Bill Harlan is the founder and owner of Harlan Estate in Oakville, in the Napa Valley. The Harlan Estate wine, a cabernet blend, is considered one of California’s greatest wines, and a wine highly sought after by collectors worldwide. Bill is a native Californian and a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in communications and public policy. In 1974, he co-founded Pacific Union Co., a diversified real estate development firm in San Francisco. In addition to establishing Harlan Estate in 1984, Bill also founded BOND Winery in 1996 and Promontory Winery in 2008, all in the Napa Valley. Bill is also the managing partner of Meadowood Resort and the innovative, members-only winery The Napa Valley Reserve.
Karen MacNeil interviewed Bill Harlan for WineSpeed in August 2019.
Karen MacNeil: You have been in the Napa Valley wine business for almost five decades. What is it about wine that moves you?
Bill Harlan: What I enjoy most is working with nature—with the land, the wildlands, the vineyards, and of course the wines. Also, I am inspired by our team, which has grown together, and our culture, which has evolved over the years. Many members of the team have been with us for over 25 years, some for over 35 years. More than a few members of the next generation—of family and ‘extended family’—have been involved now for over 18 years. The next generation has been stepping in to take on more responsibility, and we’ve been working much more closely on that transition for the last eight years.
Our patrons—many of whom have been with us since our first vintage—are likewise a source of inspiration, as is the Napa Valley itself. We live in a remarkable community that values mutual support and respect. The vagaries of nature can be humbling when you work in agriculture, and our neighbors have demonstrated time and again the Napa Valley’s spirit of cooperation.
KM: Before founding Harlan Estate, Bond, Napa Valley Reserve and most recently Promontory, your early wine project was Merryvale. What was the toughest part of your early years?
BH: Carving out the time necessary and figuring out how to realize our vision. We acquired our first land in the Napa Valley in 1979. We entered into an agreement to buy the land that would become The Napa Valley Reserve in 1980—but that land took 20 years to finally close. We started to pursue wine production in 1982 and had our first harvest in 1983. Our first winery was the old Sunny St. Helena Winery, which Robert Mondavi’s father, Cesare Mondavi, established just after the repeal of Prohibition. The building had not changed much in fifty years, before we converted it to Merryvale. This was a business through which we could study, work hands-on, and understand winegrowing and the wine industry—a training ground.
From the start, the vision was to create a “first growth of California.” We knew that this goal would not ultimately be realized in the renovated winery. Still, we learned by diving in.
Experiential learning is a great way to gain knowledge, but it takes time, financial and human resources, mental anguish, and many mistakes. Over those 15 years, we worked with over 80 different vineyards and a dozen different varietals. As we grew from 450 to 45,000 cases, we came to understand that, if we wanted to be among the very best, we needed to focus on and recommit to working only with great land.
In 1984, we purchased the land that would become Harlan Estate; that same year, while hiking in the hills just south of Harlan Estate, I discovered the land that would become Promontory (though it took us 24 years to finally acquire it). BOND was founded in 1996—the year we sold Merryvale and released our first vintage of Harlan Estate.
At Harlan Estate, we planted primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot for blending. A dozen years later, BOND was founded on the grand-cru model of a single varietal, in this case Cabernet Sauvignon. Twelve years later still, the second generation chose with even greater conviction to grow this vine among the hillsides of Promontory, our 21st-century endeavor.
KM: Harlan Estate has a very definitive brand image. Everything from the paper used for the label to the architecture of the winery to the website. Did you envision exactly how you wanted the brand to be when you founded the winery, or did the brand image of Harlan evolve as the winery came to life?
BH: Our vision was not about building a brand. From the beginning, it has been about working toward realizing our 200-year plan. I began with the desire to create a “first growth of California.” The plan needed to be clear enough for direction but sufficiently flexible to evolve as we learned more with each step along the way. We needed first to identify, capture, and cultivate great land; to assemble a team with shared vision; to foster a strong culture; and to build a winegrowing domain that could last for centuries.
