Harlan Estate: Old Wine in a New Bottle
Founder reveals the philosophy behind one of Napa Valley’s most prestigious wines
“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.
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.
“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.
Winemaker Bob Levy joined in 1983. Harlan met his wife Deborah in 1985. Don Weaver joined one year later as the director of Harlan Estate, and Lily Cronwall came to do accounting and family-office management. Harlan and these original members still work together 40 years later.
“The people we’ve been working with all these years are like extended family. They share in the success,” he says. “If you want to go fast, you go alone. If you want to go far, you go together.”
Tied to the land
It took Harlan five more years after that trip to France to acquire the perfect land in Napa Valley. He found forest and woodland that hadn’t been cultivated before.
“It wasn’t like most of the other vineyards. We came in and worked this land and created a winegrowing estate … we laid out the vineyards, we brought in the roads, and we put in the underground utilities,” he says.
Harlan saw the intrinsic value in merging his estate with the natural, wild surroundings, a lesson he learned in Europe.
“Winegrowing is an art of man and nature. If you own the land hoping it’s going to produce for you for hundreds of years, you have to make sure it’s sustainable. You must take care of the land,” he says.
The pioneering spirit
The Californian spirit to innovate has been another critical component of Harlan’s success.
“If we’re just doing the same thing as someone else, one of us isn’t needed,” he says. Instead, Harlan has been focused on bringing his unique contributions to the field of winemaking.
His efforts eventually paid off.
At the end of 1995, he invited a wine critic to taste his Harlan Estate wine, explaining that his team’s goal was to release it when it became on par with other fine wines in the world.
The critic said the wait was over.
It was a groundbreaking moment. A year later, 16 years after the estate’s genesis, Harlan Estate sold its first bottle. It took him 25 years to become profitable, but when he did his name became synonymous with quality.
“Part of our success was having a good team, part of it was getting here at a very unique time, and part of it was fate,” Harlan says.
As his children, Will and Amanda, transition into leadership roles at the company, Harlan has passed on life philosophies that will enable them to preserve the legacy he started.
“First of all, never trade your youth to make money,” he says. “Think about ‘return on life’ instead of ‘return on investment.’ That way, you’ll have a much better chance of flourishing and enjoying this life.”