Sunday, April 29, 2007

Napa: A Day of Contrasts, Part One

When working in the wine trade, it becomes quite common for wine visits – part pleasure, part work – to be intertwined with personal vacation. Case in point: when making a long overdue trip to visit some good friends in Monterey, California earlier this year, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take them along for the three-hour drive up to the Napa/Sonoma heartland for a few days of wine exploration. After two very relaxing days investigating the Sonoma, Russian River Valley and Healdsburg areas, we capped things off with a whirlwind of a day in Napa. Our choice of winery visits that day, Harlan Estate and Stony Hill Vineyard, proved to be a most unusual combination, a stark study in contrasts.

Morning session – Harlan Estate:
As it stands today, Harlan Estate is the end result of the classic California modest-to-magnificent entrepreneurial success story. A butcher’s son, founder Bill Harlan grew up in Southern California. As an adult, he and some friends founded Pacific Union Realty, where Bill quickly amassed a fortune through strong investments and a good head for the market. When the wine bug eventually bit, he leveraged his capital to become a partner in Merryvale Vineyards. During his tenure at Merryvale, Bill’s dream, to create a Napa Valley equivalent to the First Growth châteaux of the left bank of Bordeaux, eventually gave birth to what is now Harlan Estate. He spent roughly ten years purchasing and piecing together the six original properties that now make up Harlan’s 240-acre spread. Today, forty acres are under vine, with a pure focus on hillside vineyards; the remaining 200 acres consist of building lots and protected forest area. Since their first vintage in 1990, Harlan has quickly built a reputation for producing one of the most highly sought after and expensive wines in the state, appearing on just about every major critic’s top-five list of most collectible California “cult wines.”

Before I proceed too much further, I should warn you: don’t get your hopes up, wine country tourists. Harlan is not typically open to visitors. As a rule, they accept only one visit per week, always by appointment only, almost always by a member of the trade or a large-scale, existing customer. I lucked my way into an appointment via the trade route as I work at a shop which is one of the few retail outlets in the country for the wines of Harlan. Again, don’t get your hopes up, shoppers. Every bottle is pre-sold. The wine never makes it onto the shelves. It probably doesn’t in any store. Frankly, Harlan could get away with never accepting visitors. They’d still sell every bottle they make. But any good marketing mind knows that allowing an occasional peek at the elite builds demand and anticipation. To that end, Harlan Estate employs a full-time hospitality and PR manager, Ted Davidson.

Ted’s job began well before our arrival. I don’t believe I’ve ever received so many confirmation and informational phone calls and e-mails for a single winery visit. His last call provided details for a detour, through the vineyard paths of neighbors on the valley floor, around some unannounced road work on the lane leading up to Harlan’s unmarked, private drive. Once through the electronic security gate, we wound up the switchback drive to find Ted ready to guide us into an appropriate parking position. Our first stop on the tour was less than typical. A set of wooden stairs led to a wooden landing built into the hillside looking down onto Harlan’s lower vineyards and the valley below. Waiting on the landing were five Riedel flutes and a chilled bottle of Bollinger NV Brut Champagne – not a bad way to get things started. We enjoyed our early morning glasses of bubbly while learning a bit about the history, mission and landscape of the estate, our discussion intermittently accented by snips from the pruning shears of the Central American field crew working the vines immediately below us.

The terraced vineyards at Harlan spread across the hillsides of their property over an elevation range from 200-1200 feet. The dips and curves of the Oakville Grade provide for a diversity of exposition and slope, leading to the identification by Harlan’s vineyard manager of over 60 different block characteristics. Typical to the terroir of Oakville, which includes a high percentage of Napa and Sonoma volcanic soil, Cabernet Sauvignon rules the roost, representing about 80% of the estate’s plantings. Vines are rounded out by Merlot (10%) as well as Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot which together comprise the remaining 10%. About 40 different plot and vine-specific barrel selections are made by the winemaking team, giving them a great degree of flexibility and nuance when determining the final blend in any given vintage. Fruit is not put into production here until the sixth or seventh leaf; vines are considered mature at 15-20 years depending upon site and variety. With yields ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 tons per acre, fairly low by Napa standards, concentration and quality are sought first and foremost. Roughly 20% of each year’s crop – produce from the youngest vines and fruit not quite up to grade – is sold off anonymously on the local market. Anonymity is strictly maintained to avoid possibility of brand dilution via the creation of “Harlan Vineyard” bottlings by any other producers.

The biggest parts of the typical visit, a walk through the vineyards and a tour of the cellars and winery, turn out to be Ted’s simplest. We set not one foot in a vineyard, viewing the plants and earth only from our perch on the hillside deck and from the upper driveway. And the winery is the epitome of simplicity. Harlan makes only two wines, both red and both relatively non-interventionist. As a result, equipment is kept to the highest quality basics. Because bottling is simultaneous for both wines and done only once per year, hiring a mobile bottling unit is preferred to owning and maintaining in-house equipment. Most primary fermentation (about 80%) is carried out in open-top oak casks, with the remaining 20%, mostly for the Merlot and Cabernet Franc, conducted in steel. Aside from space for the vats, a bladder press, de-stemmer and a few other necessities, the majority of the pristinely clean, unadorned yet handsomely designed space is given over to barrel storage. To support the richness and structure of their fruit, Harlan uses 100% new barriques in which their wines age for 26 months, resulting in three vintages resting in barrel at any given time. Cooperage is of the highest quality. The center exterior portion of each barrique is intentionally “painted” with a coating of its contents, giving the barrel room a warm, organic yet highly manicured aura. We were not offered barrel tasting samples.

