On August 1, 2009, I was visiting Napa for the second time in my life. I was staying at a friend’s home and we were tasting lots of wines that afternoon. Among those wines on the table was a Merlot that none of us knew anything about. It was almost a collective exclamation of astonishment when we tasted it. The friend with whom I was staying turned to Eric Bolen and said, “This is YOUR Merlot?” It was amazing. I will always recall that tasting as my definitive Merlot Moment.
Over the course of the past five years, I have purchased every vintage of what has been fondly called The World’s Best Merlot and I have my own vertical, 2006-2010. I think the phrase originated with Bolen, but found its way into a blog post by my friend Josh Wade, owner of Nectar Tasting Room in Spokane, WA, publisher of Spokane Wine Magazine, owner of nectarMEDIA, and writer at drinknectar.com. I remember reading Josh’s post in 2010 and thinking to myself, “Hell, yeah!” The phrase seems to have stuck and remained a goal of Bolen Family Estates, who has relentlessly focused on crafting the Best Merlot in the World. The winery is a partnership between Eric Bolen, his father, Mike Bolen, and Patrick McEvoy. The grapes come from the well-known Beckstoffer Orchard Vineyard in the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley.
Fast forward ahead to 2014 and finally, living in Napa, I was able to schedule a visit. Tastings at Bolen are always hosted by Eric or Mike, so they are only by appointment eight to ten times per month. Guests are vetted as buyers and collectors that are financially comfortable with the purchase prices of the wines, which start at $90 per bottle for the 2010 Merlot. The visit is personalized and intimate, taking place in their wine cave on property. All barrels used are French oak. Currently, the tasting includes:
2009 Merlot – 80% neutral oak, 20% new medium toast.
Bolen keeps all wines in neutral oak for the first year. Then in the fall of each year, they do oak trials to make a decision regarding the toast levels and percentage of further oak aging.
2013 Merlot – This wine was still in neutral oak the day I visited.
2012 Merlot – 75% neutral oak, 15% new heavy toast, and 10% new medium toast.
2011 Merlot – 85% neutral oak, 15% new medium toast.
2010 Merlot – 85% neutral oak, 15% new medium toast.
When I was there, Eric allowed me to taste the wines in different oak barrels – neutral and different new oak toast levels – so I could experience the Merlot’s building blocks in various stages of aging. The Merlot is aged 36 months before release. For the 2010 and 2012 vintages, strong vintages for Napa Valley, Bolen held back some of the wine to spend 48 months in oak, and those wines will be referred to as their Long Barrel Reserve selections upon release.
All vintages of the Merlot are simply stellar. The grapes stay on the vine longer, resulting in lush, bold fruit aromas and flavors. Just the right amount of French oak at different toast levels gives the wines great spice, tannins, and structure. I hope that no one reading this is afraid of Merlot or thinks they dislike Merlot. However, if you are one of these people, I suggest trying Bolen Family Estates, as you may just be astounded at how incredible Merlot can be.
Bolen is sold out of the 2006-2008 vintages of Merlot, but they still have some 2009 ($105/bottle) and the 2010 is their current release ($90/bottle).
Bolen also now offers a very small production Bordeaux-style red blend, whose grapes come from the estate vineyard in the Mt. Veeder District of Napa Valley. The 2012 Red Field Blend is 35% medium toast new French oak. The 2010 Red Field Blend is 50% new medium toast French oak. They still have some 2008 ($180/bottle) and the current release is the 2009 ($160/bottle).
Beginning with the 2014 vintage, Bolen will add a white wine to their offerings, a Bordeaux-style white blend, with the grapes coming from the Gamble Family Vineyard in Yountville.
To schedule your visit, please contact Mike Bolen at 707-294-7540 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are a true oenophile, collector, and buyer, and are in search of some quality, small-production wines to add to your table or cellar, I recommend Bolen Family Estates. After all, as they say on their website, Our Legacy is our wine!