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California's New Stars

A Handful of Small Producers Are Creating Some of the Golden State's Greatest, and Most Elusive, Wines
Bruce Schoenfeld
Posted: August 1, 1999

(continued from page 4)

Harlan is a real estate man who understands the supply and demand of land values. "In Burgundy, the land prices on the slopes are not twice or even three times that of in the valley or on the crest of the hills, but 10 times, 20 times," he says. "The farmers know. Especially in Europe, where they've been making wine hundreds of years, they figure it out."

Fixated on creating a wine that would compete successfully with the best of Bordeaux, Harlan spent most of his 25-year career studying land values around the world and concluded that he had to plant his vineyards on a hillside. He knew that the finest grapes, with the most concentrated flavor, came from vines that had to work the hardest to get nourishment from the soil. In Napa, the vast majority of quality cultivation comes from the gently sloping land near the valley bottom. What with the exorbitant price of planting high on the brush-covered hillsides, and the amount of time and effort needed to assuage environmentalists who feared erosion and the loss of an unspoiled view, he was informed that such a plan was untenable. Harlan listened and smiled. Then he went ahead with his plans.

Clearly, Harlan is no ordinary man. Talking with Harlan, most references to modern American culture are met with blank stares. He has never owned a television. A former all-America water polo player and swimmer, he has started some two dozen businesses, but hasn't owned a home on land, only houseboats. Even now, with a winery with heating pipes set in the hardwood floors and a guest room overlooking the Napa hills, Harlan lives in a rented home. He married late and, at 58, now has two children, aged 9 and 12. When he realized he wanted something enduring, he started a winery for the ages.

In 1985, Harlan initiated the clearing of 23 acres out of a 230-acre hillside property that he had acquired in three separate deals. Over the next two years, he planted vines: about 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Merlot, 15 percent Cabernet Franc and a tiny amount of Petit Verdot, just as in the Medoc. He hired Michel Rolland, who makes wine from Tuscany to China and runs Pomerol's Le Bon Pasteur, in Bordeaux, among other estates. "I wanted to carve a vineyard out of the raw land and create something that hadn't been done before," Harlan says. "I wanted every little teeny facet of the process, and there are hundreds and hundreds of them, to give us the best chance for success."

From 1987 to 1996, Harlan Estate's proprietary red wine--since it contains less than 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, it cannot be legally labeled as such--was made at Merryvale, which had been turning out very good but not spectacular wines since the early '80s. Until January 1996, when the 1990 and 1991 vintages hit the market, none of the Harlan Estate was released commercially. Detailed marketing plans were in place, for Harlan is nothing if not prepared, but those initial wines received such extraordinary reviews that no marketing has yet been necessary. "Since then, my job has mostly been telling people 'no,' " says Don Weaver, Harlan's director.

While 1,600 cases of the 1994 Harlan Estate were released in early 1998, the usual quantity is closer to 1,100. There will be 900 cases each of the '95 and the '96, close to 2,000 of the '97, and perhaps 400 cases of the '98 after a late growing season produced high quality but limited quantity. The mathematics are daunting to Weaver, who is asked to magically produce far more rabbits than he has hats: "I have 6,000 people on my mailing list and I can sell to no more than 800 of them."

Part of the reason is Harlan's determination to build an internationally known brand. "We need to be in every key market, where the people who know the difference between good and great wine can find it," he says. While the rest of his businesses have been ephemeral, Harlan wants his wines to span generations, the way the great wines of Bordeaux--Margaux and Mouton, Lafite and Latour--have done. Harlan's winery is his legacy to his children which is why, after much thought, he decided to put his name on the bottle.

The winery he is building above Oakville is the same way. For the past two harvests, the wine has been made amidst the construction of the new estate, up a private road with a view of the valley and the hills beyond. Still unfinished, the estate has the grandeur of a Roman ruin. "Bill wanted something that, the day it was finished, would look like it had been here 100 years," says Weaver. Yet Harlan Estate's wine doesn't have that self-conscious weight to it. Some winemakers make wine as if it were their Ulysses or Mona Lisa, loading it up like packing a camel for a thousand-mile journey. "This wine will be here when the rest of us are gone," they say, laying it down in a cellar. Harlan wants to drink his wines.

At dinner at Meadowood Resort, Harlan sips from glasses of his 1990, 1991 and 1994 releases. He drinks wine slowly, contemplatively, being far more interested in the meditations it engenders than in typical wine discussions about tannins, balance, acidity. He sips, considers, talks, and an hourlong meal turns into four and a half hours of energetic discussion, with topics ranging from nineteenth-century American engravings to the fine points of real estate development. At midnight, gracefully, he takes his leave.

Manfred Krankl hears about Harlan, and the history of Eisele, and Phillips's charity work, and he wonders how such rarefied topics pertain to him. Whereas the other three have set themselves up in Napa Valley, Krankl is an hour from Los Angeles, where he's managing partner of Campanile restaurant and its companion, La Brea Bakery. Whereas most of California's rarefied producers make wines of at least 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, Krankl prefers to make his orchestral red wines from Syrah. And whereas Harlan, Araujo and Screaming Eagle are each produced from a single estate, Krankl owns no vineyard land, not a single plot. "What good is a single vineyard if it isn't absolutely incredible?" he asks. "And even then, you only get one style of grapes. Personally, I want to paint with more than the color red."

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