For our final destination, Ted led us into the hospitality section of the winery, a single, high-ceilinged, exposed beam room with a lounge area, tasting/dining table and one of Mr. Harlan’s three private wine libraries (books, not bottles). Floor-to-ceiling glass doors span each length of the room and, in warmer weather, can be opened to admit the hillside breezes and provide a panoramic view of vines and benchland forest. In this “hunting lodge chic” room, the hopes of something to taste would finally be realized. First though, all of us relaxing in the black leather arm chairs in the sitting area, Ted took the opportunity to provide us with a fuller understanding of the concept of the estate.

As mentioned earlier, Bill Harlan’s original and continuing vision is for his property and wines to be thought of in the same way one might consider the greatest estates of Bordeaux. When one mentions Château Latour or Château Lafite-Rothschild, the idea goes, there is little need to mention that they are located in Pauillac and, in theory at least, there should be no need to mention grape variety. They are known simply as “Latour” and as “Lafite.” This aim is reflected in the branding campaign, the labeling and the packaging of Harlan’s two wines. In addition to elegant and consistent artwork, the labels simply state the name of the wine and the place of origin. Grape names do not appear and there is no “story” on the back label. Also like many of the most respected estates of the Médoc, Harlan produces only two wines: their first-quality wine, Harlan Estate, and a second wine, The Maiden. The Maiden is not intentionally crafted to be gentler, simpler or cheaper; rather, it is an honest second wine, produced from the younger vine fruit of the estate and from barrel selections that do not make the cut for the first wine. And like the great growths of the Gironde, Harlan’s wines are expensive. The most recent releases, straight from Harlan’s mailing list, were priced at $350 and $100 per bottle. Good luck finding them at those prices once they hit the retail and secondary markets. Harlan Estate, in particular, can at least double in value as soon as it hits the shelf or the auction block. They are wines only for the wealthy, the lucky and the foolhardy; that said, the wines are good.

When we finally got down to the business of tasting, we realized that we were, after all, being offered barrel samples. The final blend of the 2004s had been racked for bottling just days earlier; the half-bottles of each wine we’d spied on the coffee table had been pulled from the bottling vat that very morning.

The Maiden 2004 offers a lush, forward mouthful of plum, raspberry and blueberry fruit with a subtle hint of menthol, all framed by ripe, fine-grained tannins. The wine is built to last but already, before even undergoing its destined sixteen months of pre-release bottle aging, eminently drinkable. Less than 1000 cases of The Maiden are produced each year and it is offered for sale only via the estate’s mailing list. Contrary to popular myth, you need not “know someone” to get on Harlan’s list. Anyone interested can sign up and all will be offered a limited number of bottles of The Maiden in the first year. It will, however, typically take three or more years of purchasing The Maiden before access to the Harlan Estate bottling is offered. Once you’re offered Harlan, your previous allocation of The Maiden is turned over to new customers.

Not much remained at this point of our visit other than the pièce de résistance. Harlan Estate 2004 is seriously good juice. Black cherry in color and opaque at its core, it shows a lovely tint of ripe cherry red at its rim. The flavors are bigger, more powerful and brooding relative to The Maiden. Its tannins are firmer and more muscular. One senses a serious expression of the Oakville hillside terroir, not loaded up with unwieldy winemaking flourishes. Flavors of concentrated black currant, blackberry and roasted meats prevail, with tremendous length on the finish. Winemaker Bob Levy targets a 20 year peak for this wine, well beyond the current trend for a 5-10 year apogee at most Napa wineries. By contemporary standards, its alcohol content is reasonable at 14.5%; its balance is impeccable. I’d love to have some of this in my cellar. At $350+ per bottle though, I can’t afford a drop of the stuff – and Ted wouldn’t sell me any that day, even if I could. At least two-thirds of Harlan’s limited 1,500 case production is sold directly to mailing list customers. The balance goes primarily to high-end restaurants and to a very limited number of retail outlets.

At the end of the morning, when Ted made it clear that our time was done, it was hard not to leave feeling impressed. Harlan’s property is one of the most spectacular, not in ostentation but rather in natural position, in Napa wine country. It was also hard not to feel like we’d been rolled through a highly practiced exercise, seeing and hearing only what is desired. And tasting, it seems, only by luck. If not for the recent racking of the 2004’s, I was left wondering if we’d have been served any samples. Even on visits to Latour and Lafite in the winter of 2004, in full knowledge that I was not representing a buyer of their products, I was offered at least two or three vintages of the marquee wine plus several back vintages of the second wines. But then, their production levels are about ten times that of Harlan – and their history and experience centuries longer. It will be interesting to see how the vision at Harlan Estate stands the test of time.

Stay tuned for a report on part two of the day. Our visit to Stony Hill Vineyard would prove to be another world relative to the morning’s adventure.

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