January 2016 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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A CONVERSATION WITH Merry Edwards

A master of Pinot Noir discusses the 2015 harvest, drought and balance

 
by Laurie Daniel
 
 
Merry Edwards
 
Merry Edwards, Pinot Noir specialist, weighs in on the 2015 harvest.

Pinot Noir specialist Merry Edwards, now in her fifth decade as a winemaker, started cooking with wine as a teenager, inspired by some cookbooks from the California Wine Advisory Board. Her interest in wine grew during her college years at the University of California, Berkeley, when Edwards started experimenting with fermentation of both fruit wines and beer. But her studies focused on physiology, and when she graduated in 1970, she planned to write about nutrition.

With that in mind, Edwards started studying at UC Berkeley for a master’s degree in nutrition. But a visit to UC Davis prompted her to transfer there to study winemaking. She earned a master’s degree in food science with an emphasis in enology in 1973.

    A NEW STYLE OF SAUVIGNON BLANC
     

     
    The market is full of bright, young, grassy Sauvignon Blancs, but winemaker Merry Edwards decided to take a different approach with her Russian River Sauvignon Blanc.

    Edwards made her first Sauvignon Blanc in 1979, while she was the winemaker at Matanzas Creek in Sonoma County. She wasn’t really fond of the prevailing style, so “I engaged in the challenge of how to make this varietal appealing to me personally,” Edwards says. “The typical herbaceous character was intensified by the trellising systems of the day, which shrouded the grapes with leaves, promoting not only a high production of pyrazines, but botrytis and other secondary molds.”

    She had heard that barrel fermentation reduced the grassy, bell pepper aromas that she didn’t like. “So I tried that technique as a first step, using primarily neutral and a small amount of new French oak,” Edwards says. “Next, I researched lees-stirring and added this to my protocol. This resulted in a substantial increase in mouthfeel.”

    She also discovered the Sauvignon Musqué clone. “I used this to add floral notes to the aroma, further muting grassiness. Modern trellis systems and moderate leaf pulling encourage more fruit-forward characteristics.

    “Last, a full six months of barrel aging and time on cork during bottle aging broadened the wine’s complexity. Now I have a wine that I enjoy!” She adds that the wine can age for 10 years. “We have a very, very good following.”

Finding a job as a winemaker was another matter. She was offered lab jobs—the traditional role for women at wineries in those days—but turned them down. Eventually, Edwards was hired at Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where she first worked with Pinot Noir. After three years she moved to Sonoma County, where she helped develop Matanzas Creek Winery. Making wine from Pinot Noir was put on hold for a few years, until she left Matanzas Creek in 1984 to consult and run her own short-lived brand, Merry Vintners.

In 1996 Edwards purchased land in the Russian River Valley, which became her Meredith Estate vineyard. She started Merry Edwards Wines the next year. Coopersmith Vineyard, named for her husband, Ken Coopersmith, was planted in 2001. Edwards also has long-term leases on three vineyards and works with several other wine grape growers.

In 2013, her 40th year as a winemaker, Edwards was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame in St. Helena, Calif., and won the James Beard Award for best wine, beer or spirits professional.

Wines & Vines: What sort of challenges did you face with the 2015 harvest?

Merry Edwards: 2015 was the earliest harvest I have experienced in my 42 years of winemaking. It began Aug. 15 with Pinot Noir from our Georganne Vineyard on Westside Road (Healdsburg, Calif.) and finished with the lower slope of Meredith Estate (Sebastopol, Calif.) on the 11th of September. This is about nine days earlier than we traditionally begin harvesting. Part of our assessment of grape maturity is the evaluation of seed maturity, which was somewhat skewed by the presence of so many tiny, seedless berries in all of our Pinot Noir vineyards this season. In addition, set was poor, which meant loose clusters. This resulted in good development of flavor and phenolic content—so great quality, but small quantity. My estimation is that our crop of Pinot was down by about 30%. Sourcing good Pinot to make up these low yields was not easy. However, my friends helped me source additional fruit I can use to produce our Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast blends. Our single-vineyard wines will be smaller in quantity, but excellent in quality.

The shortage of Pinot was exacerbated by the progressive losses from Pierce’s disease in our vineyards located on Westside Road: Flax and Georganne. The loss of vines has been devastating, with my current estimation of losses standing at approximately 25% over the past three years. We replaced many vines this summer, only to see other vines develop symptoms later in the growing season. Next spring we fear a repeat of last year, finding many vines that “woke up dead,” as Sonoma County agricultural commissioner Rhonda Smith describes this phenomenon.

For Sauvignon Blanc, the story was similar. Even though we recently planted 22 acres of this varietal, most of these grapes currently come from local growers. Some vineyards were down more than 50%. The set was so poor in some cases that the clusters looked like they had been stripped, with only a few berries left clinging to the rachis. I saw this shortage coming early in the season and was fortunately able to purchase enough grapes to come close to our annual production goal.

