Eric Bolen grew up with a dad who had a great appreciation for Bordeaux wine. After graduating from Chaminade and Saint Louis University and while employed as a construction manager for a local developer, Bolen also worked part-time at The Wine Merchant to learn more about his growing passion. “My dad and I would go out to Napa Valley three or four times a year, and more and more, I became increasingly excited about wine,” he recalls. “On one of the trips out to Napa, I met a guy who owned a construction company that built wineries. He offered me a job, so I made the move and started building wineries.”

Immediately, Bolen started to network, because his real dream was to make his own wine. “One of the great things about Napa and the wine industry is that it’s a very open industry,” he notes. “You can knock on anyone’s door, and they’ll invite you in and give you all the help you need. I was really fortunate to meet a really great winemaker in Tom Rinaldi—he took me under his wing.”

Rinaldi is the founding winemaker of Duckhorn Vineyards and is now director of winemaking at Provenance Vineyards in Napa. “Tom is known for his merlots, which is what I was really interested in,” Bolen explains. “The wines my father collected were mostly from Bordeaux’s right bank region, and they are typically merlot-dominated wines. And in Napa, everyone makes and talks about the cabernets, and coming in, I didn’t want to compete against everyone. I also believe there’s a hole in the market for high-end merlot. So not only is it the varietal that I am very passionate about, but there also is a lot of opportunity there.”

And that opportunity came when Rinaldi called in 2006 to let Bolen know he had some extra merlot grapes: Bolen Family Estates was born. “We started with 120 cases in 2006, and with Tom’s help, we ended up with some beautiful wine.” And with the first vintage, Bolen learned something very significant that would enduringly become a part of winemaking at Bolen Family Estates. “It was somewhat by design, but we picked the grapes very late in the season,” he says. “But we went even further than we intended because we had trouble finding pickers, so we actually left the grapes on the vine about a week longer than we had anticipated. What ended up happening was that we got into some really beautiful dark black flavors, and the finished product was a really incredible merlot! You know, there’s a saying in the wine industry that the only thing that adds flavor to the wine is the vine, and that’s really true.”

The grower for Bolen Family Estates is Beckstoffer Orchard Vineyard, which Bolen explains is generally considered to be the top grower in Napa. “There are two industries in Napa Valley,” he notes. “There are the growers, and then there are the wineries. Contrary to popular belief, most wineries source the majority of their grapes from growers.”

In 2007, the winery’s production increased to 400 cases, and the result was a rich dark blackberry, plum, blueberry profile. “We also use about 20 percent new French oak, and it’s just enough oak to impart what I call ‘Christmas spices,’ ” he says. “It has hints of clove, allspice and cinnamon—it just goes so well with those dark fruits.”

Production is expected to increase to 1,000 cases with both the 2009 and 2010 vintages. “We also do about 200 cases of sauvignon blanc, which started out as a side project for me,” Bolen says. “It’s my favorite white wine, and I had the opportunity to get some sauvignon blanc grapes back in 2009.”

Bolen Family Estates truly is a family business, with Bolen’s father, Mike, handling the operations side of it. “My dad is semiretired from his company (Merric Incorporated) in Earth City, but my parents now have a home here,” Bolen notes. “My wife and I have a 2- year-old and a 1-year-old, so it’s nice to have my mom and dad out here.”

According to Bolen, their estate property includes about an acre where they experiment growing their own grapes. “We grow merlot grapes, as well, and we use a small fraction (about 8 percent) of grapes from our estate property in our wine,” he says. “But we want to grow through Beckstoffer because I really want to focus on making wine—that’s the piece of it I really love. Beckstoffer is just a quarter mile from our estate property, so we can watch things in our vineyard and keep track of when the grapes are turning color and how the vines are responding to the heat and to the water. The vineyard piece is romantic—it creates a great ambiance at our winery, and it does keep us tuned in to what’s going on down the road.”