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Bill Harlan – Decanter interview

Taking Exception: California’s cult wines aren’t all alcoholic atrocities. Stephen Brook lauds the wines of Bill Harlan, but finds his bank balance severely tested.

Much scorn is directed at Napa’s ‘cult’ Cabernets – usually for the wrong reasons. Although often derided as porty ‘fruit bombs’ with excessive alcohol, I have found most cult wines well balanced – unlike wanabee imitators from less skilled hands. I have been fortunate enough to taste numerous vintages of wines whose very names bring American collectors out in a sweat – Screaming Eagle, Bill Harlan, Dalla Valle, Staglin – and I consider these wines exceptionally good.

However, where cult wines do deserve criticism is for their contrived scarcity and their price. In the benign Napa climate, it’s not hard to produce decent Cabernet from a good site. Limit production severely, pick as late as possible, hire an esteemed consultant to add lustre to your wine (and marketing), and you are likely to end up with the kind of wine that will attract high scores. It’s even easier if you’re making only 250 cases.

Pricing is often determined by lack of availability. These wines are sold primarily to clients on mailing lists that have long been closed to newcomers. Some purchasers drink the wine, others stash it away, others trade it. Hence the absurd auction prices for prized vintages of Screaming Eagle, Bryant or Harlan. Are these wines worth the small fortunes some excitable collectors pay for them? Perhaps to the purchasers, but to everyone else such prices are ridiculously inflated.

But of these cult wineries, the one that has intrigued me most is Harlan. You can traverse the Screaming Eagle or Grace Family vineyards in about two minutes, I’d guess, but Harlan is a true estate with blocks planted on different slopes and expositions.

Bill Harlan, a lean, slightly gaunt, white-bearded man in his mid-sixties, first came to Napa while a student at Berkeley. He was soon dreaming of owning a vineyard, though he first needed to make money, which he did as a property developer. It was Harlan who in 1979 bought and transformed the luxurious Meadowood resort on the east side of Napa Valley. In 1983, he helped found the Merryvale winery and hired Bob Levy as winemaker.

‘In 1980, Bob Mondavi was thinking of establishing the Napa Valley Wine Auction,’ says Harlan. ‘He asked me to travel with him to Beaune, the inspiration for the charity auction, but we also travelled elsewhere in France. The trip sparked my ambition to create, if possible, a Napa first growth. I was sure it had to be a hillside site, and close to the historic source of great Napa wine: Rutherford and Oakville. Then I found this property off the Oakville Grade Road.’

We bounce up a rutted lane in Harlan’s Jag to the highest vineyard. From here I can see how the vines lie in a kind of horseshoe above the Far Niente property. The soils are varied: mixed volcanic residue on one side, fractured shale on the other. Yields are between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre (30-40 hl/ha), and the varietal mix is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot.

Twenty years ago all this land had been wooded, so it wasn’t hard to imagine the investment required to replace forest with vines. ‘It wasn’t just the woods I had to clear,’ he says. ‘The soil was also full of rocks. And I had to put in the roads.

‘At first we planted on terraces to avoid erosion,’ Bill Harlan continues, ‘and also vertically on steep slopes. Those first plantings were at a density of 800 vines per acre (2,000/ha). Later plantings were at 2,000 vines per acre (5,000/ha), and we were the first to plant at this density on a hillside. We’ve just planted the last block of Cabernet at 2,900 vines per acre, which is as tight as I think one should go in California.’

As we head indoors to taste the wines, we are joined by the shy Levy, winemaker here since 1990, and by Don Weaver, the affable estate manager.

‘I’ve been working with Bob since 1983,’ says Weaver, ‘and Michel Rolland has been a consultant since 1989, so I tend to leave all the major winemaking decisions to them. I like to focus on the vineyards and work out how to get the very best fruit. So does Bob, of course, and he is always experimenting. We’re just fanatical about quality, and we didn’t even release the first few vintages – 1990 was our first.’

The current winery, completed in 2002, looks like a sprawling log cabin with verandas. ‘The aesthetic element of the estate,’ Harlan explains, ‘is very important to me. That’s why the winery is concealed by woods and is unobtrusive. I didn’t want to make some overpowering architectural statement up here.’

I note that although the vineyard area is quite substantial, relatively little wine is produced.

