The Californian first growth


“A winegrowing estate is not just the wine, and it’s not just the land, the vineyards, the culture, and the values. It is also the family”.

H. William Harlan. (known as Bill to friends & family)


40 years is not a long time in the wine game. When we talk about “icon” wines, one of the precursors for success is often centuries (and multiple generations) of dedication to the land, to perfecting the expression of terroir, to establishing a revered household name.

Harlan Estate is an exception. Not all winery owners are created equal, as the visionary Bill Harlan has proven. The extraordinary man behind California’s internationally coveted label set out in 1984 with the ambition of creating a “first growth” in the Napa Valley. In less than half a century he and his team (and family) have surpassed achievements that many historic wineries have not managed in centuries – let’s explore how.

A vision for quality

Harlan Estate began as a romantic dream of Bill’s to own a vineyard. A successful businessman in Real Estate, Bill knew how and where to do his research. Before purchasing 240 acres (97 ha) of uncultivated land on the Oakville benchlands, he visited top estates in Europe, falling in love with Bordeaux, and returning to Napa with his “Californian first growth” lightbulb. The first wineries nearby farming exceptional terroirs such as To Kalon or Martha’s Vineyard already showed promising quality – a marker of confidence for the future wines of his very own estate.

Patience pays out

Bill did not stop at seeking out the best-quality terroir he could find locally. He also understood the need for excellent people in the vineyard and cellar to embody his vision, and become key components of his “200-year-plan”. The estate’s General Manager, Don Weaver, is retiring now after 38 years working with the Harlan family. In addition to the right people, Bill insured the right timing for release of his first wines: though the 1988 and 1989 were the first vintages made, the first officially released was 1990. The Harlan’s family ethos continues to prioritise getting things right, rather than just getting things done.


Brand personified

Harlan’s working methods exude this extreme focus on quality from vine to table. Bill Harlan famously took a decade to find the right engraver for the flagship wine’s oval-shaped label (designed and printed by a company that used to print US currency). The family’s distribution model started cautiously as “friends and family”, complete with hand-written letters to their first customers (who bought the 1990 vintage for $65), evolving into a mailing list model, and overseas distribution through long-standing relationships with partners embodying similar values.


The next chapter

Bill mentored his son, Will in the running of Harlan Estate for several years leading up to his “official” retirement in 2021. Today it is clear that father and son share the same, long-term ambitions. While the quality of Harlan Estate’s wines today is pretty close to perfect, Will continues his father’s work in pursuing the best possible expression of the property (and not, it should be noted, expanding the size of production).

Bill, Will, and the whole team at Harlan Estate are characters after our own hearts – thinking and working not for short-term gains today, but for a lasting legacy tomorrow.