Evolution Not Revolution with Harlan Estate

This is a banner year for Harlan Estate, as they’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of their founding in 1984. H. William (Bill) Harlan led the Harlan family wines with the driving vision to produce a “First Growth” of California. In the western hills of Oakville – in the heart of Napa Valley – the 240-acre property, with 33 acres under vine, is a benchmark of quality in the area. The vineyard is planted to the Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot.  

I recently chatted with Will Harlan, Bill’s son, who in 2021 became the managing director of Harlan Estate, and the family’s other brands: BOND, Promontory, and The Mascot. Having been involved in the family wine business for a few years, there were no sudden transitions and no new acquisitions. Will has his hands full with current projects and his focus has been to both build on the legacy of the first generation of Harlan Estate and to understand the land better.

Says Harlan “We’ve realized that to understand a piece of land, to do it well, takes generations.” Continues Harlan “We’ve been on a very steep learning curve the past 40 years, and that learning curve is very much just as steep as it’s ever been. We were the first people to ever farm this land.” Continues Harlan, “There’s never a precedent for how to do it and what worked and what didn’t work.”

Through their celebrated Vine Master Program, each vine is meticulously tracked and tended to. There are designated “vine masters” on the team who farm a dedicated block vintage after vintage. This can only be described as hyper-specialized and intentional farming. Harlan calls this “A very vine-by-vine individualistic approach to our farming [that showcases] the transparency of what the vine can give”.

“We’ve gotten the [Harlan] property almost entirely to dry farming at this point” shares Harlan. He continues, “We’ve been able to dial back our fertilizing by having a deeper understanding of the place and how we can make smaller tweaks here and there with our cover crop regime, with our pruning, with our replanting, etc. So dialing inputs on farming has been huge.” The level of detail that goes into every aspect of the Harlan brand, from farm to bottle, helps you understand why the wine is in such high demand by wine collectors here in the US and internationally. 

Another focus of Harlan Estate is to cultivate international relationships to become more of a globally recognized wine versus simply as a “wine from Napa Valley”. Their wines are currently found in over 40 countries, an astonishing number considering the production quantity rarely surpasses 2,500 cases a year. 

Shares Harlan, “One of the more exciting new markets is Korea. We’ve seen incredible growth in the understanding, demand, and appreciation of wine there.” Harlan continues, “I think that will be a place where we’re going to continue to spend some time and focus.”

The theme of intentionality is ever present with Harlan Estate; never a rush. Says Harlan, “You see this constant evolution, not revolution” in the vintages themselves, with that same through line in the business side of things. Ultimately Harlan’s goal can be summed up, in his own words as “Deepening our understanding of the land and then elevating our abilities to translate that character faithfully into the wine.”

Brianne Cohen is an LA based event producer, certified sommelier, wine educator, and wine writer. During the pandemic, Brianne entertained over 7,000 people through her “Virtual Vino” online wine classes, regularly highlighting diverse (i.e. Black, BIPOC, female, and LGBT) owned wineries. She now offers both in-person (and virtual) wine tasting experiences for her corporate clients. Brianne regularly judges at international wine competitions, including the International Wine Challenge (IWC) in London and holds the WSET Diploma certificate. She writes on her own blog and for outlets such as Decanter, Vintner Project, and Kiplinger. She also holds an MBA from Loyola Marymount University. Brianne Cohen Wine & Events is a certified woman-owned business with WBENC.