A white-haired gentleman in casual dress strides into the restaurant, while staff fuss around him. For someone who has spent more than seven decades in the intense Californian sun, his skin is surprisingly pale and unblemished, but for a pair of frown lines above his nose. The glitches and infelicities of quotidian life would, I suspect, supply ample frown-fodder for any perfectionist.
“I’m not a perfectionist,” insists Bill Harlan, focusing his blue, missile-like gaze on me, his forehead crinkling ever so slightly. “Perfectionism isn’t a good thing. Imperfection is what makes things unique and interesting.”
There are many adjectives that could be applied to Bill Harlan: visionary, maverick, loyal, determined, circumspect... and just a tad contrary. Because anyone who has seen what Harlan has created in his corner of the Napa Valley, which includes three fabled wineries, an élite wine club and Meadowood Resort, where we are having brunch, might beg to differ regarding his exacting standards. He will not, for example, release a vintage unless he believes it merits a score of 95 or above; no fewer than 12 of his wines have attained a perfect 100 from authoritative US wine critic Robert Parker Jr. Not for nothing has Harlan become one of the most respected and influential figures in Napa Valley.
He first dreamed of owning a little vineyard in 1959. But if love of the noble grape has been a constant, his route to quasi-cult status has been anything but conventional. “As a student at Berkeley, I used to come to Napa at weekends... There were free tastings in those days,” he says. His was a hedonistic youth, the era of the Beat Generation and Beatniks. “If you were not in Greenwich Village in New York,” he explains, “North Beach San Francisco was the place to be.”
San Francisco it was. Like a daredevil James Dean, he raced motorcycles, before graduating to four-wheeled racing. He hitchhiked across three continents, lived on a boat and sailed the seven seas, supporting himself by playing high-stakes poker (“a game of psychology and people”) at a casino, where he was given a suite. He learned to fly, performed aerobatics on a single-prop plane and (briefly) opened a flying school. “I never had any money,” he says. “By the time I was 30, I’d done everything I wanted to do that didn’t require money. Most of my friends were married. I realised that interesting girls [at this age] wanted to eat in nice restaurants, not sit on the back of a motorbike. It was time to start earning.”
Visiting the great vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux in the 1980s transformed Harlan’s world view
The upshot was Pacific Union, a real estate company in San Francisco that heco-founded with the late Peter Stocker, in 1975. Harlan was 35. Success was such that by 1979 he was able to buy Meadowood — at the time, a run-down country club in St Helena — which he transformed into an idyllic 99-suite retreat, complete with extensive sports facilities, rustic spa, and a three-star Michelin restaurant, set among 250 acres of private woodland. Five years later, he fulfilled his youthful dream with the purchase of his first tranche of 240 acres of hillside above Oakville in the heart of the Napa Valley, which had to be cleared of forest and volcanic boulders to plant the 40 acres of vines and create the infrastructure that would form the award-winning Harlan Estate. It produces, according to Brett Anderson in The Robb Report, “one of the finest Bordeaux-style reds on the planet” with a supply limited to 2,000 cases a year, currently selling at over $1,000 a bottle.
It was a visit in 1980 to the great vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux, prompted by Robert Mondavi — the legendary winemaker who first promoted the quality of Napa Valley wines to an international market — that would transform Harlan’s world view. “I had a romantic dream to make wine, raise a family,” says Harlan, who finally moved off his boat and married in 1986. “But Robert saw something in this land and told me I should broaden my perspective. I returned from France and decided to make first-growth wines of my own.” More importantly, having seen the multi-generational legacy of these Old World vineyards, he was inspired to create a “200-year plan”. His modest aspirations had acquired a new dimension. He was in it for the long haul, including launching a second successful label, Bond, in the late 1990s.
Intent on creating the best, Harlan did not stop at the wine itself. He spent 12 years sourcing the perfect label for the Harlan Estate — one that would evoke the timelessness and quality of the best early 20th-century engravings. He eventually found it in the archives of the American Banknote Company: an image based on a vignette by the American artist Alonzo Earl Foringer, engraved by Ed Cranz. Harlan negotiated its use, creating the somewhat singular situation whereby his wine label is printed by a security company. “Engraving at that level of detail [to prevent counterfeiting] is a dying art,” says Harlan. “It takes one month to engrave a square inch.”
For his wineries, the renovation of Meadowood and his own home — a magical organic sprawl on the Harlan Estate — he engaged the help of renowned architect Howard Backen, whom he first approached in the 1990s “with around a thousand photographs of what I liked”. Their shared aesthetic, so important to Harlan, is one of “indoor-outdoor living with historically relevant, vernacular architecture that fits the location”. The materials used include indigenous wood and stone, combined with concrete, steel and glass, and enlivened by quirky water features. Despite the minute attention to detail (even the cellars are immaculate, every barrel perfectly aligned), the end-effect is subtle — one of balance and harmony, with big open spaces in which nature is allowed the starring role.
Meanwhile, the 200-year plan progresses apace. Harlan’s priority is to make a smooth transition to the next generation of his “immediate and extended” family. Harlan’s son, Will (30) and daughter, Amanda (27) — whom he has been grooming on “our culture and values” from anearly age — joined the business in their mid-20s.
Harlan’s latest vineyard venture, Promontory, is in part to secure future sustainability by producing a further 5,000 cases of wine, thereby doubling the total annual output of his wineries. But with 840 acres of wild, rugged, and untested land, about 1.5 miles south of the Harlan Estate, Promontory is a huge undertaking. For the past few years it has gradually been replanted with 80 acres of (mainly) cabernet grapes, situated 1,200ft higher than the vines on the Harlan Estate, while considerable resources are being poured into the surrounding forest. “To manage the forest correctly does not make economic sense,” concedes Harlan, “but the health and purity of nature is critical to the character of a great wine.”
Also critical to success is his “extended family” — key members of his team who have stuck by him for 30 years. “You have to hire bright young people and give them the chance to learn and evolve, or you’ll lose them,” says Harlan, who has placed Will in charge of Promontory. “You have to keep people engaged.” Promontory will certainly see to that. The wisdom of taking on this challenging new project was initially met with scepticism by his team. “Bill would have to live to be 112 to see the fruition of what he’s started here,” says winemaker Cory Empting. “But he made us realise we were working for something bigger than ourselves — reinvesting in the future, rather than cashing out.”
The 600-odd members of Harlan’s exclusive international wine club can have their own bespoke wines blended and labelled
Those wishing to experience something of Harlan’s uncompromising ethos can visit Promontory — the only one of his three wineries open to the public — for a $200 tour and tasting. A slightly larger investment (namely an “initiation fee” of $165,000) might, if you’re lucky, buy you membership of the Backen-designed Napa Valley Reserve, the starry international wine club whose 600-odd members can have their own bespoke wines blended and labelled, as well as benefitting from a range of exclusive member events.
Yet, for all that, Harlan has not turned his back on the wilder passions of his youth. He still plays the occasional hand of poker (with film director and winemaker Francis Ford Coppola, among others) and I get to see his prized collection of vintage cars, including a customised 1933 Ford 5-Window coupe and a 1952 Allard J2X.
“Nobody should be running anything at 80,” jokes Harlan, when asked about his plans. He has three years left until that landmark, and is looking forward to “time spent reading and writing”. Is there anything that remains on his wish list? “I’d like to visit the Karakoram mountains in Asia,” he says, eyes brightening, his wanderlust evidently not yet spent. Somehow, the prospect of Bill Harlan in leisured retirement does not quite ring true.