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

Sonoma Diary 1: Not Only Chardonnay at David Ramey

“The press have characterized us as a Chardonnay house,” says David Ramey, a fraction ruefully, “but I think we make world-class Cabernet as well.” He makes his point with a tasting of the complete range of Chardonnays, showing his Eurocentric aesthetic when he divides them into ‘village wines’ (AVA) and single-vineyards. We followed this with a tasting of Cabernet Sauvignons from a recent vintage and from the ‘difficult’ 2011 vintage.

David Ramey founded his own cellar in 1996 after making wines for several wineries in Sonoma and Napa. Today his children Alan and Claire are taking over. The winery is a bare bones warehouse-like structure on the outskirts of Healdsburg. Estate vineyards are mostly in Russian River, but grapes also come from long-term contracts with vineyards on Sonoma Coast to the west and Napa Valley to the east. Production is 60% white and 40% red.

The winery is a practical building in Healdsburg

The Chardonnays offer a textbook illustration of differences between areas and sites. Pressed as whole clusters, they ferment and age in French barriques, for 12 months with 15% new oak for ‘village’ wines and for 20 months with 25% new oak for single vineyard wines. Aging is identical for all single vineyard wines. Style does not change going from an AVA wine to a single vineyard, but these develop greater flavor variety and more complexity, and give the impression of more structural support for longer aging.

Fort Ross Seaview is relatively lean compared to the richer Russian River Valley or Carneros. In Russian River, Westside and Woolsey are leaner than the more opulent Rochioli and Ritchie. The cuvée from Hyde Vineyard in Carneros offers one of the most Burgundian-like expressions of that vineyard I encountered this month.

How long will they last, I asked, with the problems of premature aging of white Burgundy in mind. “Twenty years,” David says, “with no premox!” After some years of trials, the winery made a switch in 2013 to using the Diam technical cork, which not only guarantees absence of TCA, but also offers a controlled rate of oxygen ingress. David makes his point about the effect this will have by pulling out a Woolsey Chardonnay from 2013 and a Ritchie Vineyard from 2009. The 2013 (under Diam) was scarcely different in appearance from the current release, and nose and palate showed the same style, but with increase in depth and density resulting from age. The 2009 (under conventional cork) was a deeper color, and the organoleptic spectrum showed the beginnings of oxidative changes. “Diam will allow the wine to age longer and retain the same character,” David says. (The winery is given to experimentation and trialled screwcaps, but David does not believe the wines would ultimately achieve the same complexity as under cork.)

We turned to red wines. The Pinot Noir from Russian River shows the restrained style of the house, and the Syrah from Petaluma Gap (a relatively cool area) showed a northern Rhone-like freshness. But the Cabernets were the pièce de résistance. Annum comes from a variety of sources in Napa Valley, about half from Oakville, the rest from Mount Veeder and Saint Helena or Diamond Mountain. The restrained style is reinforced by some subtle hints of bell peppers to cut the black fruits. Good as Annum is, however, it is eclipsed by the single-vineyard Pedregal, which is subtler and deeper. Both wines are blends, Annum with a minor component of Cabernet Franc, and Pedregal with Petit Verdot (the two varieties are cofermented rather than blended to get a more integrated result). For both wines we compared the 2015 vintage with the 2011, a year that had been generally slated by the critics at the time. But the 2011s showed beautifully as classic representations of the Bordeaux blend, with the varietal character of Cabernet Sauvignon really coming out. “Some critics are looking for power, but we’re showing the 2011 vintage now,” David says.

There’s room for all styles in Napa and Sonoma, of course, but across the range these are real food wines: there is nothing forced or pumped up here.

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

Tasting Notes

2018, Fort Ross-Seaview, Chardonnay
This comes from the Charles Martinelli Ranch, two miles from the pacific at 1,100 ft elevation. Fresh nose leads into elegant palate with some buttery overtones. Generally a relatively lean, well balanced impression, just short of expressing minerality. 14.2% 91 Drink -2028

2018, Russian River Valley, Chardonnay
Fruit is a little more obvious on the nose than with Fort Ross Seaview Chardonnay. It’s a touch fatter on the palate, with a touch more viscosity, but also more sense of citrus in the fruit spectrum. Very flavorful. This comes from a variety of sources, with more than 50% from Westside Farms, the rest from four other sites. 92 Drink -2028

2018, Russian River Valley, Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay
Fresh nose leads into palate with filigree sense of acidity. Fruits moving towards yellow plums. Greater sense of texture to the palate compared with Rochioli, and long finish. David Ramey says this is usually the richest of the single vineyard wines. 93 Drink -2030

2018, Russian River Valley, Rochioli Vineyard Chardonnay
Restrained nose with faintly herbal, piquant impressions. Palate shows lovely balance of stone and citrus fruits with some bare hints of oak in the background. There’s just a touch of citric acidity to offset the oak. Flavors are now emerging on the palate. David Ramey says this is usually one of the richest single vineyard Chardonnays. Sourced mostly from Mid-40 block with the rest from River block. 93 Drink -2029

