Bill Harlan's Bond - the lure of something you can't have

A 2007 article in Decanter Magazine quoted Don Weaver, Harlan Estate manager, saying "I guess it's the lure of people wanting something they can’t have" as the likely reason for the multi-year waiting list for the ultra-expensive Harlan Estate Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, California's top so-called "cult wine" (along with Screaming Eagle). If Harlan Estate's top Bordeaux blend sells for $400-1000 a bottle (under $300 for loyal members), its sister winery - Bond - makes single-vineyard "thoroughbreds" that go for $250 and up.

A 2001 article by Food & Wine Magazine paints a picture of Harlan Estate's founder Bill Harlan (and his team that includes famous international wine consultant Michel Rolland) as a man of vision, with a multi-generational view of how what he does today lays the groundwork for the future. A man who allows time for the right things to emerge and evolve, and a philosopher clearly not after a quick return. In the article "Harlan agrees that there are too many overpriced wines being sold right now, but says he is confident that the market will sort itself out. And when will that be? 'Sooner or later,' comes the enigmatic reply. Harlan the philosopher knots his fingers together and smiles: 'Sooner or later we'll get back to simplicity, a simplicity that's on the other side of complexity, an informed simplicity, if you will. That's what I'm looking to achieve. That's what I'm after.'"

In his 2006 book A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine a renowned wine writer Jay McInerney wrote: "Harlan Estate was the first of the cult Cabernets that swept into the Napa Valley in the nineties like guerrillas coming down from the hills, challenging the preeminence of such valley-floor aristocrats as Mondavi and Heitz. Less than two decades later it's a classic, the most consistently celebrated and coveted Napa Cab of them all. Meanwhile, owner Bill Harlan and winemaker Bob Levy have been creating a new wine - or, rather, three new wines [at the time of the writing] - along with what may be a new paradigm or, at the very least, a new name to make connoisseurs and collectors salivate. The name is Bond. [James Bond :)]." No, actually the name Bond is Bill Harlan's mother's maiden name. It's also symbolic of his commitment and tie to the land, to the growers, to the vision. Who are the others in this elite "newcomer cult" club? According to the team at Bond, it's the likes of Araujo, Screaming Eagle, Bryant Family, and Colgin.

The rolling hills and vineyards of Harlan Estate.

Enoch and I come out of my bimmer, gaze at the tastefully stately estate, take in the stunning views of the Napa Valley below, and see a trio coming our way. Paul Roberts is a type of guy who greets you with a chilled bottle of Krug. Next to him, Cory Empting - the winemaker, and Mary Maher - the vineyard manager, welcoming.

"I didn't know you make Krug here too", I jest. The way Paul handles the bottle, I can tell he is a master som. Before this job, he was a wine director for Thomas Keller restaurant group. The darn Champagne is awesome. "I am glad I got a few of these in my cellar", I think to myself as I sip. The smile is already stretching across my face, the groove is on. Two minutes into the visit to Bond, I like these folks, and I can tell this is gonna be fun!

Bill Harlan owns 240 acres of these lands. Harlan Estate and Bond Estate are just a rolling hill apart. Bill and wife Deborah live on top of the next hill over. The magic earth makes ultra-premium bottle of Napa cab that would qualify for Grand Cru if such a French notion ever took hold in Napa. We walk the facilities, noticing different kinds of fermentation vessels - stainless steel, large wooden vats, regular small barrels, applied depending on the vineyard. We sip more Krug, as we absorb the ethos of Bond.

From left to right: Cory Empting, the Bond winemaker, Mary Maher, the vineyard manager, Paul Roberts, the estate director, and yours truly Iron Chevsky.

Six great vineyards of Napa. Five found. One to be discovered. The vision inspired by DRC's six reds - Echezeaux, Grands Echezeaux, Romanee-St-Vivant, Richebourg, La Tache, Romanee-Conti. Bond's Melbury, Veccina, St. Eden, Pluribus. It's taken Bill and his team 12 years to confirm the fifth - Quella, which debuted in 2006. Many other vineyards they had invested in dearly did not achieve. Paul hinted that the sixth and final vineyard may be revealed in the next three years. Gripping.

Upstairs we settle down to taste all five from 2006 and soon-to-be-released 2007. It is obvious to me they sit between Bordeaux and Napa. None of the jammy, raisiny, over-the-top, oak monstrosities that typify "Napa cab". The 2006's have great purity, juiciness and decent acidity that I've always appreciated in Bond (albeit less than in Ridge or a typical Bordeaux). The wines are concentrated, plush, perfumey, particularly the Melbury and Pluribus, with well integrated oak. I am blown away when Paul flexes his sommelier muscles by suggesting specific pairings for each of the vineyards. "People go for 'slab and a cab'", he laments. "But try Melbury with bird - squab, duck or turkey", he says. It is unexpected, but it makes sense, because the wine is the most open, soft and fruity of the bunch. "Quella - with flavors of the ocean (!!!) like eel poached in red wine with lardons!" Quella is less aromatic than Melbury, but I love its complex flavors of mint, herbs, minerals, and hints of dry seaweed - maybe that's what Cory and Paul meant by oceany. St. Eden tastes of spice. "Pair it with braised meats with rosemary, thyme, and olives. Or Rib-eye. It could be used in the same context as Southern Rhones." Veccina is very round and plush, but with stronger tannins, menthol and dry herbs. "It works like a Brunello", suggests Paul. "Try it with New York strip." Pluribus is dense, open, fragrant, tasting of sweet root vegetables, black fruits, and pepper spice. "Have it with lamb or cheese". I gobble a few chunks of the hard but creamy Bonati Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and sip the wine - delicious! (Note to self: pair Bordeaux varieties with hard cheeses).

