The Maiden of Harlan Estate

I tasted in quiet contemplation, taking time to explore every reflection of the light, every smell, every sip. Fourteen wines in front of me. Most mere mortals never experience any of them... it was a privilege.

I talked a lot about Bill Harlan and his vision in a recent BOND article. To sum it up, in Napa, it doesn't get much "cultier" than Harlan Estate. In its rarified stratosphere of wine prestige only few others make it - Screaming Eagle, Araujo, Harlan's other great label BOND, a handful of others. These are the American "first growths", with mad following to stalk their wait lists and price tags to match. "First growth" may be a French concept, but to me, Harlan tastes nothing like its famous Bordeaux brethren. Distinctly new-world, Harlan is a wine of decadence, perhaps the most hedonistic, luscious, richest red wine I've ever had.

I asked the director of Harlan Estate - Don Weaver, who has been with the estate for 26 years, that if I were to make a trip all the way to Oakville, it had better be something that's never been done before. And he obliged. Thus, one fine recent afternoon, two of my wine compadres - Dan and Scott, and myself, landed on the steps of the gorgeous Harlan Estate villa overlooking Napa Valley from 450 feet high, wondering what's in store.

First, all class, we were greeted by a bottle of Krug. Always a fine conversation starter, Krug never disappoints. Overlooking the famous Martha's Vineyard on the valley floor just beneath, Don updated us on the stats. 240 acres of hillside, almost 40 acres under vine, encircling the estate: cabernet sauvignon (70%), merlot (20%), cabernet franc (8%), and petit verdot (2%), which after ruthless selection produce only 2000 cases of Harlan Estate ($500 pre-release), and 900 cases of the Maiden ($150). The wines are allocated to loyal subscribers, and after a release, nothing is left, even at these prices. The good news, said Don, even the first year subscriber typically gets at least a bottle of The Maiden, no wait required.

View of Napa Valley from the terrace of Harlan Estate.
Marquee vintages and 100-point Parker scores virtually guarantee long-term appreciation and speculation, which further reinforce the epic image of the estate. If it seems that with a brand name and a following like that, Harlan has it "easy", consider this. The winery was founded in 1984 - there was nothing but forest. The first 3 vintages (1987-1989) were bottled but never released, as Bill Harlan and his team deemed them not quite up to par. All still safely tucked away in their coffers - away from the raving fans. Something I plan to examine more closely on my next visit perhaps. The first releases of Harlan - 1990 and 1991 - were only made available to the public in 1996. The first Maiden was a 1995, when Harlan, as many other top wineries of the world, realized that much of the material that may not make it into their first wine was still very similar in character to the flagship wine and high in quality. They labeled it as The Maiden, and it's been one of the most sought after second wines in California.

After an overview of the estate which took our breaths away, we headed to the winery's Flag Room for the reveal. In front of us we had the latest vintage (2007) of Harlan Estate, and then a row of every vintage of The Maiden released to-date - all thirteen - from 1995 to 2007 - an incredible lineup, first ever, as proudly emphasized by Don Weaver and the winemaker Cory Empting who joined us to educate himself on the evolution of the Maiden. Cory has been working at Harlan since 2001, and as a winemaker for both Harlan Estate and BOND Estate since 2006.

Three hours later, it was clear that there was great consistency among the wines, regardless of the vintage. Dominant characteristics ran across: chocolate-covered berries (blueberries?), spice, echos of mushrooms, nutmeg, truffles and forest floor, wrapped by incredible sweetness that hid powerful tannins. Cashmere textures, luscious, glycerous mouth-feel. Sweet but not jammy, acidity hardly perceptible. The oldest - 1995 - just started showing secondary characteristics - still incredibly youthful. The power and sweetness of the '95 had subsided a bit, revealing more complexity. It was my favorite of the tasting, betraying my personal disposition toward restraint. Clearly these wines can age and will be very interesting to try again in 10 years. The 2007 Harlan Estate was more refined and multi-dimensional than The Maiden. The flagship routinely earns high points from Robert Parker, including five 100-pointers (1994, 1997, 2001, 2002, 2007). Antonio Galloni who has taken over from Robert Parker as California's taster for Wine Advocate is yet to rate these wines.

