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Harlan Estate-1

Harlan Estate: Old Wine in a New Bottle

Founder reveals the philosophy behind one of Napa Valley’s most prestigious wines

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“We wanted to delight and enrich people’s lives.”
—Bill Harlan, owner of Harlan Estate

Bill Harlan was in his 20s when he visited Napa Valley, California, in 1959. Due to the hardships of two world wars, Prohibition and the Great Depression, Napa Valley was still infantile in its winemaking at the time.

“I thought that if I could ever afford it, I’d like to buy a little piece of land and plant a vineyard, find a wife, raise a family, and make wine,” Harlan says.

But he was young and still had many goals he wanted to achieve.

Two decades later, Harlan had a chance to fulfill his calling. He built a team, devised a 200-year plan, and silently got to work. Now, he produces four labels of wine. His vineyard’s premier wine, Harlan Estate, has a two-year waiting list and retails at $1,500 per bottle.

Bill Harlan, the founder of Harlan Estate.

Learning from the Old World

The pivotal moment in bringing Harlan’s vision to life was a meeting he had with Robert Mondavi, the most respected winemaker in America. After hearing about Harlan’s youthful dream to make wine in Napa Valley, Mondavi invited him on a three-week trip to France to visit First Growth properties and Grand Cru domaines in Burgundy.

First Growth is a classification of fine wines, typically from the Bordeaux region of France.

“That trip opened my eyes to the potential of Napa Valley. I’d never seen anything like it,” Harlan says.

“When I saw properties [in France] that had been in the same family’s hands for many generations—oftentimes for centuries—I realized they had a different way of thinking about time and life,” Harlan says.

Upon his return to the United States, Harlan researched businesses that had operated for centuries. He found they shared three common traits: they were family-run, tied to the land, and had no debt.

Harlan was 40 years old and single at the time but realized he’d need to settle down and change his lifestyle to succeed in this wine-making endeavour.

“The family is the only entity willing to continually take risks, avoid debt, and not be constrained by time,” he says.

To develop a First Growth wine business, he’d need the patience and finances to wait a decade or more for results.

(Left to right) The Harlan family: Bill, Deborah, Will, and Amanda.

“A family-run business gives you the freedom to do exactly what you want and not cut any corners,” he says.

Harlan had the foresight to be responsible not only to his family but also to his early partners and land workers. When he first set out on this venture, he sold them a compelling vision of world-class winemaking.

“We wanted to delight and enrich people’s lives,” Harlan says.

People who shared his goals came into his life one by one.

Order the Magnifissance print edition to read the full story.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 114

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Inspired for a Beautiful Life

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