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Harlan '97 Cabernet Polarizing to Harlan Too

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 15, 2008 3:46pm ET

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.”

Jeffrey Nowak
scottsdale, arizona —  January 15, 2008 5:51pm ET
when i first became interested in wine (1999), i purchased several bottles each of vintages 93-97 of harlan estate from winebid.com (back when they were fairly reasonably priced). i was so excited to try as many as possible that i drank them right away, and i thought they were fabulous. i got on the list with the 99 vintage (thank you, mr. levy), pricing began to escalate, i now hoard my bottles like some miserly scrooge, and when i open one, the thrill is gone. sure, 98-00 can't compare to 93-97, but 01 and 02 are strong vintages. i recently participated in a complete vertical tasting of harlan estate (see gangofpour.com), and the old favorites (93-97) were...disappointing, especially in comparison to the lush fruit extravaganza i recall. i was perplexed by so many of my fellow tasters gushing over how great the wines were holding up. huh? too bad you didn't touch on harlan's participation in the ridiculous napa cab pricing escalation. i understand econ 101/price and demand, etc., and i'm still on the list, so i'm part of the problem; yet, even a die hard collector like me has to start thinking about flipping at this point. i also find it somewhat shocking that the captain doesn't really understand where the boat is heading.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  January 15, 2008 6:30pm ET
I find his comments interesting. He appears to be saying "we make "drink now" cabs, and even though they may age, drink them now." I prefer older cabs, mostly because I like for the tannins and the oak to have an opportunity to round out and for the wine to become more complex. He's saying, as the winemaker, I'm wasting my time with Harlan wines. I have 99's and 01's in the cellar. Guess I might as well drink them and remmember than Harlan's are "drink now" wines in the future. The winemaker said so. I'm not normally drinking 05 or 06's now, and your not going to find the 02's on the shelf, so it gives me little motivation to buy his wine.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  January 15, 2008 7:48pm ET
I think the 1977-1997 retrospective tastings confirms the obvious - wines produced from (over)ripe grapes generally taste better when they are young ...maybe 3-8 years from the vintage date. After that it is a crap shoot. And if I were able to afford harlans -- I would not cellar it for long. If you like cellaring wines for your children to drink, I think it is better for the most part to buy French/Italian
Brent L Pierce
St. Helena, CA —  January 15, 2008 7:58pm ET
Sandy - he's not saying drink them now, he;s saying TRY them now. You may find something you like, or that you like them younger than with more age on them. Or you may find you prefer them with 10+ years. I don't think he's making definitive statements. He's not the winemaker, BTW.
Neil Gustafson
Chicago, IL —  January 16, 2008 12:24am ET
Brent:While he (Harlan) may not be the winemaker, he is the voice, name, face??? of the Estate. So for him to say try them now should be a definitive statement. His name is on the damn bottle for god sakes. We (I) never took Mondavi's thoughts for granted as he wasn't the "winemaker". His name was on the bottle and we went with it...along with critique from those who do that for a living. But he stood by his product. Good or bad. As far as the idea of drinking young Harlan's and comparing them in a few years I don't have that luxury and if I invest $500 in a bottle I would like a little insight from the man whose name appears on the label, cork, and receipt as they have the gift of being able to taste these wines from grape, to cask, to bottle and re-visit the bottles.bottom line is if you sell it to me...you should know where it is going, or at least where you intended it to end up.And no... I am not giving up my spot on the list. Drank my first Eagle 1 week after it arrived and it was heavenly
James Zalenka
Pittsburgh PA —  January 16, 2008 10:52am ET
My solution for aging is to use your past experience as a primer to the future. I have had good results aging Napa and Sonoma cabs for 7 years, and I stick to that schedule. If I'm lucky enough to find a bargain and am able to buy at least 6 to 12 bottles, I will open one sooner to get a gage, as I have more in reserve. But I agree with an earlier post that given the price and scarcity of Harlan and it's ilk, you had better know when to open.
Dan Murphy
Tampa, FL —  January 16, 2008 12:03pm ET
