Harlan Estate – The Californian First Growth

With California a key focus of the wine market currently in terms of performance and Liv-ex’s recent launch of the California 50 benchmark, we will take a closer look at the top five wines of the region in our next series of blogs and start with Harlan Estate.

“After various tastings of Harlan wines and with all the scores given, we have to conclude that this wine can be set apart from the rest as the first of the first growths.” Napa Valley Classification – First Growth


Key facts:

Classification: California First Growth

Location:         Oakville, Napa Valley

History:           Founded in 1984

Owned by:      H.W. Harlan

Varietals:        Cabernet Sauvignon (70%), Merlot (20%), Cabernet Franc (8%), Petit Verdot (2%)

Production:      Average annual 1,800 cases per annum

Property developer, H. William Harlan, is one of the modern day Napa pioneers and, in conjunction with the late Robert Mondavi, has had a significant influence on the development to date of the fine wine industry in California.

A visionary, Harlan was drawn to Napa as a college student in 1958 and was a frequent visitor as a young man. The opening of the Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966 captured his imagination and led to his search for suitable land throughout the 1970s which resulted in his acquisition of Meadowood.

Shortly after this, Robert Mondavi took Harlan on a transformative trip to the top wine estates of Europe in 1980, where he visited the Bordeaux First Growths and Burgundy’s top Grand Cru vineyards. Inspired by the history and legacy of these great estates, Harlan returned to Napa with the aim to develop a ‘First Growth of California’ and a wine estate that would grow and thrive for generations.    

Harlan started recruiting and work on an early project helped establish the founding members of the future Harlan Estate team. Meanwhile, Mondavi encouraged Harlan to develop Meadowood to be a focal point for the Napa community and it subsequently became the home of the famous annual Napa Valley auction, based upon Burgundy’s Hospices de Beaune model.

In 1984 Harlan acquired his first 40 acres in the hills above Oakville, famous for producing the best red wines in America, and this became the foundation of the Harlan Estate. Over the next decade he added a further few hundred acres of neighbouring hillside to the Estate footprint. The terrain is a combination of sedimentary and volcanic soils, and has exposure to north, south, east and west directions.  Small parcels of vines have been planted with Bordeaux varietals since 1985.

Production evolved with volumes ultimately on a similar scale to fellow Californian icon, Screaming Eagle. The first commercial vintage was grown in 1990 and released by the estate in 1996 and now annual productivity is at an average of 1,800 cases per annum.

Bob Levy, Director of Wine Making has been involved since Harlan’s original Merryvale winery project in 1983 and Michel Rolland has been retained as consultant oenologist since 1989.

The distinctive Harlan Estate label takes its original design inspiration from a 19th Century engraving overseen by retired US Treasury engraver Herb Fichter.

The consistent quality of the Estate’s wines has been recognised by the world’s most influential wine critic, Robert Parker Jnr who has awarded four vintages the perfect 100 points.

“Harlan Estate might be the single most profound red wine made not just in California, but in the world.” Robert Parker Jnr – The Wine Advocate

Prices reflect this quality with an average release price of US$850 per bottle which has risen in the secondary market to over US$1,200. A landmark sale at the 2000 Napa Valley Auction saw a 10-year vertical of Harlan Estate magnums achieve $700,000.

Harlan Estate wines are rarely available in the secondary market as each vintage is sold directly to its customers via a private subscription.

Harlan has since acquired further Napa territory and developed BOND, a small portfolio of grand cru quality vineyards of about 50 acres which produces about 2,500 cases and more recently the Promontory estate. This latest acquisition of 840 acres, will create 80 acres planted with vines and grow production from 2,000 to approximately 4,000 cases. Promontory wines were sold via the Bordeaux negociants for the first time in Spring 2018.

“Fine wine evolves over decades and wine growing estates, families and communities across generations.” H. William Harlan