Wine dinners always have a festive air, but there was an extra element at Lo Russo's recently when the wines of Bolen Family Estates were on the table. The evenng marked the release of Eric Bolen's excellent 2007 Merlot, and it also provided an opportunity to sit in on what felt like a reunion of men whose friendship went back many years and who relished the chance to get together.
Eric grew up in St. Louis (Chaminade and St. Louis U., for those who think this is essential information), Having worked in St. Louis restaurants and bars during his college days, he developed an interest in wine, and in later years, when he visited California wineries and drank wine with his father, interest grew into love. And in 1997, when a chunk of Napa County land became available, he purchased it, with Dad as one of his partners.
The goal was to make great Merlot, and he's moving in the right direction.
Understanding that grapes and a winemaker are the vital components of making good wine, he began sourcing Merlot grapes from the famed Beckstoffer vineyards and hired Tom Rinaldi as the winemaker. Rinaldi spent many years making the great Duckhorn wines. And despite his relative youth, Eric knew what kind of Merlot he wanted to make.
"I like Merlots that are big and full-bodied," he said, decanting a newly opened bottle to breathe for a little while. "I like the taste of dark fruit, of blackberries and blueberries and plums, and I believe that the less you mess with the wine, the better it will be."
He picks grapes at 28 brix (a measurement of sugar in the grape), and often late in the harvest period; the 2011 vintage will be picked near the end of October. The wine then spends 28 months in French oak barrels, a fifth of which are of new wood, and some time in bottle before the release. Again, he's later than many wineries, with the '07, which was harvested in November of that year, just coming into stores and wine shops nationally.
He explained, after sniffing the wine, taking a sip and smiling broadly at the result. "This wine is ready to drink now," he said, "though it will improve for quite a few years. But the time in the oak, and then in the bottle, allows the rough edges to be smoothed off, the tannins absorbed, the wine softened. Too many wines, in my opinion, are released too early."
In truth, most wine bought at retail is destined to accompany dinner the same night, and it's disappointing to open a bottle and find the wine too heavy with tannin that overpowers the grapes.
He's looking forward to the upcoming vintage, because a hot (92-95) spell in late August helped build the sugar in the grapes to the right level. I found his '07 to be elegant, with the dark fruit flavors prominent. Like most Merlots, it's on the soft side, but it's smooth and round and a fine dinner companion. It's expensive, too, with a retail price about $60. That's high, and it probably won't sell much at Humphrey's, the St. Louis U.-area bar where Eric worked and learned, but in a show of loyalty to a former employee, it's on the list.
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RECENT TASTINGS: Joseph Phelps 2010 Eisrebe, smooth, slightly sweet, pineapple, honey, honeysuckle. delicious, Scheurebe grapes, picked at 22 brix, then frozen to -5 degrees Farenheit. When the grapes are thawed, the brix has risen to 36, and when the wine is released, the brix has dropped to 22.5. The Duckhorn folks think that doing it this way, rather than waiting to give freezing weather a chance, allows for better control of temperatures, and it's hard to argue when tasting this wine. About $50.
2009 Zonte's Footstep 2009 Lady of the Lake Viognier ($15), very tasty, with good apricot flavors and an unexpected hint of ginger. Smooth finish, excellent aperitif.
Dry Creek 2010 Sonoma County Fume Blanc, dry and citrusy, is made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Making it in stainless steel provides for a crisper flavor,with gapefruit the leading flavor. A terrific food wine, and a good buy at $15 retail.
Big House 2009 Cardinal Zin, 2009, rich with dark fruit flavors, good balance. A blend of Zinfandel (80 percent), Mourvedre (10), Carignane (8) and Petit Sirah (2), it's a little on the soft side, with a long, smooth finish.