On the Vine


As anyone who knows California wine will attest, Harlan Estate is one of the Napa Valley’s most iconic wineries. With stratospheric prices for limited quantities of wine and with scores of 100-point ratings from uber-critic Robert M. Parker Jr., Harlan Estate defines the high end of California wine.

On a recent jaunt to that sun-blessed valley, I had the great fortune to visit both this vaunted property and its founder, Bill Harlan.

Bill Harlan is a uniquely potent force in the world of wine. From the time he first visited the Napa Valley as a barefoot Berkeley student in the early 1960s, he wanted his own little corner of that land. But Mr. Harlan has never been one to hurry. After first living the life of a professional gambler, dabbling in real estate on the side (and, as he told me, “flying planes under bridges at night”), by 1984 he had made enough successful deals to finally realize his vision of carving a vineyard into the hillsides west of Oakville.

At that time, most of the prominent vineyards of Napa were located on the valley floor, but Harlan, having studied the world’s pre-eminent vineyards, was certain that the steep hillsides would be cooler, and better for wine, than the superheated ancient river bed of the floor.

Besides, there was then little interest in the inaccessible, forested slopes that he had identified as his target property, and he was willing to wait out the family that owned (and initially refused to sell) the particular site he wanted.

Once Mr. Harlan gets what he wants, he goes on to the next step with equal determination. While preparing his hillside land, he invested in another winery (Merryvale), as a prelude to realizing his personal vision. He also bought Meadowood, a run-down lodge that he turned into a luxurious “Relais et Chateau” spa resort that incidentally offers inexpensive club membership to winery owners and their staff.

He planted his Oakville slopes in cabernet sauvignon, with a few acres of other Bordeaux varietals for blending. He was serious about his wine, perceiving from the start that he could make the biggest impact only with an important red wine.

Next, he searched for an engraver who could meet his high standard for both design and printing. Having been a stamp collector, he wanted that intricate, handmade quality of nineteenth century stamps and currency. But skilled engraving is nearly a lost art; it took him 10 years to find an engraver: Herb Fichter, an 85-year-old former employee of the U.S. Treasury.

The image on the Harlan label is of a voluptuous, fleshy woman of another era, draped in sheer gauze and beckoning the viewer toward herself, an appropriate representation of the bottle’s contents.

With vines flourishing and label design in hand, Mr. Harlan made several wines before deciding to release one. The first Harlan Estate vintage, from 1990, came out in 1996. Every vintage since then has been acclaimed as the benchmark of premium California wines. In a short time, it became America’s Grand Cru.

Today, Harlan Estate wines sell for $450 a bottle on release—if you can get them, which you almost never can, except in a secondary market, for much more. Mr. Harlan’s marketing manager, Don Weaver (who has been with him from the beginning) plays the opposite role of most marketers: as he puts it: “I specialize in disappointment.”

Day after day, he delivers the bad news to would-be customers that the year’s allocation has sold out. It’s not that Harlan wines aren’t for sale, but 30 percent of each year’s vintage goes to shops and restaurants in 40 countries, with an average allotment of only three bottles to each wholesale customer. As for retail, you almost have to wait for an existing customer to die to get on the mailing list for the next vintage.

With the exalted reputation of Harlan wines, you might expect him to have built the kind of grand, stylized chateau that lesser winery owners have built all over Napa. But Mr. Harlan is a philosopher, and simplicity is at the core of his approach. Both his original winery (which now houses his newest wine project, Bond, sourcing grapes from four distinctive vineyard sites in Napa) and his newly completed “Harlan” winery were designed to reference the simple rectangular California barn.

While the new winery has higher ceilings than the original building, they follow the same format of a plain stone cellar below a wooden reception/tasting room, outfitted with comfortable leather chairs next to a stone fireplace. On the hearth, ancient stone mortars from Napa’s early natives reinforce the notion that this place is a respectful continuation of an earlier harvest tradition.

My tasting of Mr. Harlan’s wines began with a glass of Krug champagne, “to get in a celebratory mood,” as Mr. Weaver put it. I’m not sure it was necessary, as I was already celebrating my joy at being welcomed into this well-hidden private sanctuary of wine. I don’t believe in scoring wines, myself, but I will say that the sneak peek I had of Harlan’s 2006 vintage, recently blended and not yet ready for release, was a seamless vortex of flavor.

Great as the Harlan Estate wines are, I see Mr. Harlan’s success as stemming from much more than fine wine. He has patiently realized a grand vision, without neglecting the greater grandeur of the landscape itself. And his newest projects, Bond and the Napa Valley Reserve (a private club for those who want to experience the “ebb and flow of the seasons” without the hassles of farm or winery ownership) continue this vision.

Can his vision be adapted to the East Coast? Maybe, but it would take someone with the tenacity of Bill Harlan to pull it off. That cagey poker player sure knows how to hold ’em.

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