One of the cult wineries of California, Harlan Estate has an annual production of less than 2,000 cases and a release price averaging over S$1,100 a bottle, sold through an allocated mailing list to private clients.
But Harlan isn’t just scarce; it is also a true estate wine where every step of its production, from the growing of the fruit right down to the detail of its bottle and label design, reflects one man’s pursuit of excellence. It is, in short, the realisation of a dream.
That dream began in 1966 when Bill Harlan, a native of southern California, visited the winery of Robert Mondavi, where he was inspired to one day own vineyards and make wine. His search for a property came to fruition in 1984 when he found a piece of land in the western hills of Oakville — despite the fact that Napa’s famed wines at that time came from the valley floor, Bill maintained that the best vineyards were sited on the hillsides. It is here that he amassed close to 97 hectares, where he then took six months to study the land, layout, vegetation, slopes, and soils to identify the optimal site on which to plant the vines.
“Most of the key individuals involved in bringing Harlan Estate about have been working together for more than 25 years. The benefits of that continuity, consistency, and longevity are, we hope, clearly discernible, for they permeate every aspect of our undertaking.”
Bill Harlan, owner of Harlan Estate
Today, Harlan’s surface area under vine constitutes around 17 hectares. Cabernet Sauvignon occupies just over 70 per cent of the plantings; Merlot takes up slightly less than 20 per cent; while the rest goes to Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The vines pretty much sit on a fault line parallel to the West Napa fault. The eastern portion of the land is where the Cabernets and Petit Verdot are found, sitting on mostly well-draining volcanic soil that is fairly rich in minerals. Merlot makes its home on the opposite side, comprising sedimentary soils of gravel, sand, pebble and clay.
Over the years, Harlan may have won itself a global following as Californian ‘first growth’, but for Bill this is just the beginning. After all, a quarter of a century is a short time in his ultimate vision of creating place, permanence, history, and heritage — a 200-year plan, as it is referred to.
“Most of the key individuals involved in bringing Harlan Estate about have been working together for more than 25 years. The benefits of that continuity, consistency, and longevity are, we hope, clearly discernible, for they permeate every aspect of our undertaking. As our plans bear fruit, our hope is that they will provide a culture sufficient for the estate’s continued improvement well into the future,” he wrote in A Note from the Proprietor, 2010.
“The balance of the estate, however, will remain much as it is now, as it has been for centuries. Detailed planning for each facet of the property and responsible stewardship should ensure its future health and well-being for generations to come.”
Already, steps have been taken to groom the generation that will take over the reins from Bill Harlan and Don Weaver, the estate’s director. Bill’s son William, along with winemaker Cory Empting, play key roles in continuing the legacy. And with Don Weaver’s eventual retirement, the team looks to Francois Vignaud to fill his shoes.
With a background in marketing, hospitality, and building relations, Vignaud joined the team in 2014 to help at Harlan and Bond, and especially to oversee the hospitality programme at Promontory, Harlan’s latest (and probably last) project, and currently one of the most talked-about wineries within the Napa community. His role, however, has since grown to encompass larger responsibilities particularly in the field of marketing, distribution, and Harlan’s presence across the globe.
“It’s not always easy to put into perspective the 200-year plan that Bill has put into place,” says the French Canadian. “It’s a question of transition from one generation to the next through an organic process where it is important for everyone to share and embrace the same values, and to understand what the ultimate goal and vision is.”
In a word, Bill believes the estate should be more than just the story of one person. “It goes beyond anything and everything on an individual level. When you think about it, nothing we do serves a personal purpose, but the longevity of the business,” shares Vignaud. “It’s important that our two generations work together for as long as we can. There is a lot to learn from the first generation. Hopefully, we won’t make the same mistakes they did, but are nonetheless capable of producing the kind of successes they achieved.”
The team has implemented organic and biodynamic viticultural practices with the idea that the vines should grow in the best and healthiest environment possible, without impacted soil and with all the right nutrients.
What does the future hold for Harlan? With the growing numbers of younger, plugged-in consumers who are less influenced by critics and numerical scores, Vignaud opines that engagement will become an essential part of the estate’s activities. “We are at a more premium range and that is reflected in our prices. So with Sarment’s help, we want to find ways to let them understand what Harlan is about by getting to know us and tasting our wines.”
The team is also growing in tenacity and strength, qualities that went through a trial by fire when Napa recently saw its worst fire in 40 years, which devastated wineries and properties in its path, taking away the lives of dozens and leaving thousands others injured and displaced. Fortunately for Harlan, 95 per cent of its harvest was already in the fermentation tanks, and the wind direction was in its favour. “We were prepared for the worst, securing as much as we could while we hoped for the best,” Vignaud recounts. “We count ourselves very lucky, compared to a lot of our colleagues in Napa.”
The vines are dry farmed in an effort to promote self-sustainability.
In the cellar, Empting continues to capture the expression of Harlan as Bill envisioned. To that end, the team has implemented organic and biodynamic viticultural practices with the idea that the vines should grow in the best and healthiest environment possible, without impacted soil and with all the right nutrients. The vines are dry farmed in an effort to promote self-sustainability (although irrigation is still required for new plantings until the roots are sufficiently developed).
Once the fruit enters the winery, minimal intervention is involved. “Empting often jokes that it takes a lot to do very little,” Vignaud quips. “That’s where we are going with the wine. We let indigenous yeasts do their work. It all boils down to the idea that nature is self-sustaining and we want to be part of it, not dominate it.”
It used to be that 100 per cent new French oak was used in the maturation prior to bottling, but that has seen some changes. As the vines get older, there is a gradual shift to softer handling in the cellars to showcase the natural structure of the fruit. “We just want to make sure, as we have always done, that there is balance in the wine. Now we use seasoned oak in addition to new oak,” says Vignaud.
“In the 200-year plan, longevity comes from the land itself, and this is translated into our wine. Year after year, it’s interesting to see the change in growing patterns and seasons. There is only one constant, and that is the pedigree of a bottle of Harlan Estate.”