Expressing a sense of place through taste has perhaps never been more successfully or poetically achieved than by Harlan Estate. Some aficionados endow cult status to this California winemaker. Its high demand, limited availability, and exceptional viticulture command four-figure prices per bottle, to start. Identity is at the heart of this remarkable family-run vineyard, which has a robust, long-standing relationship with Enthusiast Report.
And what is that exceptional quality that makes wine from this estate so idolized? A rare and valuable element of the forest. “There’s a mindset that we should make wine that is more and more transparent of the place,” says Francois Vignaud, Harlan Estate Wine Director. In that sense, the forest is an essential part of the character. Without the trees and the fog playing fundamental roles, this estate’s extraordinary wine might simply be ordinary. “We know that from the early vintages of Harlan Estate until today, there’s a common thread in the identity of our wines, and it’s that forest element. Whether it’s with older vintages, of the forest floor, the mushroom type of aromas…or it’s the fresh aromatic herbs that you would find in more recent vintages. But there is a common thread of that forest influence in the wine.”
The visionary was William (Bill) Harlan. A California native, he spent years following his many passions and living firmly in the moment. After growing up in a modest environment, he won a scholarship to attend Berkeley in the late 1950s. As a student, he discovered a region about 45 minutes north where they make wine, and you could go and taste it for free, and, even better, they wouldn’t check your ID. He fell in love with the region and decided to make a documentary about it. “It is at this point that the romantic idea of one day having a vineyard started. Having a vineyard, and perhaps raising his family there,” explains Vignaud.
Other than being an avid gardener growing up, Bill didn’t have knowledge of the wine industry. But as someone who was endlessly eager and curious, that wasn’t going to stop him. As a few examples: He raced motorcycles, he flew planes and started a flying school; he hitchhiked the entire length of Africa; in the ’60s he was a pro poker player for three years. Throughout his young life of impetuousness and adventure, he retained the idea of one day having a wine-growing property. After the oil crash of ’73, with a couple of college friends, he built a real-estate company, Pacific Union, through which he eventually was able to capture the right piece of land.
“There is a pivotal moment in Bill Harlan’s life that helped crystalize the vision behind Harlan Estate, and it’s a trip that he took to France in 1980, in Bordeaux and Burgundy,” says Vignaud. “This trip really changed everything, because there, Bill discovered two major elements of inspiration for him. One, the fact that there are these great families who have taken care of their properties and passed it along for generations. For someone who lived in the moment, there was something incredibly inspiring, to have the ability of building something that will go way beyond your lifetime and possibly past other generations. And that’s where the idea of creating this family wine-growing estate grew. It ultimately led to building a 200-year plan, which is the idea that the property and the land can be passed along for generations. The second biggest learning and inspiration came from Burgundy, which is: the essence of location. If you want to produce a fine wine, location is absolutely everything.”
Returning to the Napa Valley in 1980, Harlan realized, by observing where most vineyards were planted, that no one was really going up in the hillsides and planting above the bench lands. It was a very important observation that motivated him to start looking for land on the hillsides, specifically in the western hills with east-facing slopes. This would allow the gentle morning sun to ripen the grapes, and by the time the hot afternoon sun came around, the vines would be shaded. “So you retain acidity in the fruit, freshness in the wine, and potential aging capacity for your wines,” Vignaud says.
Strategy was officially in action. He had seen that historically there was some great Cabernet produced on the bench lands between Yountville, Oakville, and Rutherford. And after four years of research and negotiations, in 1984 he purchased the first piece of forest on the hill to start Harlan Estate.
It was, truly, a forest. “There were no vineyards, no infrastructure,” Vignaud says. “No roads, no electricity. It took a little bit of time to figure out exactly where to clear some of the forest and start planting the first vines. It ultimately led to, today, having 40 acres of vines planted on a 240-acre property.” It is still largely forested, which is fundamental to the elite character of Harlan Estate wines. According to Vignaud, two unique aspects set Harlan Estate apart. One is, of course, its location, in the Western hillsides of the Oakville appellation. The other is how much forest surrounds and composes the property, and the degree to which that forest influences the overall environment, and ultimately the identity — the organoleptic character — of the wine itself.
“Over time, we’ve understood how much of the forest is impactful to the identity of our property,” Vignaud says. “The forest amplifies the effect of shading the vineyard. By nature, it brings a taller canopy and provides further shade. It’s a microclimate regulator: Every morning, you have the fog rolling into the Napa Valley from the San Pablo Bay, just south of Napa, and it tends to cover our vineyards in the morning. The trees play their role in capturing the moisture from the fog, and really conducting it into the ground, but also holding onto the fog for a little while longer. So we have the capacity of benefitting longer from that moisture provided by the fog, simply because the trees keep it.”
A vital element of its success is the abundance of life on the property. That creates a “virtuous circle of natural balance” of interaction among the forest, the vineyards, and the wildlife. “The species that grow on the property naturally influence what ultimately will fall on the ground, what will nourish the ground, and what will be pulled from the vines into the fruit and its character,” says Vignaud. “And there’s a lot of underbrush species that grow naturally, lots of aromatic plants — we’re talking about bay leaf, sage, rosemary — that grow naturally all around the property. Those tend to have that aromatic impact, ultimately, in the wine. So there’s that element of forest floor, in a sense, that you find as a thread of identity in the wine year after year.”
Cory Empting, Director of Wine Growing, who oversees viticulture and winemaking, and who is part of the estate’s second generation, refers to the work they do in the vineyard as “farming from bedrock to treetop.” This takes into consideration the entire environment, from the vines themselves to how much of the forest is part of the property’s overall footprint. Speaking of the second generation, Bill’s children, Will and Amanda, took over for their parents about two years ago. “There is this continuity of generations, and not just of the family, but also of the team that works with the land directly,” says Vignaud.
Self-sufficiency is increasingly a focus, especially with a view to the estate’s 200-year plan. For example, last year, 2022, is the first year that the entire property received no irrigation at all as they transition to dry farming. This helps the vines to be more self-sufficient in their own environment in the long run. “The vines have an incredible resilience, a capacity to even better express a sense of place through a little bit of that stress and struggle,” Vignaud says. “It’s been a very important aspect of our farming practices, to have a vineyard that is as self-sufficient as possible. But it goes way beyond that. It’s really having a vineyard and a team that is in tune with the environment and really positively interacting with the environment. So as many natural practices as we can have, we have implemented them and will continue to implement them.
“We see what we do as a constant dialogue between the natural environment and our team working with it. The wines are a reflection of this relationship between the land and our team,” Vignaud asserts. “We try to express a sense of place through wine. Because we know that between our land and our team, nobody else has it. For me, tasting Harlan Estate is being able to be transported to this very place, this corner of land we have in the western hills of Oakville, surrounded by this diverse forest and these hillsides. It’s really diving into the place and, of course, the time, the growing season, the mood that the property experiences.”
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