Life lessons with Amanda Harlan of Harlan Estate

When professional horse-riding dreams were dashed, Amanda Harlan wound up joining the family firm. Here she talks The Mascot, being a people-pleaser and watching the sun set each and every day

Words by Adam Lechmere

amanda harlan

Amanda Harlan radiates positivity. Over the medium of Zoom, separated by half a dozen time zones and the 5,000 miles between California and London, her charisma seems entirely undiluted. She talks fluently and with a nice sense of irony, all the while dealing with two large Labradors milling around at her feet. When I ask her how old she is (she’s 32) and apologise for the question, she says, ‘Ask away. You can tell I’m the shy and retiring type.’

The youngest child of Bill and Deborah Harlan works closely with her brother Will, who took over as managing director of Napa’s Harlan Estate in April 2021. Harlan père remains founder and chairman, and is still deeply involved in the winery he founded in 1984 and its sister operations: Promontory, Bond, The Mascot, the Napa Valley Reserve, and the Meadowood hotel. Amanda’s role covers sales and marketing across the portfolio. It’s a big job, including taking the Napa Valley Reserve, the $165,000-entry private members club that now has 700 members, to the next level, bringing in a new generation of wealthy young wine aficionados.

napa valley reserve
The Napa Valley Reserve includes a winery, vineyards, gardens, caves and the 'hospitality barn' (pictured)

Her joining the company ‘wasn’t a decision lightly taken,’ she tells me. Indeed, ten years ago she was headed for a very different career in professional dressage, the incredibly difficult horse-riding discipline, before a setback that destroyed her hopes of Olympic glory. Already a junior Olympic gold and silver medallist, she was looking forward to graduating to the senior team. But that summer – 2013 – her horse had an accident that tore its leg ‘from ankle to knee’ and put her out of action for at least two years. In the world of dressage, horse and rider are inseparable. You might work with the same horse for two decades – she had been with this one for 15 years. ‘I got all my contracts pulled and was suddenly without a job. It was devastating.’

Her life ‘crumbled to the ground. I didn’t know who I was without school, without a horse and without a job.’ So she moved back into the family home, (‘as no 23-year-old wants to do’). She went travelling; there was a stint at LVMH, where she launched Moët Ice (‘you won’t know it unless you’re by a pool in Las Vegas’). Her degree was in child psychology, and she thought she might work with children.

We have to exceed my father’s expectations, but also explore and experiment in the way he has always encouraged us to

Then her brother Will asked her if she’d help him get The Mascot out to market. The wine, which has always been made from the younger vines from the various estates, initially for family and friends, is now a fully-fledged part of the portfolio. It’s a Cabernet Sauvignon produced in quantities of about 5,000 cases, at $100 a bottle – so it’s an entry-level Harlan. It’s perfect, Amanda says, for capturing those ‘younger, curious people’ who can’t afford the first wine but will in time graduate to it.

Amanda’s joining the firm is evidence both of her clear-sightedness and the deep respect she has for her family. She admires and adores her father – she describes him as ‘the most influential man in my life’ – but although she’s an integral part of the senior management team, she couldn’t work directly for him. Because they’re too close? ‘One thousand per cent. So similar and so close. Yin and yang.’ She also reveres her brother. ‘I just got married and in my speech I said, if I was in jail, the first call would be to my brother.’

the mascot wine bottle
The Mascot represents a 21st-century approach to winegrowing, aiming to capture the attention of younger drinkers

Despite, or because of this, joining the payroll was a long process. ‘It definitely wasn’t a case of my dad saying, “Thank God you’re interested”. We had to be the best, better than anyone else he could hire. So there were a lot of questions – like what is going to help you rise to your full potential, and also serve us with everything we are creating?’ Harlan and her brother are naturally evangelists for their father’s much-talked-about 200-year plan for the company he built. But then – they are their father’s children. Amanda says she has his ‘daredevil’ streak, while Will is more a ‘visionary and a thinker’. So as the new generation taking over from the patriarch, how is she going to shake things up?

amanda harlan portrait
Amanda Harlan: 'There is no relationship more profoundly close than the one we cultivate with ourselves'

She laughs at the idea. She spent lockdown ‘getting deep under the hood’ of the businesses, finding out how the wineries worked, how to run a hotel, how to run a private members’ club. And as she learnt more, so her admiration for her father grew, as did the determination to build on his legacy. ‘Our job is to deepen the groove of refinement and identity. We have to exceed his expectations, but also explore and experiment in the way he has always encouraged us to. It’s all new and daunting and exciting. We haven’t seen what we’re capable of.’

She breaks off with an apology to push the dogs out the door. All these dogs and horses, you should be an English country landowner, I say facetiously. Another amused chuckle. ‘Hey, life is long. I just might be, one day.’

What was your childhood ambition?

To be a world-class dressage rider.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21?

There is no relationship more profoundly close than the one we cultivate with ourselves.

What exercise do you do?

I savour every sunrise and sunset walk with my black Lab, Buck: seeing the vines, trees, and gardens change year-round on foot is something I do not take for granted. I am a big Peloton fan – both the treadmill and the bike. I love hot yoga and, while I do not do it as much as I would like, my favourite exercise will always be on the back of a horse.

harlan estate vineyard
Sunset among the vines of the Harlan Estate

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?

I would be quick to say my innate need to please everyone, but I have come to realize that in that drive and desire lies one of my greatest gifts.

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (apart from property)?

I purchased a Pepsi Rolex for my husband that I gifted him on my wedding day (last November) inscribed on the back ‘To Our Timeless Love’.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

I would live on the same property as my horses. I have always dreamed of looking out my bedroom window into the green pasture where they are grazing.

If you could do any other job, what would it be and why?

I would be a professional dressage rider. Since I was a little girl, I have always felt most free and closest to my spirit when I am on the back of a horse. My zone of flow. I love building the relationship with these incredible, athletic horses, day in and day out. Perfecting the skill of dressage is so difficult and takes such great focus and determination. It has encompassed all parts of my drive to learn and compete and, most importantly, filled my heart with such fulfilment and joy.

What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island (apart from wine, whisky or spirits)?

Probably a beautifully crafted sailing boat, big enough to bring my friends, great wine, and a long table for dining.

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?

To compete in the international dressage arena at the Grand Prix level.

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?

Access to higher education for all.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party – and why?

I would invite all of my grandparents and great grandparents; I didn’t get to know them as an adult.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Pizza and CSI Las Vegas.

What’s your secret talent?

I really love helping people; listening and being able to show up during hard moments. I went through college thinking I would someday perhaps be a psychologist.

When were you happiest?

When I am in the saddle, and in the embrace of the ones I love… and of course, with a glass of wine in my hands (or a cold Margarita).

Whom do you most admire?

My family. Each of them has taught me so much about the world and unconditionally supported me through my own evolution. They each inspire me every day, as we work together in our family business, and beyond.

The harlan family
The Harlan family (L-R: Bill, Amanda, Will and Deborah)

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?


What’s your greatest regret?

I can’t find a sincere answer to this question, so that is at least a small regret.

What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night alone on the sofa?

Probably something by Lane 8 or Rüfüs Du Sol.

What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?  

Probably my first tailcoat (Shadbelly) that I wore through my years competing for the USA Junior Olympic team. It holds so many memories of travelling around the country, winning, losing – and of all the blood, sweat, and tears that came along with the journey.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

My husband’s home kitchen.

What time do you go to bed?

Whenever the to-do list, and wine, is done.