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Live! (Well, almost) from the Vintners Hall of Fame

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I had the distinct pleasure and privilege last night of introducing Merry Edwards at her induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame, in a glittering ceremony held at the Culinary Institute of America.

Seldom is so much star power gathered into a single space. Had one of those errant meteors hit the CIA yesterday, the California wine industry would have been decimated. Fortunately it didn’t! And it was wonderful as always to see people whom I’ve now known long enough that I can call them old friends: Bill Harlan, Andy Beckstoffer, Tim Mondavi, Archie McLaren, Randall Grahm, David Breitstein and far too many others to mention.

Merry had asked me to introduce her because, as she told me, I’m “an historian.” So in my prepared remarks, I gave myself the liberty of placing Merry and her accomplishments into what I perceive as California’s historical sweep. [For the full text of my remarks, see below.] Merry had emphasized, as I knew she would, that she didn’t see how “the woman thing” had been a factor in her career; but of course, it was, and had to be stated.

First, a word on the other award recipients. Two were deceased: César Chavez and Frank Schoonmaker. Mr. Chavez needs no introduction to readers of this blog. Accepting the award on his behalf was his young, energetic grandson, Anthony Chavez. Anthony gave a powerful, passionate and, yes, political speech that galvanized everyone in the room and reminded Napa Valley that it’s not only about glamor and glitz, it’s about leading the way in worker’s rights and even on subjects far beyond but inevitably related: food safety and climate change.

Many of you probably never heard of Frank Schoonmaker, who died in 1976. But wine writers know him well. He was one of the earliest and best wine writers post-Prohibition (in addition to founding his eponymous importing company), and I have several of his books in first print. They have been a source of enormous knowledge and insight for me. Perhaps Schoonmaker’s chief claim to fame in the wine industry was his absolute insistence, in the 1930s, on varietal labeling. He won that fight, of course. Now, you can argue the case of varietal labeling for and against. It has its pros and cons. But there’s no question that it’s better than the stupid, phony Ports, Sauternes, Champagnes and Sherries that dominated California during the 1930s, and for that, Schoonmaker deserves his bronze plaque.

Robert Parker, alas, was a no-show. He’d evidently hurt his back and was too much in pain to travel. But he did thoughtfully send a pre-recorded video in which he humbly apologized for not being there and seemed genuinely touched by the honor. He was introduced by an old friend of his, an elderly collector from back east who told us a little bit more about his 81,000-bottle wine cellar than I think we needed to know.

And then there was Merry. Accepting her award, she wept; so did many in the audience.

Here’s my intro:

Merry Edwards is in an ironic position. She’s a famous, successful woman winemaker, in a field that was notoriously unfriendly to women until comparatively recently. And yet she’s also a human being who says, quote, “I had been totally unconscious of my sex. I consider myself a winemaker first, and I don’t see how gender comes into that.”

Well, gender shouldn’t come into that, of course, any more than race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Ability is what counts, and Ability is why Merry Edwards is being honored today. But she did have to struggle to get where she is precisely because she is a woman. And this fact cannot and should not be overlooked.

Today, she can chuckle at her war stories: Of the time a Napa winery owner wouldn’t even consider hiring her at a job interview solely because of her gender. Of the tendency in the 1970s to relegate women to the laboratory because they were not considered suitable as winemakers. Of the Old Boy’s Network at U.C. Davis, under which male professors made sure their favorite graduate students–invariably men–got the good jobs. I said she can laugh at these things today. But at the time, these were stinging humiliations, and more: obstacles to be overcome. As with any struggle involving prejudice and civil rights, it takes a certain righteous anger to break down the barriers. Merry Edwards possesses this quality, too. She lets nothing stop her.

The first commercial Pinot Noir she made was at Mount Eden Vineyards; she was working for the late Dick Graff, who had co-founded Chalone. Dick was gay; so was the late Maynard Amerine, at Davis, who was indirectly responsible for Merry getting the Mount Eden interview. Merry once told me, “I had this little group of [gay] guys who understood that I was in the same position they were”–that of being isolated and rejected. “They were my moral support team,” she recalls. Just as she was mentored on her way up the ladder, Merry formed within herself the core value of helping others. Asked what she considers among her signal achievements, she cites her support of young women coming into the industry.

From Mount Eden she went to Matanzas Creek, where she was an early champion of French clones. Along the way she had two kids, and married her now husband and business partner, Ken Coopersmith. Her own Merry Edwards brand was slow in coming, because nobody handed her anything on a silver platter: It wasn’t until 1997 that she launched it, and it wasn’t until 1998 that she first planted her Meredith Estate.

Today, as the world knows, Merry Edwards is celebrated as one of the California’s greatest Pinot Noir masters, although it has to be pointed out that her Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay also are excellent. Merry has overcome every obstacle that Life threw her way, and done so with dignity. She’s now been in the business close to 40 years, but whenever Ken asks her if she’s going to retire, her response is: “Winemakers don’t retire! They just keep going until they drop by the side of the road.” Well, I think the road ahead for Merry is a long and productive one.

  1. Steve,
    A great article bringing in all the fascinating tidbits of wine history and of course, whose gay and that gender was an issue in the ‘old days.’ Merry had the fortitude to pursue her dream and the talent. Wonderful that she was finally inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame.

  2. Great account of a special evening. I particularly enjoyed your delivery of Merry’s introduction, and her acceptance speech, which was an emotional highlight – it was my first time meeting her, and she was incredibly gracious. Anthony Chavez’s remarks were quite political, though it did give the evening some edge! Also, I thought Karen MacNeil was classy, and a smart choice for emcee.

  3. Steve: A beautiful and deserving introduction. Well done.

  4. Clint, Karen is the classiest lady in Napa Valley, except for Margrit Mondavi!

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    Very nice and engaging recap of the evening, Steve. Thank you.

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