During the time in which I worked for a high-end wine store in Tampa, a storage client once opened the 1997 Harlan for the three of us as a thank-you for our work in storing his collection. At the time (about 5-6 years ago) we all thought that the wine was so over-the-top fruity as to be practically undrinkable, more like some sort of concentrated blackberry extract than a real "wine", at least in the French sense. The owner of the store always said that he thought those sorts of wines would never age well, now it's fascinating to hear Bill Harlan say that you shouldn't even try!
Dan Murphy
Tampa, FL —  January 16, 2008 12:15pm ET
When I worked for a high-end wine store in Tampa about 5-6 years ago, a wine storage customer once opened a 1997 Harlan for the three of us as a thank-you for our work in storing his collection. While it was an exceedingly generous gift, I must confess that even some years ago we all found the wine to be so over-the-top fruity as to be practically undrinkable, more like some sort of highly-concentrated blackberry extract than any sort of real "wine", at least in the French sense. The store owner always said that such wines would never age well, now it's fascinating to hear Bill Harlan say that maybe you shouldn't even try!
Mr Steven Elzer
Valencia, Ca —  January 16, 2008 2:14pm ET
i never met a harlan estate wine that i didn't truly adore. i am privileged to have tasted every vintage ever produced and i don't make the claim to brag, but really just to qualify my perspective on the wines. The 97, while still very good has in fact been less pleasurable to drink for a number of years now - that is true. Will it come back? Dunno. What i love most about these wines overall is how they have evolved and how the older wines as a whole are still beautifully in tact and ultimate drinking experiences. On a recent night, the 90, 91, 92 and 94 were magnificent stand outs. The so called off-vintages like 2000 were wonderful as well. So, what am I saying? In great years, harlan can be counted on to deliver what i believe to be the wines of the vintage and in off years, they find their way to produce insanely good wines. To me, they are the blue chip of blue chip wines in california and everyone else is chasing their tail.
James Suckling
 —  January 16, 2008 4:07pm ET
James: Did he say how much VA is in the wine? Cheval 1947, if I recall correctly, has 1.4 grams of the stuff. But it remains one of the greatest wines ever produced due to its balance of high alcohol (14.7) and extract. I recenlty gave it 100 points in a vertical of Cheval in Santa Monica. In the last year, I scored the 1997 Harlan 100 points, as many of you know. I still have faith in the wine.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 16, 2008 4:12pm ET
No, no technical discussions, but clearly the VA issue is a threshold matter and as these kinds of wines mature and warm up in the glass, that volatility becomes more controversial. So we're only 12 points apart, amigo.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  January 16, 2008 5:34pm ET
As I remember, the movement to (over)ripe grape started around the 97 harvest and has grown since then. So it doesn't surprise me that Harlan's early 90 wines were magnificent. A different era wine. I too had the 97 in about 02, and as Dan in Tampa said, I found it overly tannic and heavily extracted. A fruit bomb by definition. I thought that perhaps the wine was still young and age would cure its nature, apparently that wasn't so. Based on the many comments, as I stated, I will be drinking my 99 and 01 sooner instead of later. I was holding them based on my false assumptions about the 97(it would round out and improve with age). Harlan has moved beyond my "will to buy" in price, and I am not a fruit bomb type of guy either, even though some of my friends are, but that's OK. JL's ratings and these blogs help us hone in on what we like and where we can best spend our money. Andrew from Sacremento is right. I've (not my children)been drinking some incredible brunellos, out of my cellar, from the 80's. That type of aging is safer with the Euros.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  January 16, 2008 8:38pm ET
Sandy -- I was not of legal drinking age until well into the 1980s so I would not know about that!! Although, I should have added to my prior post, I prefer wines that drink well young -- it seems so...pretentious..that one would be expected to wait 20-30 years for the wine to perform as expected. For example, I went to a Bordeaux tasting last year where someone opened a 96 Margaux (100 pts, if I recall correctly). Don't get me wrong, it was quite good but a 100pts??? According to my Francophile friends, the wine was still "tight" and needed "more time". Someone even cried "infanticide"!! Come on! It seems a bit much if a wine doesn't taste as it should 11 years from production. Or maybe I've just cut my teeth on the wines from Australia and California and like the (over)ripe fruit. As they say...each to his own. And if, for some strange reason a Harlan falls into my lap, I will drink it young!
Steven Mirassou
Livermore, CA —  January 17, 2008 3:10pm ET

