Nov 2009 issue


Send a letter to the Editor

PAGES (32-35) November 2009

WINERY SPOTLIGHT Harlan Estate, Oakville, California Charles Curtis, MW

Bill Harlan’s vision has produced a Napa Valley premier cru.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Harlan Estate, a singular winery created by one of Napa’s true pioneers. Bill Harlan’s goal throughout the past quarter-century has remained constant: to create an American first growth by expressing the genius of one particular site.

H. William Harlan enrolled at the University of California-Berkeley in 1958 and found early success with Pacific Union Real Estate. He opened the Meadowood resort in St. Helena, Calif., in 1979, and in 1980, he began working with Robert Mondavi to develop a Napa Valley version of the Hospices de Beaune auction. Their brainchild, Auction Napa Valley, still raises millions of dollars a year for health care, youth services, and other local causes, just as the Hospices de Beaune funds the local hospital in Burgundy.

In fact, it was during an early trip to France in 1980 that Harlan conceived the ambition to establish an American premier cru. From his visits to Burgundy and other French winegrowing regions, he became convinced of the importance of a hillside site, one that was located in a traditional center of wine production. This led him to focus on Oakville and Rutherford in Napa Valley. But it was a combination of serendipity and hard work that ultimately led to his purchase of the Martin Stelling homestead.

Stelling was a successful San Francisco businessman who became interested in Napa Valley vineyard land in the late 1940s. Beginning with his acquisition of the To Kalon Vineyard, Stelling assembled one of the largest collections of fine-wine properties in the world. After his untimely death in a 1950 auto accident, his vineyard holdings passed to his son, Doug, who became a mining engineer in Canada and for many years retained an interest in the Stelling Vineyard (now part of Far Niente).

It was not the Stelling Vineyard that interested Harlan, however, but the homestead, situated above the benchland in virgin forest that had never been planted. Harlan bought the 23-acre nucleus of the property in 1984; additional purchases and swaps eventually increased the total to 240 acres of land soaring to an altitude of 1,225 feet.

To keep the grapes below the fog line and out of the hotter climate zones found at higher elevations, the Harlan Estate vineyards were planted in a steeply terraced band between 350 and 550 feet. The soils are Sonoma Volcanics and Great Valley Sequence, with topsoil depths ranging from 6 inches to 3 feet. As the plantings mature, they have been subdivided row by row, even vine by vine, to sharpen the differences in maturity and grape production. The original blocks were 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot, and the same proportions are maintained today. Although the budwood originally came from other Napa Valley sites, they have been gradually replaced by French clones.

Today, the vineyard is managed as naturally as possible, including the use of cover crops, compost, and worm castings to enrich the soils; predator insects to combat pests; and soft fungicides that do not affect birds and fish to stretch the time between sprayings. A computerized monitoring system checks readings from weather stations, satellite data, and information on the nutritional profile of the vines. Healthier vines do not necessarily equate to more fruit, however; with strict selection, yields are held to 2-2.5 tons per acre.

The fruit is picked at night by hand and rigorously sorted, which means no more than three-quarters of a ton is processed per hour. Since the grapes are harvested at full physio-logical ripeness, this selection process is the first step toward quality control. As director Don Weaver says, “There’s really no going back on sugar levels.” After being crushed, the fruit may be cold-soaked for eight to 10 days, although this practice is being used less and less. Fermentation is started with ambient yeasts, mostly in wood casks, some in stainless steel. Extraction is assured by gentle pumping over and light punching down, as well as the occasional rack and return, all designed to maintain constant temperatures and reduce stress on the yeast. After the alcoholic fermentation, the juice undergoes an extended maceration whose length is determined by the quality of the tannins. The entire process can last anywhere from 35 to 75 days.

The wines are then racked into barrels, where they complete their malolactic conversion and age for a minimum of 25 months. In a normal year, the wines are racked only twice, once in the summer following the harvest and again the following January or February, when the wines are pre-blended. More than two years after harvest, the wine is bottled unfined and unfiltered.

The process of creating an American first growth has been a slow one: 12 years elapsed between the purchase of the initial property and the first release in 1996. Actually, Harlan rejected two vintages as unworthy before finally deciding to market 300 cases of the 1990 vintage. Production has climbed since then, but still hovers at around 1,800-2,000 cases a year.

Despite the proportions in the vineyard, 90-95% of the finished wine is usually Cabernet Sauvignon. In all, 30-40% of the fruit goes into the Harlan Estate proprietary red; the balance is used for The Maiden, a second label with a different character, but a pronounced family resemblance. Winemaker Cory Empting’s goal in blending is to produce a wine that primarily delivers pleasure, yet retains the structure, supple tannins, complexity, and minerality of its terroir. Over the years, he says, the winemaking team has tried to maintain this vision, and while other producers have tried to make even bigger wines, Harlan has stuck to its goal of turning out wines not only of intensity, but of great elegance. Because freshness is paramount, according to Empting, as much as 5% of the following year’s wine may be blended in to add vibrancy.

The Harlan vineyards lie upslope from those of Far Niente; other neighbors include Futo Wines, Martha’s Vineyard, and Vine Hill Ranch. In Weaver’s view, the site produces flavors and aromatics that go well beyond the stylized black-fruit expression that is common in the valley. While Harlan Estate certainly expresses “the correctness of the fruit,” he believes there is an exotic character that evokes the tangle of forest at the end of the well-manicured rows of vines. He points out notes ranging from forest floor to underbrush to slightly herbal, pausing to remark on the freshness and energy of the wines. As he puts it, the excitement in winemaking is on the margins—in exploring the tension between the wild and the cultivated.

All truly great wines have an essential nature that is difficult to pin down, since one of their common characteristics is complexity. Measured by the terroir-specific criteria of Burgundy, Harlan’s site produces extraordinary wine, year after year. By the economic yardstick used in Bordeaux, Harlan Estate certainly trades at a premium to nearly every other wine in the market. By any measure, Bill Harlan has accomplished what he set out to do: to create an American first growth.

Harlan Estate
P.O. Box 352
Oakville, CA 94562
(707) 944-1441