Bill Harlan: the wild one

After entering his ninth decade, former high-stakes poker player and real-estate tycoon Bill Harlan has handed over his Napa estate to his children. Adam Lechmere met the man with a 200-year plan

Words by Adam Lechmere

Photography by Alexander Rubin

Bill Harlan
Bill Harlan, pictured with son Will, has now passed his estate down to the next generation

Less than a month after Bill Harlan’s 80th birthday, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant and dozens of cabins at Meadowood, his luxury resort at St Helena, burned to the ground. The buildings were casualties of the Glass Fire, the terrible blaze that swept through Napa Valley in autumn 2020.

I spoke to Harlan a few days later, when the smoking ruins of Meadowood were still too dangerous to enter. It was a desperate time, he said in his usual dry, even tone. Homes and livelihoods had been lost – but nobody had died. ‘We have had fires before [Meadowood burned in 1984, not long after opening]. And phylloxera; that was the most devastating. It wiped out most of the vineyards – but it enabled us to progress. We replanted with varieties that were more suited to the valley. Phylloxera helped things happen in 25 years that would have taken 50 to 100 years under normal circumstances.’ We can think of this a clean slate for the future, he added. ‘That makes me feel optimistic.’

When founding the estate, Harlan devised a 200-year plan

Writing about the memorable three-decade vertical tasting that Harlan hosted for Club Oenologique at the estate just before lockdown, I suggested that Bill Harlan ‘measures time not in weeks, months or even years, but decades, half-centuries, centuries’. Some people like to take the long view: Harlan began his wine odyssey with a plan for the next 200 years. It puts losing mere bricks and mortar – devastating indeed, but replaceable – into perspective.

Longevity has always been the plan, ever since 1984, when Harlan, vineyard consultants Ric Forman and David Abreu identified six acres of hillside above Oakville as having the potential to make a first-class wine – an American counterpart to the great wines of Bordeaux that Harlan knew and loved. It was a heavily wooded parcel, chiefly volcanic and sedimentary soil bedrock, which over time would be expanded to a 100ha (240 acre) estate.

‘I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to pass it on to the next generation,’ Harlan told me. ‘I found the land, then I met the right person [he married Deborah Beck at the age of 45], and the kids were next. I started out with this 200-year plan, and part of the plan was that if you can’t make it from the first to the second generation, you’re not going to make it to 200 years.’

He has the most curiosity of any man I’ve ever known

Harlan is one of Napa’s wealthiest landowners. A slight, other-worldly figure, he favours old-fashioned blouses with ruffed shoulders, which together with his chinstrap beard and hawkish features give him the look of a 17th-century church elder. I asked estate director Don Weaver, who’s known Harlan for nearly 40 years, what he’s like. Weaver thought about it. ‘He has the most curiosity of any man I’ve ever known,’ he said. ‘He’ll be interviewing you, not the other way around.’ I certainly felt I was being appraised by the amiable, soft-spoken presence across the table.

Harlan often prefaces an answer with a dry chuckle, which I imagine in his poker-playing days must have been disconcerting. He made his fortune in real estate after a youth straight out of Kerouac: hitch-hiking the length of Africa, high-stakes poker at Lake Tahoe (he lived in a hotel suite for two years, comped apparently), parking cars, motorcycle racing, driving the Mille Miglia, aerobatics, daredevil stunts such as swimming from Alcatraz Island to prove that escape was possible… ‘I used to be 100% focused on the now,’ he has said. Realising that ‘the now’ wasn’t necessarily a recipe for future prosperity, in 1975, in his mid-30s, he set up the Pacific Union Land Company with a partner, focusing on San Francisco Bay Area condominium projects, eventually selling some $2bn of real estate in California, Oregon and Washington.

Harlan Estate winery
Founded in 1984, Harlan Estate is located in Oakville in the heart of the Napa Valley

One of his early purchases was Meadowood. Then there is Harlan Estate, that wild horseshoe of ridge, shallow valley and mountainside with aspects to all points of the compass; sister winery Promontory; Bond, which makes wine from five sites in the valley; and the 60-acre private members club Napa Valley Reserve (none of the wine properties was damaged in the fire).

The wineries are the core of the project. From the beginning, Harlan had wanted to build up his production to 10,000 cases, but the piece of land he owned wasn’t big enough. ‘I started out making one wine, but I found out when I was looking for the land that the properties were too small to be able to have a certain size – we had to have distinction in character from any other wine, as well as great quality. So, to get to the size I wanted, I had to have other land that wasn’t adjacent; that’s how it grew in three different ways.’

The 900-acre swathe of Mount Veeder that is now Promontory was identified early on – it had been planted over the decades by several different owners – but only in the past few years has the wine been released under the Promontory label, from vineyards that make up only 10% of the entire estate. The wines of Bond, the third part of the collection, come from five ‘grand cru’ vineyards (whittled down from more than 80 sites, Harlan says) on both sides of the valley, from Spring Mountain in the north to Oakville in the south. Harlan doesn’t own the vineyards, but they are fully managed by his estate team.

