Hubert Burda Media

Vitis of the Valley

Harlan Estate’s second-generation vintner Will Harlan and Estate Director Don Weaver speak with us.

Harlan Estate is easily one of the US’ most famous wines, yet the property is referred to as the “family homestead”. Why so?
Don Weaver (DW): [Will] knows it intimately, but let me preface by saying that the description makes me laugh a little bit as well. The 240 acres (97 hectares) Bill Harlan [the proprietor] bought in 1984 was a forest. He started the winery and it eventually became the family home. Actually, he always regarded it as the ranch.
Will Harlan (WH): It took him quite a lot of years to stop calling it the “ranch”. You know, one of the first things we did up there was fill in the end of a small valley and created a lake, so one of my first memories was walking across the lake when it froze over one winter. As kids, my sister [Amanda] and I also hung up a rope swing for the summer months.
Did you poke around in the winery and the vineyards too?
WH: Yes but as a kid, it wasn’t so much about trying the wines. We’d run around the winery and we were given little tasks — the fun thing to do was washing bins, because the hoses are pretty powerful. You get one of these things and it’s almost like a gun.

What was your dad’s vision for Harlan Estate, given that he was essentially making a wine from scratch?
WH: The first conception he had for a winery was a very romantic one — just having a small plot of land and a winery. But even before he purchased the parcels that are now Harlan Estate, he had solidified in his mind that he wanted to create a wine that in his words was a “first growth of California”. Obviously the classification doesn’t exist, but he wanted the wine to be able to compete on an international scale with historically the finest wines in the world.
DW: He always talked about the 200-year plan. He was thinking multi-generation before there was a second generation because, as you know, he didn’t marry until his mid-40s. Even then, he understood that you couldn’t necessarily impose your dreams on your children. So it’s heart-warming for him to see the kids coming into the company.
Aside from the fact that it is cabernet-based, why benchmark a Californian wine to a Bordeaux first growth?
DW: Bordeaux set the standard for what the world thought of as cabernet sauvignon and for many years, what California did was an homage — if not in trying to replicate it, at least in looking to it for inspiration. I’d say this is still the built-in [approach] for probably everybody everywhere. They genuflect a little bit toward Bordeaux but you are also establishing what the varietal has to say for where you are. There are times that the California cabernet is very distinctive from Bordeaux and there are other times when the lines are blurred, especially when a wine takes on age.
Wine is about emotions and memories. As someone who grew up with Harlan Estate, what does the wine trigger for you?
WH: It’s the vintage that evokes more memory than anything else. For instance, the 04 was the first that I drank of ours when I was really starting to build my palate. So it quickly became my favourite. I tend to like slightly older wines now, but that wine has kind of aged at the same pace as my palate, so it’s consistently my favourite vintage. Harlan Estate is very polished, very soft and, at the same time, powerful. It reminds me of my dad in a lot of ways. He’s got this raw power that is balanced with elegance.

How did Bond, the family’s other label of “grand crus”, come about?
WH: Bond is five wines made from five sites around Napa Valley. And the story precedes Harlan in that before we bought the land for Harlan Estate, we had been buying [grapes] from 70 over different growers and making wine in different facilities, just trying to understand the land. And when we went off to do Harlan Estate, we kept tabs on two of the 70 vineyards and nearly 10 years after the first vintage of Harlan, we released the first Bond wines, Melbury and Vecina. A few years later came St Eden, Pluribus and Quella. We didn’t want to dilute or take away from Harlan, which is one contiguous plot.
And the other projects? Because it always seems like something is in the works.
DW: Bill thought that if we were to farm one little corner of Napa Valley for the rest of our lives we could become quite myopic. It’s part of his relentless nature to always be pushing envelopes and innovating. That’s why he also created The Napa Valley Reserve, which, like a fine golf club, has a clubhouse. It also has an 80-acre vineyard, where we could make wine for individuals who wanted to try out the romantic side of the wine business without all the burden of owning land and building wineries. We had no idea if people would be interested and we now have 500 members.
And just when I thought we were all built-up, in 2008, we captured another piece of land, bigger than anything else we’ve talked about, just less than a mile south of Harlan Estate. We’re building another distinctive estate — Promontory — which is a little higher in elevation, so there is a different climate and series of soils. It’s a long time in the making. We’re bringing in roads and water as it’s a remote part of the valley.
We even have Singaporeans buying Napa vineyards. What’s your thought on this influx of would-be vintners who think it’s easy enough to make wine?
DW: It’s been happening in Napa forever. The French came and did that, the Italians, even the Japanese. There’s a pretty international ownership of small vineyards among family businesses and bigger entities. Some come and go. There’s always been interest. Real estate in Napa Valley is not inexpensive, but compared to the heart of Burgundy and Bordeaux, it can be a bargain. Even those from Bordeaux are looking to develop winery projects in Napa Valley — it’s an economically sound idea.