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Harlan Estate: One of the Greats of the Wine World

by Brian Freedman

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Harlan Estate: One of the Greats of the Wine World Celebrating 25 Years in Sausalito

When Bill Harlan set out to create an American “First Growth” 25 years ago, consumers could have been forgiven for thinking the endeavor was crazy. How, after all, could anyone really believe that we were capable of producing a wine that would achieve the same level of complexity, longevity, and--perhaps the most vexing part of all--terroir-specificity that the greats of Bordeaux had been peddling in for centuries?

But that’s exactly what Harlan set out to do, and now, all these years later, it is generally a foregone conclusion that his eponymous wine ranks among the top tier in America--and, indeed, the world.

In general, the great wines of the world tend to share a number of important characteristics in common: They express a unique, often idiosyncratic terroir with clarity and honesty; they are produced from top-quality fruit and through fastidious winemaking; they have the potential to evolve over the years into something far more nuanced and elegant than their youth tends to express (but which is typically implied early on); and they do all this year after year, slowing building up what might be called an edifice of reliability, ever-growing complexity, and stylistic character.

But there are also a number of non-vinous characteristics that the great wines of the world share, and most of these are based in the unique philosophy that is ultimately the wellspring of their creation. For Bill Harlan, he knew exactly what the guiding philosophy of his estate would be from the beginning: It would be a family affair, rooted firmly in the land and created with an eye toward being carried on even after he no longer has a hand in it.

Businesses that have succeeded for two or three hundred years have three things in common, Harlan told me: They are based on the land, remain family-owned, and carry no debt. A family, he explained, can pass a culture on from generation to generation, slowly improving without having to worry about quarterly earnings. This, in turn, affords them the opportunity to pursue their goals with more freedom, even if the process of achieving them relies more on long-term effort than short.

With that in mind, he said, he is trying to instill in his family the importance of the land, his philosophy, and the meaning that Harlan Estate holds for the future.

To be sure (and with apologies to Tolstoy) not all great wines are the same; but most of them are deeply personal in their own unique way, and that ties them together into an international fraternity of sorts, no matter where they’re produced or what particular style or philosophy they express.

This past November, I had the chance to attend the Harlan Estate 25th anniversary dinner, held at Sausalito’s excellent Poggio. The dinner was hosted by Larry Mindel, Poggio’s owner; Peter McNee, its acclaimed executive chef and partner; and the James Beard Foundation, which was represented by Susan Ungaro, its president, and which benefited from the auction that took place that night.

My tasting notes are below. For a more in-depth description of the dinner, as well as of each course, check out The Virtual Gourmet issue of December 6, 2009 at Please also note that all of the wines served at the dinner--they are listed here in the order of their pouring--had been double-decanted earlier that day by Wine Director Gregory Altzman.

The Maiden 2005 - This young red sang with dark, lush berry fruit and possessed incredible structure, rich currant and blackberry notes, hints of fresh asphalt, and the tobacco of a maduro cigar.  

The Matriarch 2005 - More chocolatey on the mid-palate than The Maiden, its subtle, lush texture was lifted by notes of mint, spice, and tobacco. Both of the wines have long lives ahead (a decade or more, surely), yet are wonderful right now with enough time in the decanter.

BOND Vecina 1999 - Fresh aromas of anise and licorice defined the nose here. The palate just exploded with unexpected flashes of sesame, black bean sauce, melted licorice, and an expansive depth that continued to grow throughout the finish. Despite all that, it still maintained a sense of linearity, a core of richness that promises years of further evolution in the bottle.

Harlan 2000 - This was the most Bordeaux-like wine of the evening. It was from a cooler year that winemaker Bob Levy explained made it a bit more approachable, and showed an almost Pauillac-like character of soft mushroom notes, sous bois, crushed purple fruits, and excellent acidity. It coated the inside of the mouth and continued to evolve in the glass, picking up hints of caramelized wild strawberries, blackberries, eucalyptus, rich dark cherry, kirsch, and cocoa powder.

Harlan 2004 - Still young and promising 15+ years of evolution ahead, the Harlan 2004 showed magnificent notes of mint, scorched earth, Cuban cigar tobacco that reminded me of an H. Upmann, and grilled dark berry fruit, all of it wrapped up in a structure that allowed it to carry on for a 45-second-plus finish. Levy described the 2004 as possessing more classic Napa richness and power than the 2000, and he was, of course, spot on.

Harlan 1997 - This is a legendary bottling that received 100 points from Robert Parker and that, in my opinion, deserved more than that. (Does Parker give extra-credit?) It was easily one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted, an explosive, palate-coating, almost Porty mouthful of figs, raisins, scorched earth, and dark sweet cherries. Despite all this richness, though, there was an undeniable sense of place, an exuberance that only could have come from Napa. The perfume of cinnamon, clove, and other warm brown spices wafted up from the glass, the texture such that I had to resist the urge to chew it, and the finish, perfectly balanced, lasted for at least a minute, lingering on with characteristics of sun-warmed wild strawberries, hoisin, and black bean sauce. Even at 12 years of age, it remained remarkably youthful, both magnificent right now and, like the rest of the bottles poured at the dinner, promising a long life ahead.

All of these wines are First Growth quality, no question about it. Just like Bill Harlan set out to do all those years ago.

Brian Freedman is a food and wine writer, educator, and consultant. He is Director of Education at The Wine School of Philadelphia (, blogger for by, contributing editor at Philadelphia Style Magazine, and contributing writer for John Mariani's Virtual Gourmet. You can reach him online at

This article first appeared, in a longer form, in John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet. To read and subscribe to The Virtual Gourmet, visit

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