Zealand or South Africa.”
Merry Edwards Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, $60
“I drink a lot of my own wine and I prefer my vineyard designates. I like to drink my pinot older and right now I’m drinking the 2003. I’m also infatuated with our Georganne pinot noir, which I drink a little younger. Right now, I’m making a special wine to celebrate our 40th vintage year. That wine will be composed of different selections of my own clone from different vineyards. I’ll make about 300 cases with a specially designed label.”
Photo courtesy of Merry Edwards Winery.
What are you drinking?