Sonoma Diary 4: The Style Continues at Merry Edwards under Roederer

Widely regarded as a pioneer winemaker in California, Merry Edwards established a reputation for Pinot Noir at Mount Eden Vineyards in Santa Cruz from 1974, followed by Chardonnay at Matanzas Creek in 1977.  When she founded her own winery in 1997, it became a leading source for single-vineyard releases of Pinot Noir. She sold the estate to Roederer in 2019, and stayed on for a year to help the transition. She had already hired Heidi von der Mehden from Cabernet-specialist Arrowood in 2015, with the idea of handing over winemaking to an experienced winemaker who had no preconceptions about Pinot Noir.

When I visited Merry Edwards in 2011, she said: “I probably have two stylistic aims. I like the fruit to come through, I view this as the personality of the wine. And I like to see the texture come through.” The style still holds through two AVA wines and eight single-vineyard releases. The Sonoma Coast is based on purchased fruit from a single vineyard; the Russian River comes from the same vineyards as the individual single-vineyard releases (some in the estate, some from fruit purchased from plots farmed to specification. “We feel that farming is the only way to come to great Pinot and that is what we have based everything on,” Merry said.). Winemaking is similar for all the Pinot Noirs. The AVAs have 45-50% new oak, the single vineyards have 55-60%. (This is down from 55-60% for AVAs and 75-80% for single vineyards, ten years ago.) Wines are usually bottled in August following the vintage, so they spend 10-11 months in barrique.

Just off the Gravenstein highway, manicured vineyards surround the Merry Edwards winery.

The Russian River Valley release shows a restrained style with a sense of structure. Coopersmith is the vineyard at the winery that Merry planted in 2001; this is a relatively cooler site. Farther north, Georganne is a warmer vineyard that Merry planted in 2005. Both were planted with the UCD37 clone that she developed at Mount Eden. They show as more refined versions of the AVA wine, a little smoother and deeper on the palate, with greater sense of structural support. The first vineyard she planted was the Meredith Estate in 1997; this gives a more varied impression on the palate and is more elegant.

Olivet Lane is the vineyard with which Merry had the longest association, making wine there for 46 years. The vineyard was planted in 1973, and Merry started making wine from it in the late seventies; it’s now the oldest single vineyard of Pinot Noir in Russian River Valley. In a horizontal tasting of the 2018 single vineyard releases,  Olivet Lane offers the greatest sense of sophistication and elegance. When I tasted the 2008 Olivet Lane at the winery in 2011, it seemed to be the most complete of the single-vineyard wines; when I tasted it again this week, it seemed to have reached a peak, and you could see the same potential in the 2018.

From 1998 to 2002, Merry followed her intention of making Pinot Noir focusing on single vineyards, but she had established a reputation with white wines, and then returned to making Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Both show a rich, textured style.

Tasting Notes

2018 Pinot Noir
Restrained nose shows dark fruits. Faintly nutty palate shows soft black fruits with hint of bitter cherries at end. This needs a little time for tannins to lighten. 14.5%   91 Drink 2022-2030

2018 Coopersmith Pinot Noir
Richer impression than Olivet Lane. Black cherry fruits show on palate with tannins on finish, giving a sense of structure. Some bitterness lingers on the finish, but overall this is softer than Georganne. 14.5%   92 Drink 2023-2033

2018 Georganne Pinot Noir
Faint spicy notes to nose. Palate shows more grip than Coopersmith, greater sense of dryness from the tannins on the finish and a hint of menthol. Fruits are a little darker and deeper, with good grip on the palate. 14.5%   92 Drink 2024-2034

2018 Meredith Estate Pinot Noir
Reserved nose, Sweeter but tighter impression on palate than Coopersmith and Georganne with hints of red fruits as well as black. A hint of eucalyptus in background enhances sense of tightness. Precision gives this a sense of elegance. 14.5%   93 Drink 2022-2032

2018 Olivet Lane Pinot Noir
Lighter color than the Russian River or other single vineyards. Restrained nose shows faintly earthy notes in the background. More sense of tension balancing the fruits than the Russian River Valley AVA release. Mix of red and black fruits on palate are followed by touch of tea-like tannins. This has the most elegant balance of the single vineyard wines. 14.2%   93 Drink 2022-2032

2008 Olivet Lane Pinot Noir
Some orange showing on rim. Development shows on nose as less primary, more mature fruits, more red than black. With tannins resolving, you can see the elegance of the fruits, soft and ripe, with only a faint hint of dryness at the end. With the tannins resolving and the fruits maturing, this may now be at its peak. 13.9%    93 Drink 2013-2025

2017 Olivet Lane Chardonnay
Nose shows stone fruits with some exotic overtones, following to a textured palate. This flavorful style offers a fine expression of the typicity of Russian River Valley through the old vines (planted in 1973). Sense of viscosity to palate enhances the long finish. The wine was barrel-fermented, went through MLF, and aged in 40% new barriques.   93 Drink -2028

