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Harlan Estate Through Generations: Making of the First Growth California Wine Estate

“As great modernist artist Pablo Picasso said once – ‘art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life’”

His recollection of Picasso’s words is not accidental. Will took over leadership of the family winegrowing domain from his father, Bill Harlan, in early 2021, and yet his vision for the future has already proven to be ambitious, bold, and artistic – in the best traditions of the 20th-century art revolutionaries.

In his interview, Will introduced us to the philosophy behind the founding of the family’s first endeavor, Harlan Estate, and shared his plans for taking winegrowing to the next level.

Harlan Estate's view to the Flag Room

Birth of Harlan Estate

Residing on the western hills of Oakville, California, the Harlan Estate winery is known for its breathtaking views of steeply terraced vines and Mount St. Helena. The estate expands over 240 acres of natural splendour at elevations between 225 and 1,225 feet above sea level – the perfect altitude for the creation of a “first growth” wine inspired by the great French Bordeaux châteaux.

The rich history of the Harlan Estate begins in the 1980s, with Bill Harlan’s visit to the First Growths of Bordeaux, which inspired him to dream of creating something within Napa Valley, California, that could someday belong among the fine wines of the world, and that could last for generations.

Today, headed by renowned winemaker Cory Empting, the Harlan family domain comprises three properties – Harlan Estate, Bond, and Promontory. Having taken over the domain, Will strives to bring Harlan Estate and Bond to “the very best that can be and in close alignment with their original visions” outlined by his father, while keeping Promontory as his “creative outlet” and foundation for a new vision.

From father to son: a shared commitment

Harlan's Family

For over forty years, Bill Harlan has been committed to his creation – the First Growth California Wine Estate. According to Will, his father has always been able to see several steps ahead, which is manifested in his 200-year plan, inherited by his son, filling Bill’s shoes as the head of the family domain.

My father and I share a vision for what we can achieve. I was brought up with a 200-year plan of what the vision of Harlan Estate was going to be,” – Will recalls.

However, he adds, he did not always dream to make it in the wine world: “I actually went into technology after college, and got into the tech world. That had brought me back to San Francisco – the bay area, which is quite close to Napa Valley. It was then that I slowly started to get a bit more curious about the wine business.”

Fresh in his managing director role, Will Harlan is determined to bring his father’s vision to life. He readily acknowledges the fact that his decisions may be different to the ones made by his father back in his time, but, at the end of the day, their goals remain the same.

My father and I are very aligned on where we want to go. Of course, I am a different person, so sometimes I will be choosing a different path to get to that same vision,” – Will concludes.

Winemaking in changing climate

Harlan Estate's vineyard

Yet the journey to fulfilling Bill Harlan’s vision has not always been easy. As climate change continues to accelerate causing a consistent rise in temperatures which can seriously impact the winegrowing, the Harlan Estate, like many wineries across the world, has to think about the new circumstances.

“We need to incorporate each one of these challenges into our future,” – says Will, adding: “Climate change is something that we have been following very closely for a long time. It is factored into decisions of almost every level.”

He states that the change in the rates of global warming affected processes on various levels at the estate, including farming, viticulture (or winegrowing), as well as taking care of the vineyards.

Will explains that the vineyards at the Harlan Estate are surrounded by forest, which play a significant role in the character of the wine, and which contribute to a cooler winegrowing environment. These same forests can put them in danger of wildfires, which have been occurring more and more frequently around the world as a consequence of rising temperatures.

“We make sure that the vineyards that we have are very capable of surviving in any sort of future environment.”

As a precaution, the Harlan Estate has employed a whole team of people whose role is to take care of the forest by clearing out the dead trees and keeping its ecosystem in balance, Will says.

Artistry in every bottle

To Will Harlan, winemaking is an act of artistic creation, the one that combines forces of man and nature to make something beautiful.

“We think of winegrowing as the art of man and nature. It takes both sides working together,” – he says, adding, – “but my own personal view is that nature is really the artist. Our role, the human role, is to be able to translate that into something that is communicable to other humans.”

The wines produced at Harlan Estate are easily recognised by the eye-catching design of the bottle with an exquisite label portraying a woman harvesting grapes. The history behind the label is as unique as the whole history of the estate.

Will explains that when his father was looking for a wine label, he was inspired by the postal stamps which he enjoyed collecting in his youth: “He wanted to figure out how he can have the same type of artwork, as well as the depth, warmth, and detail, on his bottles.”

As Bill Harlan realised that the stamps were being made by the same company that produced banknotes in the US, he asked the company representatives whether they could help him with his wine label. To his surprise, the company provided him with access to the archives of the artworks no longer in use. It was there that he found the image of the woman representing the estate’s wines up until this day.

“It was just iconic; it has wonderful depth and detail. He wanted the label that could be both recognised from across the room, but also, when you bring it up close, you have all these wonderful details, the texture and the depth,” – Will concludes.


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