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Harlan Estate

A Careful Strategy Yields Excellence

James Laube
Posted: April 5, 2000

William Harlan
Back to Cult Wines

Harlan Estate

A Careful Strategy Yields Excellence

Harlan Estate is not an overnight sensation. Of the current cult wines, it has been the most carefully and strategically planned. William Harlan has had his eye on Napa Valley wine for 40-plus years, including 25 years studying what it would take to create a wine estate that would survive for generations.

Harlan, who turns 60 this year, began visiting Napa Valley in the late 1950s while a student at the University of California at Berkeley. Harlan went on to create many successful businesses, most prominently Pacific Union, a holding company whose properties include the Meadowood Resort in Napa Valley.

Despite making a fortune with Pacific Union, it's his passion for the wine business and his fascination with Cabernet Sauvignon that became an obsession, repeatedly leading him back to Napa Valley, where he searched for the ideal vineyard site. Harlan's research took him to Europe, where he toured the top winegrowing areas and concluded that most of the greatest vineyards are located on hillsides.

In 1985, Harlan purchased a 230-acre property west of the famed Martha's Vineyard in Oakville. This forested area, with steep hillsides and multiple elevations and exposures, needed to be cleared for the nearly 30 acres of vines planted there. The mix, subdivided among 24 different blocks, is two-thirds Cabernet with smaller amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

It is a beautifully designed, immaculately kept vineyard, with neatly contoured rows of vines, some on quite precipitous angles. The area is populated by wild boars and turkeys. Harlan's exacting nature requires the best vineyard and winemaking team, which he has kept intact for most of the past 15 years.

His winemaker, Bob Levy, has worked with him for 17 years, dating back to their years at Merryvale, where Harlan once owned a part-interest. Levy, says Harlan, knows the vineyard well and knows how to get the most from its grapes. Harlan has also called upon the advice and expertise of Michel Rolland, the highly respected Bordeaux consultant. Rolland "helped us open our eyes to possibilities," says Harlan. "Even when you make mistakes you learn, and we've learned a lot together."

Harlan's wines have been uniformly dense, rich and complex yet remarkably elegant and polished. While most of the vintages from 1990 through 1997 were Cabernet Sauvignon-based Bordeaux blends, as of the 1998 vintage, the wine is 100 percent Cabernet. It is quite successful, very dark, thick and plush. The 1997 will be the next release, and, like its predecessors, it is an enormous wine, brimming with bold, rich, concentrated flavors framed by firm tannins. It's a wine that's built for aging, very much in the mold created by Harlan.

Harlan Estate
Oakville, Napa Valley
Founded: 1988
Owner: William Harlan
Winemaker: Robert Levy

97 Harlan Estate Napa Valley 1996

Release Price: $125
Current Auction Average: $NA
Production: 1,300 cases

Amazingly potent and powerful, carried along by an impressively rich array of ultraripe currant, black cherry, plum, cedar and spice flavors that just don't stop. Best from 2002 through 2011.

-- J.L.

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