Is a Bottle of Harlan Estate Really Worth $750?

Harlan Estate red wine © Ray Isle
By Ray Isle Posted March 13, 2015

A bottle of Harlan Estate red costs $750—can any wine really be worth that much?

Recently I had the good fortune (apt phrase) to taste through several vintages of Harlan Estate red, which is one of the most sought-after, highly rated and, yes, expensive wines from Napa Valley. A red blend that primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, it comes from a vineyard the western hills of the Oakville AVA. Roughly 21,000 bottles of it are produced each year, depending on the vintage, and each bottle—if you can get one—sells for $750 from the winery (or $800 to $1,000 if you buy it at a store, according to wine-searcher.com).

That’s a lot of money for a bottle of wine.

Just for comparative purposes, simply in the realm of food, $750 could buy you 188 boxes of Lucky Charms from Wal-Mart (the 22-ounce size). Or, 12.5 pounds of boneless USDA prime strip steak from Lobel’s in NYC (mighty pricey, Lobel’s, but the meat is extremely good). Or, you know, 214 pounds of fresh squid from the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. That’s a lot of squid. On the other hand, $750 will only buy you four Yubari cantaloupes from Sembikaya, the luxury fruit store (yep) in Tokyo. You’d need another $50 if you wanted to bring your melon hoard up to five.

Me, personally, I’d rather have the wine.

When it comes to luxury goods—and Harlan Estate’s wine is a luxury good, no doubt about it—whether something is “worth it” has a lot to do with who’s buying it. If you’re Japanese, and trying to impress someone (especially someone who really loves cantaloupes), a $160 melon may make perfect sense. Alternatively, if you’re Mark Zuckerberg and worth almost 40 billion dollars, buying a bottle of $750 wine is like me going out and buying a 10¢ piece of string.

Anyway. The thing is, Harlan Estate really is a very, very, very good wine. At the tasting, which was at the Charleston Wine & Food Festival, we tried the 1999, 2002, 2009, and 2010 vintages. For me, the winner was the 2009, an incredibly fragrant red whose aromas recall ripe blackberries and coolly herbal spices, like clove and allspice. Less overtly fruity than the ultra-ripe 2002 (a wine that critic Robert Parker gave 100 points to, but which is almost over-the-top to my taste), it had notes of blackberries and milk chocolate, massive, ripe tannins, and lovely, lingering spice notes. A “wow” wine, no question.

The 1999, from a cooler vintage, was lovely, too—sleeker, more developed, cedary, and saturated with sweet black currant and blackberry fruit. The 2010, similar in style to the 2009, is even more powerful; it may prove the better wine over time, but right now it’s whompingly aggressive. Either decant it for several hours or serve it with whole broiled yak or something. Or cellar it, which would be the smart person’s move.

Great wines, to be sure. I was impressed. But are they worth $750 a bottle? Ah—that’s for you to decide.

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