Features 5 November 2019

Bill Harlan’s exclusive wine club

The Napa Valley wine entrepreneur’s 80-acre estate, and the wines made there, are for members only

Words by Roger Morris

Photography by Suzanne Becker Bronk

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You’re very unlikely to taste Bill Harlan’s latest wine, a bold Cabernet Sauvignon. Made by Bob Levy, the winemaker at Harlan Estate, it’s not sold in stores, served in restaurants or available on any exclusive mailing list.

The wine is the 2015 vintage of Napa Valley Reserve, prepared only for members of an unusual and elite club of the same name, founded in 2000 by Harlan, the renowned winemaking and real estate entrepreneur. Its 600+ members can socialise at the estate’s facilities on the east side of the valley near St Helena, purchase the estate wines and, most importantly, experience winemaking first-hand from Harlan’s team by blending and bottling their own private cuvées – wines they cannot legally sell but instead may share with friends and families or donate to charity auctions. Not counting these private wines, about 3,500 to 4,500 cases of Napa Valley Reserve are produced annually.

“Originally,” Harlan said recently, “my idea was to find something to serve as wine education for Meadowood,” the Napa Valley resort he founded in 1979. That idea grew into the purchase of a 5,000-plus acre property in the Pope Valley section of Napa which Harlan planned to subdivide into 43 parcels surrounding a mother vineyard where homeowners could build their own wineries. “Sort of the same idea as a golf club with homes,” he said, “but a wine club with vineyards.”

Bill Harlan at Auction Napa Valley earlier this year

The idea proved a bit too rich for most potential members, so Harlan instead decided to use an 80-acre property adjacent to Meadowood to establish Napa Valley Reserve, with 60 acres in vines and the rest in gardens, orchards and farmhouse-style winery and club facilities. “We started making estate wine with the 2004 vintage with 50 members and had doubled that amount the next year,” Harlan says. “We’ve reached about two thirds of our growth.” Most members are couples and families.

“I had often said that I wanted to be a winemaker in my next life,” says Al Moschner, a partner in Chicago-based management consulting firm Northcroft Partners, and former CEO of Leap Wireless. “At the time, my son was a classmate of Bill Harlan’s son at Duke, and one day he said, ‘Dad, I think I’ve solved your problem,’ and told me about the club. I thought it sounded too good to be true.” That was in 2008. Moschner was so excited about the opportunity to make his own wine supervised that he immediately rented a house for five weeks and moved in to participate in harvest.

According to estate manager Philip Norfleet “about two-thirds of the members live an airplane ride away,” but others, like Coleman Andrews, former co-founding partner in Bain Capital and now CEO and chief investment officer for RMWC, conveniently have nearby offices or residences. “I’m at the estate about every three weeks,” Andrews says. “I make around two barrels of wine each vintage, but I also like to take advantage of the broader activities the Reserve has for learning.  We usually have programs including six to ten winemakers from around the world visiting us each year.”

Both men also value the family atmosphere the Reserve offers. “At this point, winemaking remains a hobby of mine,” Andrews says, “but moreover it’s an opportunity to be with our extended family and close friends, including having a family reunion here every year – last year with 19 people.”  Moschner adds, “I have four kids, married with children, and Harlan has this legacy plan where they can become members with full benefits. When that happens, I will become a member emeritus for the rest of my 30 year membership.”

“The winemaking philosophy is the same for all the Harlan properties,” says winemaker Levy, “but the difference in the properties comes through.” The primary grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, is grown at the estate, but blending grapes are sourced elsewhere. “We did grow Merlot, but it didn’t really work well here so we tore it out and now have three acres of Sauvignon Blanc for a white Reserve.” About 10% of members make wine, Levy says, using three to five “super blends” his team creates as a starting point.  The amount each produces ranges from 12-75 cases.

How close are the tastes of the Reserve wines to Harlan Estate? Like most members, Andrews has enjoyed both. “It’s clear to me that the two wines are relatives,” he says, “perhaps second- or third-cousins.”

While it’s easy for anyone who has the resources to produce a private wine at a custom crush facility, there is no other club that offers the prestige and range of activities offered by Napa Valley Reserve – although Harlan and the Reserve may soon have competition.  Uruguayan oil tycoon Alejandro Bulgheroni has already established the prestigious Bodega Garzon winery near Montevideo and is now developing other wine estates in Mendoza, Tuscany, Barossa, Bordeaux and on a former Harlan property in Napa Valley within shouting distance of the Reserve. The plan is for Bulgheroni’s Garzon Club – sometimes referred to as the “Billionaires’ Club” – to eventually allow its members to make private wines at each of Bulgheroni’s worldwide properties.

Recently, Levy held a retrospective of Napa Valley Reserve wines dating back to the first vintage in 1997, when he was using grapes sourced elsewhere while awaiting those newly planted at the Reserve to reach maturity with the 2004 vintage.  It can be reported that, after 20 years, both the wines and the club are developing quite nicely.

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