OAKVILLE — Bill Harlan in 1984 set out to create a California “First Growth” wine from hillside vines overlooking Oakville in Napa Valley, and nearly three decades later he remains among the defining producers of top-end California wine.
The Harlan Estate property has 36 acres of vines on the 240 acres of land. Production is about 2,000 cases a year of Harlan Estate, about 1,000 cases a year each of The Maiden and Napa Valley Reserve, and 2,400 cases of the Bond Estates line of blends.
The first commercial vintage for Harlan Estate was 1990, and the wine was released in 1996. Earning four perfect 100-point scores by the influential Wine Advocate publication over the years, Harlan Estate wines easily fetch more than $500 a bottle on release and well more than that in successive years.
The first vintage of second label The Maiden was 1995, and it was released in 1999. The Bond Estates project started in 1997. Napa Valley Reserve was set up in in the opening years of the past decade by Mr. Harlan and other partners in the Meadowood just for members of the St. Helena resort.
Mr. Harlan’s background also includes real estate development, co-founding Pacific Union Real Estate in San Francisco in 1974, and leading vintner investors in the purchase of the Meadowood resort in 1979.
A panelist at the Impact Napa: Wine in Napa on Aug. 29, he talked with the Business Journal about the need to increase awareness of the top-class stature of Napa Valley wines while keeping in place the high-end agriculture focus of the area that maintains that image.
What’s the outlook for the wine business?
It’s excellent. More people worldwide are drinking wine, more in the U.S. are drinking wine, and the culture of Asia is changing to include wine.
We’ve been selling wines outside the U.S. for 25 years, and Asia is part of that. It’s an important market for us. As time goes on, it will continue to be more so.
What’s at top of mind for Napa Valley wine businesses?
Much more than top of mind — it is a commitment for us — is to build greater awareness for Napa Valley wines outside the U.S. One of the most important things we need to do is let the world know we can produce wines in Napa Valley at the same level, and in some cases, better than wines recognized as the top wines in the world.
France has a 100- to 200-year head start on us and covers every corner of the planet. Historically, America has been known for producing inexpensive New World wines. We have our work cut out for us in letting the world know that wines from California and especially Napa Valley belong in the ranks of the greatest wines of world.
Every day we’re working to build stronger relationships with our importers in the key markets around the world. We’re in 45 countries now. We need to continue to meet and exceed the expectations of those in the trade as well as our patrons.
You have said Napa County needs to remain a “working agriculture community.” What do you mean?
It more has to do with prioritizing what’s really important. We as individuals, as winegrowers, or as a community need to focus on what our real gifts and strengths are and pursue a shared vision.
The Napa Valley has some of the best soils and climate as any wine region of the world. We have an environment to produce wines that are at the top of any winegrowing region. As we prioritize how we live in this community, we need to make sure we don’t forget this.
We need to learn how to bring out the very best of every parcel in this valley and bring it to its potential. As we look to what to nurture and support in this community, we need to prioritize and not forget that first and foremost Napa Valley is an agricultural community committed to continue producing wines that are among the best in the world.
One day, Napa Valley has the potential to be a national treasure. We need to recognize that and live in a way that is deserving of that.
First, we need to make sure we don’t lose the land it takes to produce the fruit, to produce the wine, as well as producing a great product. We need to let the world know about it.
The visitors we want to have in Napa Valley need to be those who recognize and respect our culture, those who want to learn about and experience wine at its highest level. When they go back home, our wines will be those they will want to serve and can afford. They will become ambassadors for Napa Valley.
Our restaurants should be proud to showcase Napa Valley wines. Consumers can get wines from all over world in every major city of world. When one visits Bordeaux or Burgundy, you find most of the wine in their restaurants are from their area.
How does the industry balance the need for sustainable finances with community concerns about growth?
Our community passed the Agricultural Preserve in 1968, which is when we prioritized what this county is about. Land owners at that time made a huge sacrifice in the potential value of their subdivisions to sell for housing communities.
Look what happened in the South Bay. Most of those communities were in agriculture, now plowed over as residential.
We are producing fantastic wines. As we produce them, they deserve to be sold at prices for that quality. If we do that, we can afford to hire the best people, pay fair wages, educate our workers and cross-train them, so more can work and live here year-round. We will become less dependent on migrant labor.
When working with the vagaries of Mother Nature, it is a very humbling endeavor. We all need each other, to work to keep the land in vines, to improve our properties, to work in the vines or in the winery, to help in hospitality and supply needs of our winegrowing community. If we stick to these values and do what we do well, we deserve to be paid well and can afford the imperative need of balance of economic, environmental and social responsibility.
Auction Napa Valley, is an example of supporting social responsibility. As winegrowers we want the land to be healthy and productive for centuries. All of us here, both member of our community, as well as the visitors we want to draw, need to continue participating not only in our economic responsibility, bout our social and environmental ones as well.
One of the foundations of Napa County is the General Plan, which has the goals and objectives for what we stand for. We need to review it and recommit.
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