A Conversation with Merry Edwards: Icon, Trailblazer, Philanthropist and Winemaker

Merry and Ken, Courtesy of Merry Edwards Winery 

This week, I had the pleasure of talking with Merry Edwards, an icon, a trailblazer, a philanthropist and a winemaker who has single-handedly shattered the glass ceiling for women in wine in California and at UC Davis in the 70s.  Merry is being honored next weekend in Dallas with the Tête du Cuvée award, the highest award given at the Côtes du Coeur, the annual fine wine auction and celebrity chef dinner benefitting the American Heart Association (AHA).

Merry’s passion for cardiovascular research was first related to love.  Her husband, Ken Coopersmith, had a history of heart disease in the family, but wasn’t aware of how serious his condition was.  Shortly after they were married, his heart started to fail and he had a heart valve replacement.  Ten years later, he kept putting off the doctor because he knew he had gained some weight with the Sonoma food and wine lifestyle.  That decision literally almost killed him.  He went into congestive heart failure and was a two of 100 statistic that lived through the operation. At that point, Merry knew that this was a cause that has a direct meaning and impact for her and millions of others.

“The AHA has a hard-core benefit.  This is a cause that I am passionate about, I believe in this charity and I will continue to be supportive.” she said.  “I believe in giving more.  It’s my job to do my day job, but to be a leader and inspire others to give.”  Merry focuses on charities that have directly impacted her family, which also include the disabled and children’s health.  Merry lives her life facing challenges head on – from raising a disabled child to becoming an advocate for women in any industry.

Several years ago, I attended a wine dinner at Lakewood Country Club where Merry told her story.  After a storied career in wine working for others it was time for Merry to do her own thing, to found Merry Edwards Winery.  She did that in 1997 with a focus on producing Pinot Noirs with a true sense of place from Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast.

We spent some time talking about her breaking ground and being one of the first women winemakers and the work to be done to recruit more women to the industry.  After 44 harvests, she told me that very little progress has been made.

“If you look at the current studies done on the subject by UC Davis, the statistics are not that encouraging as female winemakers have increased to ten percent today from six percent in the 70’s,” she said.  We talked about the rampant problem in science, in technology and in farming.

“Even my own father thought I should be in a supportive role so I went to Berkeley to be an RN.  Then my career morphed to nutrition and then to food science and finally to wine making,” she said.

She talked about approaching life to try to fix what wasn’t right – not only as a woman, but as a human.  When she was first at UC Davis, affirmative action had just been implemented.  She wasn’t invited to interview on recruiting day because she was a women and marched to the chancellor’s office to help reverse that decision.

She still feels that way today.  “Most people respect me for being here.  I am a role model to prove this can be done,” she said.  “I’m not just talking about women in wine, but for other women in other professions that love wine.”

She left me with the words – “Be an inspiration to others.”  And through her commitment to helping prevent cardiovascular disease in a place where one of every three deaths in the US are from heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases, she continues to live those words.

My personal affiliation with the American Heart Association is also due to family.  When my younger brother was 17, we discovered a heart condition that took way to long to diagnose that resulted in an emergency open heart surgery.  Because of the life-saving research that was conducted by the AHA, his life was saved.  My husband and I were chairing the Dallas Heart Ball at the time and found out later that the surgeon who saved his life was in the audience.

Proceeds from Côtes du Coeur go directly to the AHA for cardiovascular research and heart health educational programs both locally and nationwide. During its 25-year history, Côtes du Coeur has attracted more than 22,000 attendees and has raised more than $30 million.  The event is scheduled this Saturday, April 22 at the Omni Hotel Dallas.  For more information, click here.