Bill Harlan: Father of California’s First Growths

Bill Harlan: Father of California’s First Growths

by Westgarth Wines April 17, 2023

Bill Harlan is the founder of Harlan Estate, as well as several other wineries responsible for some of the world’s most cherished Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. The driving force behind Harlan was to create California’s own “First Growths”, a mission he foresaw with a 200-year trajectory. Nearly 40 years into the journey, things look rosy for the future.

Wine was not Harlan’s first career. He rode motorcycles, raced, had a stint as a poker player, and even opened a flying school, all before the age of 35, at which point he turned his hand to real estate. Co-founding Union Pacific, he found enormous success, allowing him to acquire Meadowood in 1978 and turn the country club into the cherished Napa Valley luxury resort it is today. Still, wine was the big dream, and it was a trip to France with Robert Mondavi that gave him the idea of making a Californian first growth.

Love of the land drove Harlan, and, while living on a boat, he started searching for promising pieces with the dream of someday having a winery. This was all before Napa was the household name it is now. Having studied the great wines of the world, he determined that finding hillside land would be important. He also counts finding the right people to work with as being nearly as important as finding the right land – first and foremost, his wife Deborah.

In 1986 he helped found Merryvale Winery before finally launching his eponymous winery. The land he had found was situated in Oakville, in the hills just above Martha’s Vineyard and To Kalon. It had been previously purchased in 1984 and planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. The debut vintage of Harlan Estate was released in 1990.

Harlan established BOND years later in 1997, after discovering several more pristine lots of Napa land. The name reflects the estate’s commitment to the winegrowers – a bond to be shared between the earth, those who worked it, and the wine. In 2008 he added Promontory to his list of triumphs, the wine coming from vineyards a mile south of Harlan Estate. And if this is not enough, he started Napa Valley Reserve, a private wine club allowing members to craft their own blends.

His dream of creating both First-Growth level wines and having a family is realized and entwined. Recently announcing that the estate would stay in the family, his son Will will be taking the reins of Harlan, BOND, and Promontory. Will sees it as his mission to deepen the connection between the wine and the land that his father prepared, as well as prepare a third generation when the time is right.







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