The official announcement last week that Bill Harlan would be transferring the leadership of his wine domain to his son, Will, marks a significant moment in the history of Napa Valley’s wine industry. Harlan has spent over 40 years developing his namesake winery and additional properties, along with the famed Meadowood Resort, during a time of rapid growth for the valley.
But recent years have shown that the valley faces new and difficult hurdles, from increasingly destructive wildfires to the vagaries of managing a business during a pandemic. As one of the valley’s most prominent vintners and developers, Harlan is in a unique position to both look back and look ahead. Harlan spoke with Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth about this transition, what it means for his business and how he envisions Napa’s future.
Wine Spectator: You have spent over 40 years developing your businesses and brands in Napa Valley, during a time of incredibly fast-moving growth and then in the last year a lurching stop due to a pandemic. If you were to give a state of the union speech for Napa Valley, what would be the key points?
Bill Harlan: Well, let’s look back 100 years: Phylloxera at the end of the 19th century, the great earthquake in SF when a lot of wines were lost in the warehouses. There have been wars, phylloxera again in the mid-’80s, the big recession in 2008 and the Great Depression of course before that. We’ve made it through tough times. Napa is very resilient. We’ll make it through this one.
The last big hurdle was the replanting after that last round of phylloxera. The benefit was I think we learned in just 10 years what would have taken a generation or two to learn in other times.
I know people are also concerned about the fires but I think we’re going to evolve there. We need to understand global warming, how it’s going to affect the fires and our grapegrowing. We need to recognize a different approach to managing our forestland.
But looking ahead and in the immediate future of say in 2022 to 2025, I think there’s going to be a big renaissance for Napa Valley.
WS: In July 1966, at the age of 25, you visited the Robert Mondavi Winery the week it opened. That provided an inspiration to you. Since then, what other wineries or aspects of the wine industry provided a spark for you?
BH: The biggest jump for me was the trip I took to Bordeaux and Burgundy in 1980, with the advice and support of Robert Mondavi. It gave me a perspective on the potential of Napa Valley beyond my understanding before that trip. Before it was just a romantic ideal. I didn’t really quite understand what time and the weather and soils we have here could do for the production of Cabernet Sauvignon. And I came to realize with time that potentially, but perhaps in a different way, Napa wines could become among the finest wines in the world.
WS: You have said in the past that you didn’t want to create a "cult Cabernet,” but rather you wanted to create a "first-growth” of California. The first-growths weren’t codified as such until 1855, after they had been in existence for a few generations. Do you think you’ve succeeded in establishing a first-growth during your tenure, or does Harlan need a few generations to attain the level you envision?
BH: Well, after the trip to Bordeaux and Burgundy, I’ve also visited most of the other wine regions around the world, Old World and New World. Think about time again. The idea of the first-growth evolved over the last 40 years as I thought the property would be one contiguous piece. But I learned to find property that could produce enough wine to provide global reach but a small enough amount to watch our vineyards vine by vine and barrel by barrel to get the quality level we want.
So we have three different properties now. Harlan, a classic Bordeaux-type, Cabernet-based estate. With Bond it’s more of a Burgundy model, from which we’ve selected fruit from over 100 vineyards. And then I came across the land for Promontory in the early ’80s, though it wasn’t until 2008 that I had a chance to acquire that land. I felt it had the potential, intuitively, to maybe blend with Harlan. But that became more of its own domain.
We need more experience with our land. We don’t have a property at the level you’re talking about until we have the next generation, and the generations after that. And that’s the 200-year plan—looking back 100 years and looking ahead 100 years. And then there’s a rolling 100 years into the future. That includes a replanting program of 2 percent per year, so that every 50 years you have a healthy vineyard base with old vines, as opposed to just replanting an entire site every 30 years. It’s about time and continuity.
WS: You started in the real-estate side before eventually shifting your focus to the winery side. But along the way you’ve kept interests in real estate. Is the wine industry essentially a real-estate industry? And do you think Napa development has reached its limit or is there more to come?
BH: Well, I came to Napa Valley because I wanted to make wine. I remember one day stopping on Tubbs Lane and the Chateau Montelena had a “for sale” sign on it. And I thought, “What a dream that would be.” By 1975 I was looking at land but I didn’t understand what made good land or not. And that led to buying Meadowood in 1979. Mondavi called me and he asked why I bought it. I said I wanted to have a family and make wine. And he said “Well there’s a lot better land to make wine from in the valley. But there is something you can do with that land. It’s always been a meeting place of sorts for the valley, and I’ve got an idea for an annual auction.”
It’s important to own the land to build something that will last for generations. And to do that it needs to be fine land. And then of course you have to take care of it.
You know, it was the [establishment of the] Agricultural Preserve in 1968 that really drew me to Napa Valley. In the 1950s, Silicon Valley and Napa Valley looked the same. The Ag Preserve gave me the confidence that Napa would continue to be a rural and agricultural community. There are only so many places on the planet where you can grow grapes of this quality. To do anything else here would be a big mistake. You can build a lot of things in many other places.
WS: COVID-19 has changed the way we all do business. Do you think there will be permanent ramifications to the tourism side of Napa Valley? Does the model for the tasting room and winery visit change going forward? Will access be limited?
BH:It won’t be much different after [COVID is contained]. It’s just a matter of when. We can only have so many people in the valley, so there’s that limit. What we want is people who are here to appreciate what it is we do here. The wineries are certainly going to keep having visitors. We just need to balance the right amount of people and those with the right interest level.
WS: Your highest-profile non-winery venture in the valley is of course Meadowood Resort. The resort suffered significant damage in last year’s wildfire and you immediately announced plans to rebuild. But what many folks may not remember is when you bought Meadowood in the early 1980s, it suffered damage from a fire and you had to rebuild then as well. Have there been any lessons learned from that initial rebuild? And can you update us on the current state of Meadowood?
BH:Yes, Meadowood had a big problem in 1984. That was when a lot of it burned down, though that was an electric fire rather than a wildfire. It affected structures in a specific area rather than spread over the property, so it was different.
When you’re rebuilding you have to watch every little detail. And what we did or didn’t learn then is different now. We have to manage our forestland in a different way. The county will change the laws—they have to. If we don’t address the forest fires, you can’t get insurance. If you can’t get insurance the banks won’t lend. And then there’s no business.
Right now we have to address the materials we use to building codes that need to be adjusted. There’s a lot to do. We’re currently working with the county to get through these issues and get things going. But hopefully we’ll be able to be part of setting a model for how things should be managed going forward.
WS: This transition is a big move. The first hand-off of your multi-generational plan … but you’ve always been an incredibly driven man. So, are you cool with it?
BH: [Laughing] Well, I always said when I was 80, it would be time to pass the reins. I didn’t get married until I was 45, so my kids are 50 years younger. I want to have more time with them. I want to be able to give them information but also let them learn on their own. So I’ve been working on this for 10 years.
And I feel very fortunate to have had Don Weaver as estate manager for 35 years and Bob Levy has been winemaker since the beginning. And during that, we’ve been grooming the younger winemaking team for 20 years, and my children Will and Amanda have been working here for about 10 years.
I want to be around for the transition. Of course, I don’t have any choice because I’m not going to live forever. So I’m fortunate the kids have an interest and they’re learning what they need to fill in the gaps. It’s a very exciting time to have this continuity and opportunity.
In the end, the idea is to identify and capture great land. Then assemble a team around a shared vision, the first-growth. Then foster a culture within the team, which is all extended family, because the culture has to be as strong as the land. And then we have to produce the quality of wine that we believe we can while building a long-term following of patrons. And that’s where the multi-generational approach comes in.