November 2008

Onward and Upward at Clos du Bois

By: David Gadd

Winemaker Erik Olsen in the cellar at Clos du Bois.

Clos du Bois
The Alexander Valley powerhouse revitalizes its value-driven line-up

The Sonoma Reserve series joins Proprietary tier offerings Briarcrest and Marlstone in the busy Clos du Bois tasting room.

Clos du Bois was among the first wineries to help put Alexander Valley on the lips—and palates—of wine lovers. As early as 1841, the entrepreneuring Cyrus Alexander had settled in the 20-mile-long basin—then still a part of Mexico—that would eventually carry his name, planting orchards and vineyards. A fledgling wine industry followed over the course of the next few decades, but even by 1974, when Frank Woods founded his winery (his children, who were learning French, convinced him to name it Clos du Bois), Alexander Valley was still relatively unknown quantity in the wine world.

Clos du Bois’s growth, in terms of both volume and renown, has been a well-documented phenomenon, and continues under its current owner, Constellation. But the Geyserville-based winery upped the ante once again when Erik Olsen was hired as Winemaker in 2003. Under Olsen’s guidance, Clos du Bois has polished its image and reasserted its reputation as one of Alexander Valley’s premier producers. As part of Constellation’s new VineOne portfolio of brands, it enjoys the benefit of association with prestigious sibling labels such as Ravenswood and Hogue, while continuing to maintain its unique Sonoma identity.
Cabernet Sauvignon ripens in the Alexander Valley sun.

Value-Packed: The Classic Tier
The core of Clos du Bois’s production (around 95 percent) consists of what is referred to in-house as the “Classics”: value-packed varietals that, for the most part, carry North Coast appellations, with fruit sourced mainly from Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa Counties. “Our North Coast Chardonnay is our biggest-production wine and the number-one super-premium Chardonnay in the market,” notes Olsen.  “I think it’s become so successful because we’ve got access to some very good vineyards and because we put a lot of work into this wine. We barrel-ferment a tremendous amount of wine here; there’s a lot of barrel-aging, hand-stirring of lees—a lot of work.”

Beginning with Olsen and continuing down to the cellar workers, there’s a hands-on ethic involved at Clos du Bois that is usually only associated with much smaller producers. “People think that because of our wide distribution, the wines may not be made using these labor-intensive techniques,” Olsen says, taking the North Coast Chardonnay as a case in point. “I really feel that to get that classic barrel-fermented Chardonnay expression, you really need to use the small barrels, stir the lees by hand and make sure you’ve got a very good vineyard source.”

Top-Notch: The Proprietary Series

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Classic tier is the Clos du Bois Proprietary Series: Calcaire Chardonnay, Briarcrest Cabernet Sauvignon and Marlstone, a Bordeaux-style blend. All are sourced from Alexander Valley.  Marlstone was originally a single-vineyard wine, but Olsen decided to free the top-tier red blend from the restraints of being a vineyard-designate and craft it simply as the Clos du Bois flagship red. “I wanted to use the best of the vintage no matter where the grapes came from,” he says, “to make a wine that was consistent from year to year, always representing the best that we had here in Alexander Valley. It’s made a dramatic change in the wine. It’s more modern in style and has softer tannins—everything you’d expect from a top-level bottling from Alexander Valley.”

Front and Center: Sonoma Reserve
The Sonoma Reserve series.
The winery’s broad-shouldered middle tier has recently undergone a refocus that emphasizes its Sonoma origins. “The Sonoma Reserve tier is essentially a re-launch of what was previously called Appellation Reserve,” explains Olsen. “Originally, this tier featured appellations from Sonoma County where we felt each varietal performed best. Now it’s called Sonoma Reserve, to highlight the fact that we’re a Sonoma winery. The wines are still appellated and haven’t changed, but with the new labeling we’re really trying to reinforce the fact that Sonoma is our home.”

Olsen admits that, even with Clos du Bois’s longstanding reputation for quality, nothing is a given in the wine business. With some extremely tough competition in the market, the soft-spoken winemaker is not about to let his guard down: “You still need to work hard. You really need to be out there, as strong as possible.”
UpFront with Erik Olsen

“I was interested in winemaking early on even in high school,” says Clos du Bois Winemaker Erik Olsen, who takes time out from a busy harvest day to chat with THE TASTING PANEL. Growing up in Davis, California, home of the country’s best-known winemaking school, he befriended a professor at U.C. Davis, who encouraged his interest in wine. “I worked my first harvest up in the Foothills and fell in love with it,” Olsen recalls. “Now I’ve done over 20 vintages.”

After studying enology and viticulture at U.C. Davis, Olsen nabbed a second degree in food science at Cornell, where he did extensive research on a topic that would stand him in good stead later at Clos du Bois: malolactic fermentation. Stints at Robert Mondavi and Simi Winery followed before he moved on to Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington State, where, among other wines, he crafted a series of highly-rated and award-winning Rieslings and worked with Dr. Ernst Loosen to create the Eroica Riesling project. “Riesling is a passion for me,” admits Olsen, who last year initiated a Riesling program at Clos du Bois, using fruit from Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands and other Central Coast vineyards.

In his spare time, Olsen got an MBA at the University of Washington. “It’s nice be able to balance business with the creative side of winemaking,” says the polymath winemaker. “It helps me to make wines that are appropriate for the market and to assure that we’re creating the right value for our customers.”

Olsen arrived at Clos du Bois for the 2003 vintage. “I made some changes fairly early on when I arrived, in terms of some of the appellations and the style of the wines, to focus on riper fruit. For the Chardonnay, I went for riper apple/pear/sweet citrus characteristics, which works nicely with the oak treatment.”

Another change Olsen implemented was to put the Clos du Bois Chardonnays through full malolactic. The appellation for the Reserve Chardonnay and for Calcaire was also switched from Alexander Valley to Russian River Valley. “We had some great vineyards there that we weren’t using,” Olsen remarks, “so it was a great opportunity to utilize this highly sought-after Russian River fruit and get them into our top-level bottlings.”

With the reds, Olsen immediately began focusing on ripeness of tannins, one of his signatures as a winemaker. “I spend the majority of my time out in the vineyard tasting grapes and looking for tannin maturity,” he remarks. “One of the things that Clos du Bois has been known for from the very beginning are those soft, approachable tannins and velvety structure. We do everything we can to get wines with a lot of body and flavor, with flesh and ripe fruit. As we develop wines with more concentration, we’re able to balance it with more oak, which gives a richer, more concentrated mouthfeel.”

The bottom line for Olsen is simple: “The main emphasis is staying focused on the quality of what we put in the bottle and trying every year to make a better and better wine that offers more value.”

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