The question of ageability fascinates me. When did a wine's ability to age become so closely related to its inherent quality?

It would first seem that enough wine drinkers had to accept that the qualities of older Cabernet-based wines were "better" than those of the "younger" wines for that criterion to attain its level of importance.

Then it would seem that this group of wine drinkers would have to agree that the same criterion for quality that is appropriate for Bordeaux should be used for California Cab, which, to me, is more unlike Bordeaux than it is like it.

Bordeaux, I understand. The wines were lower in alcohol/higher in acid, more tannic, less defined by fruit than California when young so their charms needed time to be revealed...I get that.

But using a Bordeaux paradigm to qualitatively describe California doesn't seem particularly useful to me. Nor does being beholden to this arbitrary criterion for quality. There is nothing objectively fine about aged wine; this is a "truth," which like most things wine-related, is a function of fashion.

Then again, maybe I am just hopelessly obtuse and am trying to re-capture my own fleeing youth ineach glass of fruit-bombish Cali Cab.
Robert Phillips
Frederick MD —  January 17, 2008 4:59pm ET
James: I enjoy reading the blog since I have subscribed to Wine Spectator online. My wine collection is in its infancy. But I would like to consider some Harlan Cabs. What makes it possible for a 97 point wine to digress and become an 88 point wine? This seems fairly risky for the price level. On a side note; I am traveling to Napa Sonoma later this month. I only have 2 or 3 days for tastings. Any recommendations? I would like to visit places that have exceptional wines or tours. But that also have wine available to taste and purchase. I would greatly appreciate any advice that you have.
James Zalenka
Pittsburgh PA —  January 17, 2008 9:25pm ET
I agree with Mr. Mirassou regarding aging. My past experience tells me a good red wine is better with some age. However, it appears that current methods don't require as much aging, if at all. I just opened a simple 2005 bordeaux that cost $9 and it's delicious. I have friends who love the romance of opening an old bottle. With the exeption of an 82 Margaux I had the pleasure of sampling, most older wines of over 10 years have tasted like stewed fruit to me. But when I buy a wine of any note that I pay over $50 for, I'm afraid to open it up when it's too young and be disappointed.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 18, 2008 4:02pm ET
Robert, the level of volatile acidity is far more apparent today than it was in the wine's earlier life (though it clearly was there). VA is a very divisive issue, since it's a tolerance issue/preference and a little VA can "lift" a wine's flavor, which is why some winemakers like it as well.
Mike Knuppe
Pleasanton CA —  February 20, 2008 12:31am ET
I also was "bitten" by the '97 Napa Cab bug. Bought well over 25 misc. cases of which only 50 bottles still remain in my cellar, as I have learned to drink them rapidly. A crap shoot to say the least. It seems the "heavy hitters" were affected the most; and mostly negatively I might add. Stellar rated '97 performers such as Shafer Hillside Select, David Arthur Elevation 1147, Opus One (which is now garbage), Dalla Valle Maya, Pride Private Reserve, Screaming Eagle (which you can still find on wine commune for $2K a bottle). Even the Harlan Estate has taken a free fall in my opinion. JL is generous at 88 pts. My opinion is closer to 78 pts. Particularly after being blown away at release. The only nice surprises have been subtle ones which is fine with me. WhiteHall Lane's Private Reserve, Silver Oak's Napa, the BV Geo. Latour is drinking nicely. Even Cornerstone, Cardinale, Grace VINEYARD 29 & Caymus Private Reserve have held their own (thus far I might add). At first I thought something was wrong with my cellar. Nope, the 97s' are just very volatile juice. My mistake was buying into this vintage hook-line-& sinker. The WS vintage rating (97 pts.) didn't help abide my purchasing greed either. Final comment; consumer beware; DRINK NOW or in my opinion, be very sorry further down the road. We were sold a bill of goods people, regarding the long-term cellaring and investment potential of this otherwise exemplary "out-of-the-bottle" vintage.
Dushan Jefferson
Bay Area, CA —  February 10, 2010 3:56pm ET
I've been in the industry for 3 years now. I love the constant challenges and the never-ending learning curve. At the customer service level, I am constantly reassured that I know "So much about wine". However, I always tell my customers that I know about 5% of everything there is to know about wine. Half the time they must think I am joking, perhaps too modest for my own good. Yet, this article clearly affirms that I know only 5% of everything there is to know about wine. Matter of fact, 5% may even be a bit conceited.

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