W&V: How about the effects of yet another year of drought? How are you conserving water in the vineyards and the winery?

Edwards: Another year of drought has been stressful on overall vine health. Coupled with a warm winter, the lack of rain encouraged a population boom in many insect populations, like the blue-green sharpshooter (the vector for Pierce’s disease) and mites, which thrive in dusty conditions. Incomplete soil saturation in the wintertime means additional vine stress, causing any weakness to be magnified. An example of this would be the presence of a red leaf virus—those symptoms might be hidden and managed when conditions are more moderate.

Even prior to the current drought, we have always been cautious about the application of water in our vineyards because we enhance quality in our Pinot by practicing the deficit theory of irrigation. We manage this using a pressure bomb and by monitoring vine appearance and soil moisture. Once we observe a moderate level of stress, we apply water. As a result, irrigation occurs a maximum of three to four times late in the season. About 6 gallons per vine per irrigation every seven to 10 days meets this requirement, depending upon the weather. However, these few water applications are critical; if no water were applied, the fruit would not ripen, but merely dry up and turn to raisins.

As part of facing the drought challenge, late in 2013, we cleaned out our large 7.5 acre-foot pond at Meredith Estate Vineyard to ensure there were no leaks and to make sure we could use its full capacity to collect rainwater for frost protection and irrigation. In the winery, we primarily use ozone for sanitation, which reduces the amount of rinsing required when you use other chemicals. Our industrial point-of-use water heaters give us instant hot water when needed. This means no hoses running water down the drain while it warms up for use. We are looking toward the future to explore the use of steam for new barrel preparation and perhaps even the development of a system to recycle winery wastewater.

W&V: There’s been a lot of talk lately about “balanced” Pinot Noir. What do you think constitutes balance, and how do you achieve it?

Edwards: I think the focus of this talk has really been on the reduction of alcohol. I am unsure of exactly what is behind this current insistence that all wines must be under 14% to be “balanced.” I completely agree that high-alcohol wines do not age well and are not healthy to drink. I am not in the “it has to be under 14%” camp, but I have felt for several decades that moderate alcohol creates wines of more intense aroma and rounder mouthfeel. Also, grapes picked at a moderate Brix do not have to be ameliorated, and overripe flavors are avoided. There are, of course, many other factors that, to me, contribute to true balance: phenolic composition, pH, total acidity and CO2 content. The amount of carbon dioxide is equally important as pH and total acidity because it influences the way we perceive those attributes. Higher levels will make a wine seem acidic when it is not, while a low level indicates an overworked wine that may seem flabby. Our harvesting decisions and winemaking techniques all concentrate on these factors. I am amazed each harvest to see that our grape delivery trucks seem to be some of the earliest running. I always ask myself, “What is everyone waiting for?”

Getting to balance means different things to different winemakers. I don’t believe in lowering the potential alcohol content by drawing off juice from the tank of crushed Pinot and then replacing that volume with water. This will definitely reduce the alcohol, but the resulting wine will have less color, tannin and mouthfeel, instead of true balance. Even when saignée juice is drawn off without water replacement, the resulting wine will be darker perhaps, but the texture will be off with harsh, concentrated tannins.

W&V: The Merry Edwards Winery website stresses your commitment to sustainable practices. Please give us a few examples of your practices. Also, why have you chosen not to farm organically?

Edwards: Over the years, we have focused on choices that are both sustainable and economically viable. Early on, we chose not to fumigate land prior to planting, even when that was still legal. Meredith was an abandoned apple orchard on which many young oak trees had grown up. I found a company that moved some 36 trees, live, and recycled them as landscape elements at high-end home sites. It took four workers three months to build boxes around the root balls and then lift them carefully with a crane onto transport trucks. The holes were filled with reserved subsoil and then layered with topsoil from the construction of the pond on site. We took the funds we would have spent on fumigation and thoroughly cleaned the soil of the remaining roots to reduce the likelihood of oak root fungus attacking the vines.

We have not chosen to farm specifically organically because for some viticultural challenges there is no current viable “organic” solution. An example of this would be the current sharpshooter infestation resulting in widespread and severe damage from Pierce’s disease. In general, we feel that a sustainable approach is best, allowing us to use a mix of techniques, some of which might be considered organic. I do need to allocate the time to work on our sustainable certification.

During construction and then expansion of our winery facility, we maxed out the entire south-facing roof surface with solar panels. We could not afford both the solar system and the cost of LEED certification, so we chose the former. This allowed us to become nearly 100% solar-powered. My feeling is that for sustainability to be successful, it needs to be both environmentally and economically sound.


A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for more than 21 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2000.
 

 
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