We'll Make It Even Better: A Q&A with Meadowood Co-Owner Bill Harlan

The Napa vintner discusses the fire damage to his resort and his plans for the future

We'll Make It Even Better: A Q&A with Meadowood Co-Owner Bill Harlan
Charred golf carts sit near what was once Meadowood's golf shop; the Grand Award-winning main restaurant was also destroyed. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Oct 1, 2020

For many fans of Napa Valley, the sight of the restaurant at Meadowood Resort engulfed in the flames of the Glass fire this week was heartbreaking. To Meadowood co-owner and vintner H. William Harlan, it was one more obstacle to be conquered.

Meadowood was Harlan's first real-estate purchase in the valley. He bought what was then a rundown country club near St. Helena in 1978. (Today, vintner and real estate developer Stan Kroenke is a partner in the resort.) He had fallen in love with Napa 20 years earlier as a college student. After Meadowood, he would go on to establish his namesake winery and other projects, but the resort continues to be a passion of his. An extensive renovation in the past decade included a reimagining of the restaurant and its wine program, which earned a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 2016.

The ashes are still smoldering at the resort, but Harlan sat down with senior editor Tim Fish to discuss how rebuilding is an opportunity.

Wine Spectator: How are you and the Meadowood team faring?
Bill Harlan: Well, nobody got hurt, but people are really devastated. We’re getting letters from people, saying everything from they had gotten married at Meadowood to they stayed there for their honeymoon. A lot of it is positive energy. We’re still here and figuring out how to make it better as time goes on.

WS: What is the extent of damage to the resort?
BH: I was in there yesterday for a little bit. It was hard to be there very long with the smoke. There are still flames flaring up and a lot of little hot spots. The smoldering is still going on but I’m going back there today to see what we have left.

The front section, about half the property, pretty much escaped. We lost a few buildings here and there but not too much. The back half of the resort is pretty much gone. Over the next 10 days we’re going to assess what we have and come up with a plan of action. We’ve been there now 40 years and we plan on being there 40 more. We’re absolutely committed to this valley.

The stone entrance steps remained after the Restaurant at Meadowood was destroyed by a wildfire.
The stone entrance steps are all that remain of the Restaurant at Meadowood after the Glass Fire ravaged the luxury resort. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

WS: What year did you open Meadowood? And didn’t you recently remodel the resort?
BH: We acquired it as a little club with about 75 members and seven little cabins in August of 1979. Recently, we did an approximately $60 million remodel, starting about six years ago on the spa, and redoing the pools and the fitness center about three years ago. We feel very fortunate that part didn’t burn. It was the older part of the property that burned and we will be able to bring up to a whole other level from 30 to 40 years ago. It’s a very different market now.

WS: Are you planning to rebuild?
BH: We had a big fire in May 1984 and the clubhouse burned down. We’d been working on getting everything ready for the Napa Valley Wine Auction at the time. There was talk about canceling the auction but somehow we got everything together and it took place in June. That was the fourth wine auction, held 30 days after the fire. This time we lost much more than just a clubhouse. We lost most of the units on the north end of the property.

So, what do we do next? Last time, we had a chance to build it even better, and this time we’ll figure out how to make it even better than we did 36 years ago. We’ve learned a lot in 36 years.

WS: As you see these fires grow more devastating year after year, does it give you pause about rebuilding?
BH: Well, I’ve pretty much committed my life to this county in the past 40 years. I wrote a plan in 1959 and it took me another 20 years to earn enough money to get here. Now as I cross 80, I’m still glad I came here and I feel there's more potential in Napa Valley in the next 40 years than we’ve seen in the past 40. I’m very optimistic.

I think the most important thing is that we manage these forests. The environment is also really important. That’s a big commitment that the county is going to need to take. Napa County is resilient, each time we come out even better. Even though it’s pretty devastating right now, I look at it as one more learning lesson, and we’ll come out even better.

WS: How are the vineyards doing with all the smoke?
BH: It’s going to be a great vintage for some people and it’s not going to be quite so great as others. Who are the winners and losers on this? The jury is out. There are certain areas of the valley where the smoke has been a lot worse than other areas. People are testing grapes and there are conflicts between the growers and the wineries, which is normal in a situation like this. This is earlier than the 2017 fires and fewer people had picked by the time it started. We’ll all know better in the next 30 to 60 days.

A lot of people forget that anytime you’re dealing with agriculture, dealing with nature, you can’t control it. You can’t control rain. You can’t control drought. There are a lot of things we can’t control. All we can do is do the best we can and recognize we’re in the agriculture business. Maybe the biggest enemy of agriculture is debt. We go through feast and famine; we go through good and bad years. We still have to deal with a vagary of Mother Nature, and it’s a very humbling thing.

Bill Harlan believes Napa’s future is even brighter than its past.

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