2019 Sauvignon Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc 55%, Sauvignon Musqué 45%)
The wine opens with typical herbaceous overtones tending to asparagus. The palate shows a rich Fumé Blanc style with herbaceous elements returning on finish to cut the richness of the stone and citrus fruits. The flavorful palate is quite viscous and round. The wine was barrel-fermented with 18% new oak and had battonage for 4-6 months.   90 Drink -2025

Napa Diary Day 2: Diamond Creek under Roederer

Diamond Creek is such a personal creation and idiosyncratic operation that it’s hard to image without Al Brounstein or his family, but with no third generation to take over, it was sold to Roederer in 2020. No one had planted vineyards this far north in the mountains when Al purchased forested land on Diamond Mountain to create a vineyard in 1968. Vineyards were planted with Bordeaux varieties smuggled across the border (fortunately on St. George rootstock, against conventional wisdom, so they have survived phylloxera and there are many original gnarled old vines on the property).

Way up Diamond Creek road, well into the mountain, the estate has four  individual vineyards, all with roughly the same blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc; Petit Verdot comes from a separate plot nearby. All replanting is based on propagation of vines from the original selection. There are no plans to change or expand production. The vineyard management and winemaking team at Diamond Creek stayed on, although winemaker Phil Steinschriber later retired and Graham Wehmeier came from Futo to take over.  The main change in the immediate future is a ten-year plan for some replanting.

The view from the winery looks down Red Rock Terrace and up to Volcanic Hill.

The contemporary winery sits at a high point looking over Red Rock Terrace, immediately below and facing to the north, with Volcanic Hill opposite, with the slope facing full south. Gravelly Meadow is to one side, and Lake is a very small vineyard to the other side. Next to Lake is the plot of Petit Verdot that is used for all the wines. Lake is the coolest site of all, and makes a wine only in some vintages; after that, Gravelly Meadow is the coolest, and Volcanic Hill is distinctly warmer. Indeed, going round the property, the extra warmth hits you as you go up Volcanic Hill. Soils are distinct, ferrous for red rock, gravel for Gravelly Meadow, and volcanic ash for Volcanic Hill. Harvest starts at Volcanic Hill in September, and ends several weeks later in Lake. Production is small, around 500 cases each, except for only 100 cases of Lake when it is made. The wines age for 21 months in all new French oak. The blends are all similar, with 76-78% Cabernet Sauvignon, and then Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot in decreasing amounts.

Tasting the 2018s soon after release, Red Rock shows as most forward and approachable, with Gravelly Meadow close behind. Both show black fruit aromatics with a fine tannic structure, typically elegant for Red Rock, and touch more textured and earthy for Gravelly Meadow. Volcanic Hill is more reserved, with less obvious, but potentially more complex aromatics, and the typically taut tannic structure more evidence against the fruits. It seems likely to be longest lived. All the wines have been running at alcohol levels around 14.5% for the past decade, up from an average of 14.1% in the previous decade. Occasionally Al produced a blend across the vineyards by selecting special barrels–the last vintage was 2013, with 70% Volcanic Hill, 25% Red Rock Terrace, and 5% Gravelly Meadow–and as of the 2019 vintage, the Three Vineyard Blend will become a regular feature (priced at the same level as the single-vineyard wines).

“Al thought Volcanic Hill would be the longest lived wine, but actually they all age equally well. But Volcanic always comes around last, there is no doubt about that,” said his stepson, Phil Ross, on a previousd visit. Tasting older vintages, I could not say I have a favorite: in some vintages I prefer Volcanic Hill, and in others Gravelly Meadow.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting Notes on 2018 Vintage

Red Rock Terrace
Deep black fruits on nose point towards blackcurrents. Sweet ripe fruits on palate show faint hints of alcohol coming through the richness. Tannins are fine but the wine is still a little tight, although showing some forward black fruit aromatics. The style seems more modern than it has in previous years; at least this is the easiest and most overtly aromatic of the trio. 14.5%    92 Drink 2023-2040

Gravelly Meadow
Even a little darker and more purple in hue than Red Rock. Nose a fraction more intense with more obvious blackcurrant aromatics. There’s a greater sense of structure, although the tannins are very fine, showing just a touch of asperity against the ripeness of the fruits. It’s a little riper and richer than Red Rock, with the black fruit aromatics just beginning to come out. 14.5%    93 Drink 2023-2040

Volcanic Hill
Dark inky appearance, a little more intense than the others. This shows the smoothest palate of the trio and is the most reserved, with black fruit aromatics waiting to come out, and less evident than the others at first, although after a while they emerge to show greater complexity. The sense of reserve will turn into elegance as the wine develops and this certainly has the greatest potential in this vintage.    94 Drink 2024-2045