Here is how the wines struck the palates of my friends and I:

  • 1995 The Maiden - Showing signs of color change/development. Color turning from purple to red. Good musky dusty "damp cave" elements, much more so than the younger vintages. "Great vintage" says director Don Weaver, and he said Parker went gaga when he tried it. Loads of violet/cherry, dried herbs, and almost a touch of a heady Calvados aroma. Higher percentage of Cab Franc (over 50%) in '95/'96 Maidens. My favorite of the tasting.
  • 1996 The Maiden - Beautiful drinkability window, jusssst starting to show hints of development. Higher percentage of Cab Franc (over 50%) in '95/'96 Maidens. Sweet and sexy chocolate meets oak, with a dollop of pencil lead and loamy mushroom. Spice and higher acid than most others. A "landmark" Maiden says director Don.
  • 1997 The Maiden - A hot year says director Don Weaver. Very spicy, tannic, and quite sweet.
  • 1998 The Maiden - Challenging year says Don and winemaker Cory. Cooler year, harvest later in November. Some discussion of whether this is flawed or not. Ok to my taste. There is still some nice fruit and hints of goodness. Very thick, tea component, a bit plummy.
  • 1999 The Maiden - A step up in decadent sweet oozing chocolate covered cherry. Director and winemaker loved how this was showing today. They called '99 a "B- vintage" but punching above its weight now for sure. Very spicy, sweet, very blueberry, nice complex mint, eucalyptus, one of the top 3 for me (along with 1995 and 2001).
  • 2000 The Maiden - A vintage "maligned by all" says director Don Weaver, but we agreed altho not the best on the table of '95-'07, it still has some nice qualities. Some sweet, plump character, maybe a bit much there. Mineral + spice
  • 2001 The Maiden - A classic restrained Napa year, a "landmark for Harlan" says director Don. This Maiden has a sweet and sexy disposition, yet retains balance. Loads of the classic dusty chocolaty black cherry + blueberry goodness. Velvety. Softness & finesse.
  • 2002 The Maiden - A hot hot year in Napa, '02s are super forward and can be overripe. This one came across super smooth and unctuous, with loads of bursting sweet fruit. "The asterisk vintage" says the winemaker. A few overripe elements swirl in and out, but still pretty classy for a hot year. Plum, mocha, sweet & tasty.
  • 2003 The Maiden - "This was a B- vintage" say the winemaking staff. One of the more funky/coppery noses of the '95-'07 bunch. Oak is more noticeable. Palate still OK tho, with some good fruit and oozy goodness. Soft, spicy, blueberry liqueur pie, a bit much.
  • 2004 The Maiden - Densely packed with minerals, chocolate, fruit, and spice. A "more classic Napa" vintage, lotsa glacee fruit altho a touch of a vegetal note swirled in and out as it aired in the glass.
  • 2005 The Maiden - A wine "punching above its weight, at the 'seven year itch' stage" says Don. Agree that it is showing well -- sweet and unctuous on the palate, soft yet refreshing, lotsa spice and dark inky fruits. Intense, even mor eso than 2006.
  • 2006 The Maiden - Showing very flamboyantly with loads of bitter chocolate, chocolate covered cherry, Indian spices and almost a cola note here and there. A "slightly above average" vintage and showing youthfully well now. Intense, spicy, chocolate blueberry, and tannin.
  • 2007 The Maiden - "Landmark Harlan vintage" say the winemaking and management team. Huge fruity dusty chocolatey bomb today for sure. Sweet and spicy. Like a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and coconut, yet bone dry.
  • 2007 Harlan Estate - A step up in elegance and complexity from the Maiden. Loads of smoky, licoricey, sweet cherry milk chocolate goodness -- yet bone dry of course. Crushed minerals and a dollop of a sweet dustiness add to the package...

The tally:

Don's faves: 2005, 1999, and 1995
Cory's: 2001, 2005, 1999
Dan's: 1999, 1996, and 2005
Scott's: 2007, 2002, 2000, 1995
Gary's: 1995, 2001, 1999

That makes the 1999 the group's favorite, 2005 the second favorite, and 1995 the third.

With a disclaimer that he is no master sommelier like Paul Roberts (of BOND), Don recommended some food matches: "Pair these with mushrooms, truffles, ragu, birds with legs up in the air, gamier meats, things that have some smoke..."

"So you have Harlan Estate, patterned after a Bordeaux estate, and BOND, patterned after a Burgundian domaine. Both tremendously successful. What else is Bill [Harlan] up to?", I asked. "Well, Bill is still involved in various ventures, particularly Meadowood, but he lives here on the estate, and this is where he heart is. In Bill's vision, it's a 200 year project. We are still in the first act. But maybe, just maybe, there could be a third winery in the works...", hinted Don. More to be revealed, as the Harlan juggernaut marches on.


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