Harlan Estate – We had been looking forward to visiting Harlan Estate for some time. This was one of our special visits on this project; it is the 600th review of an active winery/producer to appear on this site over the past 5+ years. We chose Harlan Estate for this milestone visit because of their well-regarded reputation for quality, the instant name recognition and because of Mr. Harlan’s unique personal contributions, influence and history in the Napa Valley over the past 40+ years.
Harlan went to school at the University of California Berkeley; his first introduction to the Napa Valley was in 1959 (at this time, Napa served the purpose of weekend getaways for bringing his dates up from Berkeley). Lured by the natural beauty and eventually by the potential for growing wine grapes his visits became more frequent. His passion for wine started in his teens. Mr. Harlan attended the opening day of Robert Mondavi’s winery in 1966 and by this time was already nurturing a dream of owning his own wine estate (although perhaps he didn’t realize at the time, that Robert Mondavi Winery would one day be one of his ‘neighbors’.
He traveled to Europe and visited some of the great estates in Burgundy and Bordeaux all the while taking copious notes. He fell in love with Bordeaux and was taken in with the quality and consistency of the wines from these estates.
Before his involvement in the Napa Valley, Harlan and his partner Peter Stocker founded Pacific Union Land Company in 1975 – with an initial focus of selling condominiums and developing condominium projects in the San Francisco Bay Area. The company is still very much active, based in Danville and focuses on land, residential, self-storage and commercial development.
Before Harlan there was Sunny St. Helena/Merryvale – among the first wineries to be built after Prohibition in the Napa Valley. Harlan and his real estate partners including Peter Stocker and John Montgomery purchased this old winery site in 1983 and completely renovated the winery/hospitality buildings. And it was during his time overseeing Merryvale that Harlan met three men who would be very instrumental as he developed his various properties in the valley: Don Weaver (later General Manager of Harlan Estate), winemaker Bob Levy and consulting winemaker Michel Rolland. And it was at Merryvale where the first vintages of Harlan Estate were produced until their own winery was completed in time for the 1997 harvest.
Harlan sold his interest in Merryvale in the mid 1990s. And before Merryvale there was Meadowood, still one of the most exclusive lodging options in the Napa Valley. Meadowood was established by Bill Harlan in 1979 and is home to one of the country’s largest charity wine auctions, held the first week of every June – Auction Napa Valley.
Not to be outdone is Napa Valley’s most exclusive “wine club”, the Napa Valley Reserve which was also started by Bill Harlan. Located next to Meadowood this is an exclusive invitation only wine club (wine, use of facilities, special events, trips, educational events) with an initiation fee at the time of this review that runs $155,000.
Harlan purchased the original land to eventually become Harlan Estate in 1984 – at that time, despite being less than 40 years ago, the property was completely forested and covered with native vegetation. The original purchase was 6 acres; this has grown to 240 acres today with 40 acres under vine. Mr. Harlan had the foresight and vision to turn this hillside acreage into a world class “first growth” vineyard of Napa Valley.
While his own property had never before been developed to vineyards – nearby parts of Oakville certainly had proven terroir including Martha’s Vineyard. Oakville has been called “the tenderloin of the Napa Valley” – with such diversity in soils, climates and exposures across a rather narrow band in the valley, this slice of the valley has certainly attracted some of Napa’s most premium producers.
The property is meticulously maintained. The vines were originally planted by David Abreu and overseen for 15 years – his role today is more of a consultant with noted viticulturist Mary Haher handling the in-house day to day vineyard management. The properties elevation ranges from just above the valley floor at 150 feet to their high point at 1200 feet but the vineyards are only planted between about 300 to 500 feet.
Harlan’s first “vintage” was 1987 but this was not released. Neither was the 88 or the 89. 1990 was their first released commercial vintage (very small production), and at a price point of $65 when it was released in 1996, sounds affordable today, but was among the higher priced wines of that vintage. The 1991 was also released simultaneously. Harlan was not in a hurry to push wine to market after purchasing the property. Mr. Harlan’s focus on Harlan Estate has always been a long term one – thinking out decades in the future.
For a winery with such instant name recognition, the entrance is very unassuming. The winery itself is nestled among native oaks and other vegetation on top of a small knoll. As they say, “we let the views do the heavy lifting around here” – looking east one has views of the entire central part of Napa Valley – a panoramic vista across Oakville.
The winery was designed by well-known architect Howard Backen (he and Bill Harlan have worked together for a number of years). Backen’s wineries are built to be unobtrusive from the outside, but perhaps make a statement on the inside. He has designed a number of premium winery properties in the Napa Valley including Ovid, Dana Estate and nearby Futo Estate.
The focus on quality is clearly evident when entering the winery. Cleanliness and aesthetics are key here. All barrels are perfectly lined up using a laser sight. They stay lined up until bottling; Harlan does not rack the barrels. Nevertheless, this is a working winery and function is blended seamlessly with form.
Only perfectly ripe berries are allowed to begin fermentation using indigenous yeasts. The grapes are picked and carefully taken to the winery in small picking bins; the fruit then undergoes triage (triple sorting, cluster, destemmer and finally by hand). The wine is fermented in large oak open top casks which are used for 3 harvests and then traded out for new ones. From the fermentation room, the wine is gravity fed to the cellar below.
Bob Levy has been involved in the wine making side of the operations since day one (before Harlan he was involved at Merryvale) and was winemaker for many years until more recently. Today his role is Director of Winegrowing and Cory Empting has taken over as their full time winemaker. All critical blending decisions are always made by the core Harlan team as well as flying French consulting winemaker Michel Rolland.
The 2006 Harlan Estate Proprietary Red has simultaneous power and elegance; it is an intriguing and an intense wine filled with rich flavor and structure. Winemaker Bob Levy likes to talk about “tannin development” (which is a critical part of their winemaking program). This vintage certainly has this but not in an overtly bold way – rather the tannins are integrated well in the wine’s finish. The 2006 is an intense layered luscious wine on the palate. The elegant bouquet shows notes of sweet cassis, brown chocolate and darker fruits including cherry and blackberry. The finish is extremely long. This is a wine built to age but we will not argue with anyone about drinking it now. An impressive showing.
Harlan’s wine label has an interesting story. It was designed and still is printed by a private printing / engraving company who used to print the United States currency before the U.S. Treasury was established. The idea was to create a label that looked like an engraving for a bottle, that by itself was a piece of art.
Harlan’s produces a second wine called “The Maiden” crafted from barreled wines that do not make it into the Harlan Estate wine. This is a wine led by Cabernet Sauvignon but with sizable percentages of Cabernet Franc and Merlot in the blend.
Surprisingly Harlan has distribution in about 35 states and 30 countries – yet with a production of only 1800 cases and their price point, distribution is very selective. Locally one can find the wine at times, at several wine shops including 750 Wines and at the Oakville Grocery. Harlan sells direct, but one must be on their mailing list. To join the waiting list, visit: www.harlanestate.com
Bill Harlan interview, Karen MacNeil:
Bill Harlan interview, Wine Spectator:
James Suckling TV
Wine Spectator with Cory Empting