2018, Russian River Valley, Westside Farms Chardonnay
Fragrant nose with sense of perfume and filigree acidity. Oak shows faintly in background with just a hint of residual bitterness. This cuvee has a restrained sense of asperity., This vineyard is also the major source for the Russian River Valley Chardonnay, which shows as fatter from its other components. 93 Drink -2030

2018, Russian River Valley, Woolsey Chardonnay
Bright acidity reinforces the lively impressions of the citric-driven palate, offset by a touch of oak on the finish. Softly textured palate shows yellow plums and citrus. Lovely balance and texture. David Ramey says this is usually the leanest of the single vineyard Chardonnays. 93 Drink -2031

2018, Carneros, Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay
More herbal impressions here, compared to Russian River Valley single vineyard wines. There’s a fugitive whiff of gunflint, and David Ramey says this is often a feature of this vineyard. Greater sense of extraction on palate, although not more viscous. Fruits incline to citrus with touch of bitterness from oak in the background. Great flavor variety is coming out on palate. 93 Drink -2031

2013, Russian River Valley, Woolsey Chardonnay
Color is barely any darker than the 2018, still lemon rather than gold. Nose shows faintly herbal overtones and age has brought more evident depth to the palate: the citric impressions are a little more forceful and there’s a hint of gunflint. Everything is a bit deeper and more intense. 92 Drink -2027

2009, Russian River Valley, Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay
A little deeper in color than current vintages and more golden. The nose shows just a whiff of development and a trace of oxidative influences is evident on the palate, although still at the stage of adding complexity. While this is still very good, it shows more of a change in character, moving away from the primary citrus influences. This vintages was bottled under conventional cork, and later vintages bottled under Diam will no doubt show as fresher at the same stage. 91 Drink -2025

2017, Russian River Valley, Pinot Noir
This comes from a mix of clones and terroirs, ferments with 23% whole clusters, and ages for 14 months with 40% new oak. Does not show the flamboyant style of exuberant fruits and viscous palates of the more extreme Pinots from Russian River, but is nicely balanced between earthy fruits and herbal notes. Structure shows in a bare hint of bitterness on the finish that should resolve shortly. 90 Drink 2022-2030

2015, Petaluma Gap, Rodgers Creek Vineyard Syrah
Complex nose shows red fruits and a fugitive trace of menthol. Palate is slightly herbal, slightly nutty, full flavored, with that suspicion of menthol returning on the finish. Developing nicely with good follow-through on the finish in a style reminiscent of the northern Rhone. 91 Drink -2029

2015, Napa Valley, Annum Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 80%, Cabernet Franc 17%, Malbec 3%,)
Sweet ripe fruits show a nicely restrained style, with a palate more focused on blackberries. Tannins are supple in the background. There are some faint and attractive herbal notes showing retronasally on the long finish. The Eurocentric style is reinforced by a fresh not of faint bell peppers at the end. 92 Drink -2031

2015, Oakville, Pedregal Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 85%, Petit Verdot 11%)
More subtle and deeper than Annum. Very faint bell peppers on the nose. Beautifully restrained, Bordeaux-like freshness, nicely rounded fruits are supported by supple tannins, hints of bell peppers and tobacco come back on the finish. It has the quality of top wines of seamless layers of flavor. 94 Drink -2031

2011, Napa Valley, Annum Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 75%, Cabernet Franc 25%)
The wine opens with absolutely delicious classic notes of bell peppers to counterpoise the black fruits. Palate is smooth and supple with tannins resolving. The cool climate impression reflects the conditions of the vintage and really reflects varietal character. 92 Drink -2027

2011, Oakville, Pedregal Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 76%, Petit Verdot 24%)
Nose shows subtle notes of bell peppers and faint hints of development. A leaner, mineral character balances the black fruits. The finish shows a good sense of texture with firm tannins supporting the fruits and some hints of dryness developing on the finish together with notes of tobacco. 93 Drink -2029

The High Life: Wine at 37,000 feet

Flying transatlantic isn’t a great opportunity for fine wine and dining, but there really isn’t much else to do on the flight besides eat, drink, and sleep, so I thought I’d make an assessment of the present state of the high life. Flying American Airlines from New York to London, en route to start research in Bordeaux for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, my assessment got off to a poor start in the lounge before takeoff, when the sparkling wine was Gloria Ferrer Brut from Sonoma. Judged by the taste, Brut is clearly a misnomer. Sweet to the point of being sickly, the monotonic palate had a strong taste of green apples (although without the matching acidity you might expect), and if you had told me it was a sparkling apple cider, I would have been hard put to argue. There are some fine sparkling wines made in northern California, but this is not one of them, and proved to be a sad harbinger for what was to follow.

