Bill Harlan extended an invitation to meet over lunch after the holidays. "No agenda," he said, "let's just catch up."
Luckily for me I had a topic in mind and Harlan was more than game. Yesterday’s visit at Julia’s Kitchen in Napa provided the perfect opportunity to talk about the 1997 Harlan Estate Napa Valley Cabernet.
For those of you just tuning in, the 1997 was one of my favorite Cabernets upon its release, an unusually plush, opulent, hedonistic bottle of wine. Yet with time its ripeness, and elevated level of volatile acidity, has made it less appealing to me, but it is a wine that some people insist is the perfect 100-point wine (I rated it 97 on release, and 88 the last couple of times) and others insist is seriously flawed. As you can see by my rating, it’s neither to me, yet it is the kind of flashpoint wine that simmers emotions on Internet wine boards.
“To me it’s maybe the most controversial wine we’ve made because it has so much more ripeness than any other wine we’ve made,” Harlan said, adding, “It’s a wine that polarizes people. It’s a wine that I never know how much I like it. Sometimes it’s over the top.”
Harlan said that in his experience of drinking Napa Cabernets, “some time between six and eight years [of age, the Cabernets start to] get pretty disjointed” and then it can take another few years for the wines to settle down.
He allowed that his wines are styled to be showy and complex when young and that he is surprised by the number of people who buy his wine and cellar it, but have never opened a bottle. “I think if they wait they’ve missed something,” he said.
“When I go back and taste the wines it’s not always the ripest that’s the best to my taste,” he said, adding that right now his 1994 is a personal favorite. With a vintage such as 2002, another super-ripe year, the wine offers so much richness and flavor that he wonders if it will ever be any better. That said, he does want to make wines that age well. Trouble is it’s not always easy knowing how to do that, he said, nor is it easy predicting when a wine will peak.
“The ’97 vintage was very unique,” he added. “That wine will, in talking with people [who have experience with wines of similar style], take another 20 to 25 years” to develop. Is it a sort of Napa Cabernet version of the 1947 Cheval-Blanc? Maybe, Harlan said, allowing there are times when he doesn’t especially like the wine due to its extremes. That said, there are wines that are controversial, and that’s part of what make wine such a fascinating beverage and subject. Count on the ’97 Harlan to fuel debate for many more years.
We also had this exchange.
JL: Were there two bottlings of the ’97?
BH: No, just one.
JL: Have you ever used a machine to lower alcohol or VA?
BH: No, (laughing) but we probably should have [with the ’97].
JL: In a year such as 1997, after you pick the grapes and make the wine, do you wish you had picked early, less ripe?
BH: (laughing) It’s too late by then.
On the reverse osmosis process: “It might make some wine that the market likes, but for us, philosophically or culturally, it’s not right, even though it might be for other people.
Carving out a style is challenging and Harlan said that it’s taken his winemaking team 25 years to understand how little they knew early on and how much more is needed to be learned.
“We don’t want to [deliberately] make a wine that the public likes because we know that [taste] can change,” Harlan said. “Some people make wines to please the critics. Some feel they have to sound their own note and we have to hope there are enough people out there who like what we do.”