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California's Cult-Cabernet Visionary

Part philosopher, part real estate man, California winery owner Bill Harlan produced one of the best reds of the twentieth century. And his ambitions for the twenty-first are even higher.

Maybe if Bill Harlan's beard were just a few feet longer, he'd be attracting crowds of the faithful looking to learn how to lead meaningful lives, not plaintive wine collectors begging for a bottle of his famous Bordeaux-style blend. For Harlan isn't just the genius behind one of Napa's greatest wineries, Harlan Estate, or for that matter, one of the partners responsible for its most famous resort, Meadowood. He's also something of a philosopher, a man with a well-articulated vision of what really matters in life.

There are only two people Harlan hopes to pass his particular vision along to, his 11-year-old daughter and his 13-year-old son. They are the reason he is currently at work on a book of what he calls "life lessons," although Harlan, soon to turn 61, says that what he really needs to do now is stop writing: "I promised myself I'd have the book finished by my sixtieth birthday."

In the meantime, Harlan continues to perfect his wine, although the impossibly lush, incredibly concentrated red (made mostly from Cabernet Sauvignon) has been called one of California's top "cult Cabernets" and is already considered by most to be pretty close to perfection. It's a wine that manages to be both remarkably dense (almost to the point of opaqueness) and unquestionably elegant, with fine, silky tannins. Wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., routinely gives the wine very high marks (98 for the 1996 vintage, 99 for the 1995 and a perfect 100 for the 1997). Harlan Estate has also been hailed by British wine writer Jancis Robinson as "one of the ten best wines of the twentieth century."

Harlan's efforts aren't aimed at securing more points, but rather at providing for posterity. Harlan Estate winery, he hopes, will offer his children not just a livelihood but "tangible proof that what is truly important isn't achieved through immediate gratification." It is important to him that his children not just learn how wine is made, but, through the winery, "develop meaningful relationships with other people, whether they're buying or selling our wine or designing our wine label."

The story of the Harlan Estate wine label probably best illustrates what Bill Harlan is all about. An avid stamp collector in his youth, Harlan was particularly entranced by the engraved stamps of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. "The colors were so subtle," he marvels. And when, back in 1984, he decided to start a winery, Harlan went looking for an artist who could make a label that would look like an engraving. The trouble was, engraving was a lost art—the government had long ago turned to other forms of illustration. It seemed there were no real engravers left. And none of the many artists Harlan hired could quite capture what he was after. So Harlan kept looking, and several years later, quite by chance, he heard about Herb Fichter, an 85-year-old retired government engraver who had worked at the U.S. Treasury. Harlan promptly flew Fichter to Napa. Fichter was skeptical; what Harlan wanted to do was quite hard. But Harlan, having come so far, wasn't about to give up. Eventually, with Fichter overseeing the design (inspired by a nineteenth-century engraving), the first Harlan Estate wine label was launched, a mere 10 years after Harlan had started his search. (Harlan had made several wines that he never released before deciding the 1990 was ready—in January 1996). Sadly, Fichter died three months before the wine's release. Harlan believes Fichter would have been proud. "The label has a wonderful handmade quality," he says. "It was a label designed for a bottle that would sit on a table in candlelight, not on a store shelf."

This may be just as well, since Harlan Estate isn't the sort of wine you're likely to (ever) find in a wine shop—although Don Weaver, Harlan Estate's marketing director, claims otherwise: "We could easily sell our entire production from our mailing list, but it's important to us that our wine is available in restaurants and retail stores." (A little more than half the 2,000-case production goes to restaurants and stores, with the remainder sold via the mailing list.) Lucky mailing-list customers pay an extremely reasonable $175 for Harlan Estate, and $85 for the second-label wine, the Maiden. While those prices may still seem high to some, they are in fact incredible bargains, as anyone who's tried to buy Harlan Estate at auction or in a restaurant can attest. Prices usually start around $400 a bottle and can go much higher. Sometimes a great deal higher: A 10-vintage vertical selection of magnums of Harlan Estate was the top seller at last year's Napa Valley Wine Auction, selling for a mind-boggling $700,000.

There are several reasons why the Harlan Estate wine is as remarkable as it is remarkably sought-after. First, there's the powerhouse Harlan winemaking team, headed up by Bob Levy (who's been with Bill Harlan since the early '80s, when Harlan was a partner in Merryvale Vineyards). Assisting Levy is superstar consulting oenologist Michel Rolland, who flies to California from France a few times a year to taste wines and talk things over. And then there's Bill Harlan's willingness to do anything to improve the quality of his wines. Don Weaver laughs as he recounts this exchange: "Bill says that when he asks Michel, 'How can you make the wine better?' Michel always gives him a very expensive answer."

But the main reason that Harlan Estate wines are so incredible may have to do with what Bill Harlan, real estate man, would describe as location, location, location. When Harlan went looking to buy land in Napa in 1984, he was still single, living on a boat in Sausalito but growing restless. He was looking for a life less temporal and rootless—as well as the right land to make a great wine. Harlan searched only in the hills. He'd studied the great wines of the world and discovered that they nearly always came from hillside vineyards. "I wanted to create a first-growth wine," he says. "And I knew that in order to do that you had to have the right land—and of course, the right philosophy." Harlan purchased 230 steep, wooded acres just west of the famed Martha's Vineyard, with a view of the town of Oakville. Amazingly enough the property had been overlooked for years; not many buyers, it seemed, were interested in such a hilly plot. These days, of course, there is nothing in the world more ardently sought-after (or highly touted) than hillside vineyard land.

Harlan cleared and planted about 36 acres, and says he has only limited plans for expansion. The winery's production will probably reach about 4,000 cases, or double the current amount. There is also a new, as yet unnamed winery in the works on the property, where the team will produce another Cabernet-based wine, but that won't be up and running until sometime next year. But then, Bill Harlan is hardly a man who minds waiting; after all, it took him more than 10 years before he was ready to release his first wine. "I know that our wine is one of the so-called California cult Cabernets," he acknowledges, "but the word cult doesn't really describe what it is we're trying to do here, which is to build something that I hope will endure for many generations."

Harlan agrees that there are too many overpriced wines being sold right now, but says he is confident that the market will sort itself out. And when will that be? "Sooner or later," comes the enigmatic reply. Harlan the philosopher knots his fingers together and smiles: "Sooner or later we'll get back to simplicity, a simplicity that's on the other side of complexity—an informed simplicity, if you will. That's what I'm looking to achieve. That's what I'm after."

Published March 2001
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