Things improved briefly after takeoff when the Champagne was Pommery. Now this has never been one of my favorites – it always used to strike me as too thin and lacking in fruit – but it has definitely improved since Vranken acquired the brand name in 1990. I don’t know whether taste is affected by the low pressure at altitude, but this now seems to be a respectable, if rather ordinary sparkling wine. There’s not much character to it, and the dosage is just a touch too high for my taste – I wonder whether my impression that dosage has been increasing is right or whether my palate has changed – giving an impression that sugar is being used to compensate for lack of flavor interest. The wine seems essentially uninteresting and its flat flavor profile gave me some trouble in trying to find descriptors for a tasting note. You don’t expect originality from Grand Marque Champagnes, but I still think Pommery could do a better job to disguise its mass produced origins.

The white wines offered a choice between L’Ecole No. 41 Chardonnay from Washington State and Thilion Torbato Sauvignon Blanc from Sardinia. I had some trouble distinguishing them. If I were to be unkind I would say that the Chardonnay was a forlorn attempt to achieve the New World style. The palate has been loaded with oak to disguise the lack of ripeness in the fruit. The oak flavors stand aside from the fruits, and if I didn’t know that the wine had been aged in barriques I would have wondered about the use of oak chips The oak gives a hard, disjointed, phenolic note to the finish. This is one of those rare wines that would have been improved by a shorter finish, as what mostly lingers on are those disjointed oak phenolics.

Despairing of the Chardonnay, I turned to my wife’s Sauvignon Blanc (actually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc with the indigenous grape Torbata), although its relatively deep golden color made me feel suspicious even before I tasted it. A sniff made things worse. Instead of the expected grassiness or herbaceousness came a sort of slightly astringent citrus note. Maybe this is due to the Torbata, which is supposed to have a smoky aroma. Again the palate was loaded with harsh phenolics. I would have placed this as an aromatic variety in a blind tasting, but I think I would have had some trouble recognizing Sauvignon Blanc in it. I wonder whether I would have been able to identify the wines, if I’d been given them blind and told that one was Chardonnay and one was a Sauvignon blend. It wouldn’t be easy to find varietal typicity in this pair, but perhaps the greater acidity and aromaticity would identify the Sauvignon.

On to the reds, where we tried the Villa Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa and the Tres Picos Garnacha. Now I remember a period in the late 1970s when Villa Mt. Eden had a great reputation. In fact, based on Robert Parker’s recommendation, I bought a case of the 1978 vintage and drank it for several years. It never achieved greatness, but was still holding up quite well in 1993 when I had the last bottle. Sic transit gloria mundi. I do not think the old style is remotely recognizable in the current wine. When I swirled and smelled the wine, I wondered if there had been a mistake as the aromas of black cherry fruits with some piquancy came up at me. No, I decided on smelling my wife’s wine, which was even more aromatic and piquant. Following to the palate, the Cabernet showed no more typicity of Cabernet than the Chardonnay had of Chardonnay. The only note of relief was an oaky vanillin that seemed artificial. I’ve never really thought of Cabernet Sauvignon as an intensely aromatic variety, but after this wine I might have to change my opinion. (To be fair, you can find some high-end Napa or Barossa Cabernets with fairly distinct aromatics, but although I don’t usually like the wines, at least I can recognize a matching concentration and fruit intensity that hangs together.)

After this, I approached the Grenache with trepidation. The only information American Airlines provided about its origins is that it is produced in Spain. It turns out to come from the Campo de Borja DO, just to the south of Navarra, where Grenache is the principal grape. I have to disagree with Robert Parker’s high ratings for this wine. Aromatic and piquant on the nose, it followed through to the palate with bright red cherry fruits and a piquancy that made me wonder about acidification, with a slightly sickly nutty end to the finish.  But I have an idea. Add a little sugar and the profile would be perfect for a dessert wine. (After this, I decided not to sample the dessert wine, which however seemed to be a perfectly respectable vintage port.)

I can’t completely exclude the possibility that my palate was out of whack at 35,000 feet, but at all events the common feature of these wines seemed to be excessive striving for intensity. Subtle they ain’t. Even at the crunched price point – I calculate that if every passenger had a glass of wine American would be spending about $2.00 per passenger – there could at least be more variety of choice.

The food was better than the wine but not by a large margin. In all the years I have been on American Airlines, the food has never been up to much. Ranging from barely edible to inedible, sometimes it strikes me as unfit for human consumption (well, consumption by this human, anyway). In the past year or two there’s been some slight improvement. There was always a tendency on American to make the food highly spiced – just what you want at 35,000 feet where you tend to get dehydrated anyway – I assume to disguise the poor quality of the ingredients, but fortunately that phase seems to have passed. Of course, the days of  Krug and caviar on transatlantic flights are long since gone, but surely they could do better than to serve dried out hot meals. I’d settle for cold salads made from better ingredients any time (but I guess the bean counters won’t wear it). In any case, I’ll leave the last word to an American flight attendant, who some years ago said to me, “We’re not fine dining, we’re transportation.”