"When visitors come to Napa, they get up late when the fog is gone. They come to the winery to adore the views, they taste the wines, they leave in time for gastronomic dinner, they have a charmed image of what we do here", says Paul. "They don't see the variability and the harshness of the night fog, the unfriendliness of this wild terrain. They look up to the blue skies and out to the green rolling hills and valleys. But they don't look down at the earth. The earth is where we focus our energies - it's what gives the distinction and character to our wines. Land before brand!", he exclaims. Next to each single-vineyard bottle of 2006 is a jar of dirt that looks completely different from vineyard to vineyard - different color, different size and texture, different stones. Different!

The 2007 vintage is supposed to be a super-vintage, highly acclaimed by critics, and commanding higher prices. To my palate, those wines are bigger, hotter (more alcoholic), riper, and altogether not ready to drink yet. So powerful are they, in fact, that nuanced vineyard variations are tough to pick out at this stage. In the long term, perhaps they will outperform the quieter 2006, but the likely and sad reality is that most trophy hunters will buy and drink the hyped 2007's very soon. Typically, a Bond will reach its peak at 8 years. A vintage like 2007 may need 12. "Folks who drink them young will maybe get 75% of what the wine could deliver", Paul points out.

"How did you do in 2010?" I ask the Bond winemaker Cory Empting and vineyard manager Mary Maher, both with the winery for over 10 years. "I'd never seen this type of growing season", Cory says. "Colder than normal for most of the season, with a few severe heat waves, and slightly warmer than average toward the very end. Our harvest was delayed by a couple of weeks. We dropped a lot of fruit during the season, to concentrate the berries." (Note to self: it sounds like the wines will be lower alcohol, higher acidity, more transparency - my kind of vintage!) Mary continues: "In September-October, we combed through each vineyard multiple times, hand-picking cluster by cluster only the ripe ones." It reminded me of my conversations with Xavier Planty from Chateau Guiraud of Sauternes - an extremely labor-intensive and expensive process, but one that is essential for achieving the highest quality.

How does one afford to own 240 acres of prime Napa land? How can one sustain such standards of vineyard development, grape growing and wine making? It was Bill Harlan, a real estate developer, who in 1979 bought and transformed the luxurious Meadowood resort on the east side of Napa Valley. In 1983, he helped found the Merryvale winery, where he worked with more than sixty different growers - an experience that opened Bill's eyes to the diversity, specificity, and potential of certain Napa sites to be of "grand cru" quality. Harlan Estate was founded in 1984 with more of Bordeaux sensibility - a single first growth (grand cru) Chateau with adjacent, estate-owned vineyards, blended into the first and second wines. Harlan eventually sold the Merryvale winery but kept its two best vineyards for what was to become Bond's first cru's (Melbury and Veccina). Bond was founded in 1997, with perhaps more of Burgundian sensibility - vinify and bottle separately from each of the estate-owned top growth (grand cru) vineyards from the region.

Everything - decor, wines, people, even labels exude class, restraint, and quiet confidence. The labels are printed using a real old-school United States paper bill press, based on the late-19th century engraved US stamp designs, and made more like money than wine labels. To understand Bill Harlan's obsession with perfection, consider this - so fond was he of the subtle colors of one particular (asked not to be named for security reasons) foreign currency that he bought up the exclusive rights to the color palette. Every Bond label today is printed in those colors, along with anti-counterfeit measures in place. Notice the watermarked letter B at the bottom of the label when the bottle is tilted.

Bill Harlan and his team believe. Their faith is to create not just wines but a legend of Bond, to last through history. "We don't like to be called cult winery, because that suggests a fad, a trend, a temporary phenomenon in time. I worked with Thomas Keller for 5 years, I plan to be here for another 30-40.", says Paul Roberts.

That is the ethos of Bill Harlan. A man of vision.

Related links:
  • For another excellent summary of Bond, I recommend my fellow blogger Alder Yarrow's 2009 article.
  • An in-depth story of Paul Roberts can be read here.


Do Bianchi said…
wow, these wines really inspire you, don't they?

I've never tasted them.

Paul is a legend here in Texas...

Great to see you writing with such verve, Gary... great post...

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