Bill Harlan
Harlan's adventurous past includes hitch-hiking through Africa, motorbike racing and swimming from Alcatraz to the mainland

Harlan’s wines are rare and extremely expensive, but there is a grounded quality to them; the name doesn’t have the self-conscious glamour of its Oakville counterpart Screaming Eagle, for example. Indeed, the idea of Harlan selling to a football mogul, as Screaming Eagle did, or to a French tycoon, as the Araujos did, is unthinkable. Instead, he sets great store by continuity. ‘Bob Levy has been our director of wine growing for 38 harvests; [winemaker] Cory [Empting] joined us 20 years ago, Don Weaver joined in 1986. The same team has been working this land for a long, long time. And we’re still learning.’ Promontory, he points out, has only been going 12 years. They might have turned the first spadeful yesterday, he implies.

Our three-decade vertical makes two things clear. First, Harlan is not a polished or smart wine; second, it is very much a work in progress. The Harlan style runs through the wines and is more pronounced in the later vintages. The wines are brightly perfumed in youth, mellowing to dried petals and dried herb as they age; there is earth, blue fruit ageing to dark, a certain savouriness and sometimes an animal tang (‘Most of the estate is wild land,’ Harlan likes to remind you). The energy is understated but precise. The wines have weight and heft – you know where you are with them – but rarely are alcohol or overripeness an issue. There is marked vintage variation; the notoriously cool and wet 2011 or the famously warm 1997, for example, are unmistakable.

To my mind, a smart wine is one made for an audience. Harlan Estate doesn’t give that impression; rather, you understand that here is a winemaker and a team searching for an interpretation of a terroir that is not fixed but changing as the vines age. Harlan returns to this theme. He talks of having ‘captured’ the land, of its protean nature: ‘As the roots go deeper, the shapes of your blocks move and evolve like amoebas. It’s organic – you don’t lay out the blocks for good, you learn how they change, by being out there in the field.’

Harlan family
Bill Harlan has now retired and passed on his estate to his children, who will continue the company's 200-year plan

The next part of the 200-year plan is now in train: to hand over to the younger generation. Will Harlan, 33, has long been involved; he had a brief stint on a tech start-up but was never far from wine. In his 20s, he developed The Mascot, wines he made from younger vines on the Harlan and Bond estates, to be distributed among his friends. He wasn’t allowed to put his or Bond’s name on the label; just over 3,000 cases are now produced. Will’s younger sister Amanda will also be involved, but she doesn’t take part in the tasting or any of our interviews.

When I meet the Harlans again, this time on Zoom, they’re sitting in the library at Promontory, surrounded by leather-bound books – Harlan has a collection spanning four centuries. I see Harlan Jr has grown a beard and mutton-chop whiskers and looks very like his father: the two of them might have just stepped off the Mayflower. They both have a slow and deliberate way of talking, taking time to get their meaning across. There are 50 years between them, so how similar are they in outlook? ‘We’re not in agreement all the time,’ the elder Harlan says. ‘Will looks at things very differently. We agree on long-term vision but don’t always agree on how we get there.’

Will: ‘I would say, maybe, one conversation that keeps coming back is the way to engage with people.’ He chuckles, as if the quaintness of that concept has only just occurred to him. But he’s at pains to stress he’s not talking about Instagram here. ‘How do we form the best possible relationship with people today, and how do we curate that relationship? That’s the biggest one: how to engage with people.’ It’s Harlan Sr’s turn to chuckle now. ‘Will’s perspective is very different from how I feel. We’ve never had a marketing person, with a marketing plan, thinking about brand-building and so on.’

It’s about a vision – and if we do our jobs right, it will persist way beyond our lifetime

Brand-building aside, it’s obvious where the interests of both father and son lie. Will’s need to know the land is as urgent as his father’s. Both talk about using science to ‘understand the variables’ and thereby reduce risk. ‘It takes a long time to understand the true character of a place, and we’re trying to accelerate that discovery using technology to know a place in all its elements,’ Will says.

This is one of the things that makes Harlan an unmistakably American project: you don’t hear the Burgundians talking about speeding things up. The fact that the Harlans don’t have a millennium to experiment, as the monks did, lends an urgency to the 200-year plan. This is why Harlan, in his ninth decade, can look at the ruins of his hotel (or the ravages of phylloxera) and see opportunity: ‘Now we can move things on.’

Above all, he gives the impression of a man who lives his life as if it were one grand and exhilarating experiment, carried out with rigorous attention to risk but an experiment nevertheless. And he’s still at it. The official handover to the next generation is another leap into the unknown. ‘Everything seems to be in place,’ Bill says. ‘They’ve never done this before, and I’ve never done it before, but it’s working well.’ His son looks at him and agrees: ‘It’s about a vision,’ he says in his careful way. ‘And if we do our jobs right, it will persist way beyond our lifetime.’

This feature is taken from the winter 2020 edition of Club Oenologique magazine. To find out more, click here