October 25, 2011 / 9:10 AM / in 6 years

Winemaker Merry Edwards blazes trail in industry

SEBASTOPOL, Calif. (Reuters) - Forty years after breaking into the wine industry, Merry Edwards stills finds herself battling with the boys in the business.

In the ‘70s when she was trying to get her first job in the industry, a large California winery tried to push Edwards into research, a New Zealand winery would not let her interview for a job and a third turned her away when she walked through the cellar doors.

“There were no women professors,” Edwards said of her time at the University of California at Davis, a top school for winemakers.

“There was discrimination going on within the department and without,” she said.

But times have changed. David Block, the head of the university’s viticulture and oenology department, said about 60 percent of their graduate students this year are women.

Edwards got her first job as a winemaker with the help of a few gay professors at the university and the owner of Mt. Eden winery in California who all understood what she was trying to accomplish.

“They didn’t think that was odd, that I, as a woman, was trying to do these things,” she said.

After leaving Mt. Eden for another job she was sent to Burgundy in France to see what was so special about their Pinot Noir. It was there that she became captivated by the nuances different clones of a grape could impart and returned to Sonoma to preach the gospel of clonal diversity.

“Clones are like colors. If you take this clone and grow it in Alexander Valley or Russian River, yes it will be different, but it will retain its character,” she said, referring to two growing regions in Sonoma. “Some have a darker color, others more tannin, others are more aromatic.”

Most of her U.S. colleagues ignored her, so she was almost alone in planting different Pinot Noir clones. But when a vineyard pest known as phylloxera began ravaging California vines in the 1980s almost everyone followed.

The results have been an increase in quality, she said.

“People who make Pinot Noir as winemakers, we’re just different. Here, we’ve developed a community of people who are willing to talk to each other about they’re doing to improve the quality of Pinot,” she said.

“It just makes me laugh,” she added “when people ask if I‘m trying to emulate Burgundy. Why should I emulate Burgundy? Burgundy is just standing still.”

Edwards now has her own winery and her own clone.

“Its formal name is UCD clone 37, but everyone around here calls it Merry’s clone. And right now we’re surrounded by it,” she said, pointing to the acres of vineyards just outside the winery window.

Today she competes with not only the big boys of California like William Selyem and Kosta Browne, but also with top French producer Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC), the Burgundy that regularly sells for thousands of dollars a bottle at auction.

Just as Edwards once went to Burgundy to learn about Pinot Noir, DRC co-owner Aubert de Villaine has been visiting Sonoma, Edwards said.

“The point is this is the epicenter for Pinot Noir in California, why even for the world,” she said.

Editing by Patricia Reaney

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