As perhaps befits a man on the brink of his 9th decade, Bill Harlan measures time not in weeks, months or even years, but decades, half-centuries, centuries. It seems natural, sitting as we are among the grand oak fermenters at Harlan, having finished a tasting of 27 vintages of this most renowned of wines, to look at the broad sweep of time both forward and back.
Harlan, who turns 80 in September, has talked before about his “200-year plan” for the great Napa estate. “This is a work in progress. If you have a long-term plan it makes short-term decisions easier – is this the best decision for the long term? So we ask, how many times a century will we be replanting? Then interplanting of rows and vines – should that be every 40 years or every 50 years?”
Longevity has always been the plan, ever since 1984, when Harlan, Ric Forman and David Abreu identified six acres of hillside above Oakville as land with the potential to make first-class wine. It was a heavily-wooded parcel, chiefly volcanic and sedimentary soil bedrock, which over time would be expanded to the 100ha (240 acre) horse-shoe of ridge, shallow valley and mountainside, with aspects to all points of the compass, that the winery sits on today. To stand on the terrace and look east over Napa is to get a sense of the extraordinary vastness and beauty of the land.
Harlan’s goal is simple: “we need to know how better to express the character of the property.” The soil is key, of course, but there’s a certain poetry to this slight, grizzled adventurer (something of a daredevil in his youth, he founded the Pacific Union real estate company in 1984 and went on to develop upscale resort Meadowood and co-found Merryvale winery before realising his dream in Harlan Estate. He’s said to be a ferocious negotiator. “You wouldn’t want to get into a poker game with him,” one observer has noted). “Most of the estate is wild land. You still have the animals, the fresh smell of the air, the forest floor. All these things make up the character of the wines.”
Harlan has no intention of expanding the 16ha (40acre) vineyard, which produces an average 2,000 bottles a year – just making it “better, and stronger”. He considers that the period of “stabilising” is over, and they are now into a process of “establishing”.
Harlan’s goal is simple: “we need to know how better to express the character of the property”
It’s a subtle difference, and when Harlan hands over full responsibility to his son Will and daughter Amanda later this year (“an 80-year-old oughtn’t to be running anything”), they will have decades of experience to draw on. Bob Levy, the director of winegrowing, joined full-time in 1990, winemaker Cory Empting has been there 20 years, estate director Don Weaver since 1986 – two generations of treading the dirt. This is not to mention the “vinemasters” – veteran vineyard workers who are given total responsibility for sections of vineyard, in order to “get to know each vine,” as Harlan puts it. “The continuity is understanding the land.”
The tasting took place at a long table in the fermentation room at Harlan Estate in early March 2020. As well as Bill and Will Harlan, Levy, Empting and Weaver were present, Harlan educator Kelli White, Jamie Ritchie, head of Sotheby’s fine wine, Jim Walker (a long-standing Harlan collector) and critic Elaine Chukan Brown.
The vintages were tasted young to old, 2016 to 1990, in three flights of nine wines. Harlan talked of a work in progress: this was to see it in operation, a clear progression as vines get older, the estate increases in size and parcel selection gets more targeted. Today a blending session comprises up to 150 wines, taken from multiple different vineyard samples, tanks and barrels.
This was, without doubt, one of the signature tastings of my career. These are some of the most expensive and sought-after wines in the world, and to spend a day tasting them – out of magnum – was a remarkable experience. This is not to say that the wines were approached with undue reverence. Harlan, his longstanding team, and the few guests examined each flight with concentration but not awe.
The Harlan style runs through the vintages, getting stronger towards the present. The finest wines are brightly perfumed in youth and 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”). Another hallmark is understated energy, a pure and clear line that runs through each wine and through the decades. The wines have weight and heft – you know where you are with them – but only once was alcohol, or over-ripeness, mentioned. There is marked vintage variation – the notoriously cool and wet 2011, or the famously warm 1997, for example, are unmistakeable.
From Bordeaux to Napa, wines of great renown are sometimes described as “smart”, which means they are in some way tailored; they may be delicious, but they are made with an audience in mind. Harlan Estate doesn’t give that impression: you rather 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. Bill Harlan returns to this theme again and again. 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.”
As the land changes so do its stewards. The official handover to the next generation is imminent and Harlan is happy. “Everything seems to be in place,” he says. “They’ve never done this before, and I’ve never done it before, but it’s working well.”