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Merry Edwards, the woman best known for shattering the glass ceiling in winemaking, has stepped down as winemaker but remains chief executive of her eponymous brand.

Edwards has elevated associate winemaker Heidi von der Mehden to the position of winemaker. Von der Mehden has spent three years making wine alongside Edwards.

“I’ve come to realize that my role is now to support and inspire those who will follow me in this industry,” said Edwards, 71. “In my travels, I have met many women in other fields who feel comforted by the very fact that I have persevered in a nontraditional role. I have to not let myself be intimidated by the fact that others regard me as an icon and a beacon for them to look up to. It makes others proud to know that I have made it.”

Edwards said she encountered gender discrimination when she was looking for her first job as a winemaker in the 1970s. But she was determined, rejecting positions as a laboratory technician, the traditional role of women in the industry at the time. Her first post as winemaker was in 1974 at Mount Eden Vineyards in Saratoga.

Three years later, Edwards was hired at Matanzas Creek Winery in Santa Rosa, and she later worked as a winery consultant before co-founding her namesake brand in 1997. Edwards worked with Bill Bourke, who suggested they collaborate. The investor, who became her mentor in business, was originally a member of her growing fan club who wanted to sample her bottlings each year.

“I’m excited that Merry has entrusted me with her brand,” Von der Mehden said. “And I’m honored to be following in the footsteps of a pioneer. I realize it’s important for people to see women’s gender so they can be seen as leaders to bring the next generation along.”

Von der Mehden, 43, said she plains to follow suit and adopt Edward’s painstakingly detailed style of winemaking.

“Merry doesn’t let anything get past her,” Von der Mehden said. “She doesn’t forget anything. She can point out some things I might not have thought of and it pushes me to think more outside the box.”

The Sebastopol boutique winery produces a trio of varietals — pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc — but it’s most known for its powerhouse pinot noir.

“We don’t make a delicate pinot noir here,” Von der Mehden said. “We’re making a dark, fruit-driven all powerful pinot noir. We want the vineyards to express themselves. We’re trying to get as much character and the highest quality of fruit out of the vineyards.”

Food, Edwards said, was her gateway to wine. In 1971 she was studying nutrition at UC Berkeley when she heard about the winemaking program at UC Davis.

She transferred to UC Davis and earned her master’s degree in food science with an emphasis in enology in 1973. There were three women in the master’s program, but Edwards was the only one to become a winemaker.

For her master’s thesis, Edwards created a method to analyze the lead in wine. She followed this up with a large-scale survey. Her findings spurred the wine industry to make a huge shift. In the 1980s, it discontinued the production and use of lead capsules, the caps covering the cork.

Edwards has spent nearly five decades honing her craft, winning many accolades over the years. In 2013, she won two of the most prestigious. She was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame, and she also won the James Beard Award for Best Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional in the United States.

Edwards was one of three women to win both awards, along with American enologist and wine consultant Zelma Long and the late Jamie Davies, the former vintner of Calistoga’s Schramsberg Vineyards.

“Merry Edwards and her wines are synonymous with Sonoma County. She is an iconic figure recognized as a pioneer and world-class winemaker not only here but around the globe,” Michael Haney, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, said in a prepared statement.

Passing the baton, Edwards said, isn’t difficult when you pick the right person.

“Every day Heidi shows me more of her own attention to detail and passion for the craft of wine growing.” Edwards said. “Our basic mantra is not resting on our laurels but in continuing to improve.”

Wine Writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 707-521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.

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