‘That’s because our yields are low, and our grape selection ultra-strict. In 1998, a difficult vintage, we made only 700 cases of Harlan. We can have over 50 different lots at harvest, and if we’re not satisfied with any of them, they either go into The Maiden, our second wine, or are sold off in bulk.’

The winemaking at Harlan is unremarkable. After sorting, the grapes are fermented with indigenous yeasts and macerated with pump-overs for about 30 days. Levy also punches down the cap, but more to aerate it than as a means of further extraction. In the barrel cellar there is radiant cooling and heating from walls and floors so as to avoid strong air currents around the barrels, which Harlan considers potentially detrimental. Levy blends progressively, starting about 14 months into the ageing process. The wine is aged for at least 24 months, sometimes as much as 36, in new French oak. There is neither fining nor filtration.

Harlan Estate is released at US$245 per bottle, though the price soon rises on the speculative market. Harlan and Weaver sell about a third of the production to the trade, as they want the wine to be available to more than just a fortunate few. But it’s still hard to find. ‘It sells out in days,’ says Weaver. ‘I guess it’s the lure of people wanting something they can’t have. Or that others can’t have.’

Harlan Estate remains a controversial wine. Robert Parker awarded the 1994 a perfect score. Michael Broadbent was less impressed, damning with faint praise when he gave it a high rating but added ‘for those who like this sort of wine’. Matt Kramer describes it ‘as smooth as a politician’, which may not be intended as a compliment. But I persist in finding Harlan deeply impressive, packed with fruit and with tannins usually held in check. Of course it has a bold, rich Napa style – what else would one expect from a Napa Bordeaux blend? – but the new oak is well integrated and the alcohol rarely obtrusive.

In 1997, Bill Harlan launched a new venture: Bond. ‘When Bob and I were buying fruit for Merryvale, we found many outstanding vineyards out there, mostly hillside sites of striking distinctiveness. So we decided to forge long-term relationships with the best growers, and release wines from their vineyards under the Bond brand. It’s also a way to make the most of my staff and infrastructure here. The name reflects our covenant with the growers, working closely with them to make the best possible wines. We’ve ended up with a stable of thoroughbreds.’

The initial releases were called Vecina, St Eden and Melbury. All wines are sold at the same price (US$175), and production of each does not exceed 800 cases. These are hedonistic, powerful and lush wines, but as yet don’t have the balance of Harlan at its finest.

Bill Harlan at a Glance

  • Born: 1940, Southern California
  • Education: University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1962 in communications and public policy
  • Career: Established Meadowood resort in Napa in 1979, started Merryvale in 1983, founded Harlan in 1984 and the Bond venture in 1997
  • Second love: Raising wine. His first love is ‘the joy of raising a family’. He married his wife Deborah in 1986, and their children Will and Amanda were born in 1987 and 1989, respectively

Bill Harlan says: ‘We still have plenty to do right here, refining our understanding of and improving our expression of Napa Valley character.’

They say: ‘He produces one of the finest Bordeaux-style reds on the planet.’ Brett Anderson, The Robb Report

Five Vintages Of Harlan Estate

1998 – Sumptuous, oaky blackcurrant aromas, but slightly herbaceous. Rather aggressive acidity, and lacking some flesh, body and complexity; very concentrated with a long sweet finish. Drink now–2012. £338; F&R

1999 – Rich, ripe, smoky nose of voluptuous black cherry aromas. Gorgeous fruit, very concentrated yet sleek in texture. This has finesse and freshness, and exceptional length. Drink now–2020. £351; F&R

2000 – Less opulent aromas than 1999, but very elegant. Silky on the palate with supple tannins. Seamless. Not the greatest depth, but very elegant, harmonious and persistent. Drink now–2018. £276; F&R

2001 – Rich, powerful nose. A touch brawny and charred. Sumptuous and lavish on the palate with pure black fruits, the oakiness balanced by supple tannins and fine acidity. Powerful. Long finish. Drink 2008–22. £506; F&R

2003 – Somewhat raw and oaky aromas. Marked toastiness. Voluptuous, even soft, yet concentrated, spicy and vibrant. Backed by firm tannins and a deft liquorice tone. Very long, but the power and alcohol obtrude. Drink 2010–24.

N/A UK; +1 707 944 1441

Website: www.harlanestate.com

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