For great character and authenticity, I felt it was important to carve the vineyard from the raw land. In addition, we needed to be small enough to control every detail but large enough to have global reach and the financial independence to free us from the pressures of compromise and to sustain us over generations. That’s what led to BOND, which began with two exceptional properties that stood head and shoulders above all the other vineyards with which we had worked up to that point. Twelve years later, in the pioneering spirit of California, the younger generation took on the challenge of discovery in the wildlands of what would become Promontory.
“We see winegrowing as an art—a collaboration between human beings and nature. This idea has been the cornerstone of our culture. Over time, we believe that wine, through its own mystery and magic, can delight, enrich, and inspire.”
KM: Is wine good for a society or a culture? How so?
BH: We see winegrowing as an art—a collaboration between human beings and nature. This idea has been the cornerstone of our culture. Over time, we believe that wine, through its own mystery and magic, can delight, enrich, and inspire. Picasso once said about art “it washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” If we can do that in some small way, throughout decades of vintages, we feel we will be on track to realize both our vision and our purpose.
KM: You have a superb collection of rare wine books. Why are wine books important to you?
BH: I very much enjoy reading and learning, as well as the tactile feel and the scent of some of our older books. The books are not only on vineyards, winemaking, and winegrowing but also on the culture of wine and how wine can enhance our lives—everything from toasts to philosophy, aesthetics, and history. The volumes cover a span of four centuries. The library forms part of the roots of our family culture, and we hope it will continue to inspire generations well into the future.
KM: Many people consider you a visionary. Indeed, many things that you have done in the wine industry have never been done before. How do you come up with ideas?
BH: Ideas come easily and often. The difficult part of the equation is recognizing the ones that are of consequence, will continue to resonate, and last.
I was born during the beginning of the Second World War, when the birth rate was one of the lowest of the 20th century. As our parents emerged from the Great Depression into wartime, fewer of them were thinking about having children. The smaller generation of young people to which I belonged were deeply impacted by the events and movements unfolding around them. As I reached my twenties, I began to recognize that the large group born after the war was undergoing many of the same experiences that I’d encountered a decade earlier. I came to understand that certain ideas weave like threads through the fabric of human experience and are not specific to a place or period.
KM: Besides Napa Valley, what other wine region inspires you the most and why?
BH: In the beginning, what inspired me were the great chateaux of Bordeaux, then the grands crus of Burgundy, many of which went back a thousand years. I loved the beauty and grandeur of Bordeaux, but I also loved the intimacy of Burgundy—from the humble monks to the present-day families working their small vineyards. Bringing together those two ideas was part of the foundation of our 200-year plan. Over time, and after being fully engaged, I began to discover the camaraderie and friendship among people tilling the land, both in the Old World and the New.
What stirs me most today is watching the next generation make their contribution during the third phase of our 200-year plan, embarking on a journey of discovery in this last wild frontier in the heart of the Napa Valley, Promontory.
KM: I’m not going to ask what’s your favorite type of wine. But what wine or type of wine do you like the least?
BH: I don’t think about wines that I like least. We’re endeavoring to produce wines that enrich people’s lives. We think not only of wines but of the winegrowing estate. The most interesting wines for me are the ones most expressive of a time and particular place.
KM: Tell us something about you that would surprise many people to learn.
BH: Roughly 50 years ago, after Alcatraz had closed as a prison, I swam out from San Francisco around the island and back. When I was a kid, I’d heard all the stories about how no one could escape from Alcatraz by swimming through the currents and cold waters. I wanted to see if it could be done.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
BH: Now, four decades into our 200-year plan, I would say that my greatest sense of fulfillment has been working with my wife, Deborah, our son, Will, and our daughter, Amanda, building a family winegrowing domain and the culture that has grown along with it. My dream has been to set the table for the next forty years—and to enable the next generation of our family and ‘extended family’ to have the inspiration, the culture, and the freedom to take on this challenge in their own way.