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Star Interview: Bill Harlan – Man who rebuilt a Taj Mahal

Posted: Saturday, 19 November 2011 13:38

Bill Harlan – Man who rebuilt a Taj Mahal

Nov 19 : William Harlan, owner of the iconic Napa producer Harlan Estate was in India earlier this month after a gap of over 30 years to visit Delhi and Mumbai to feel the Indian market first hand when Subhash Arora met him over a private tasting with his son Will and later at the World Wine Symposium at Villa d’Este in Italy and shared some interesting facts.

Photo By: Will Harlan

Most wine connoisseurs in the USA know Bill Harlan as the cult wine producer who owns the two estates- Harlan Estate and Bond, whose wines are pre-sold mostly to subscribers on a mailing list on allocation. They may not be aware that this Californian who used to surf before Beach Boys became popular band in the early sixties and that he visited India over 30 years ago and spent 5-6 months in India, studieng Muslim architecture. He also went to Srinagar where he spent time living in and studying house-boats.

Man who re-produced a Taj Mahal

..Or at least he tried! Many people outside California may also not be aware that there is a community of house-boat dwellers in the up-market Sausalito, across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Bill was so much in love with the Taj Mahal that he made a 360 ton barge designed to look like it so he could live in it.

Photo By: Will Harlan
Inside the Taj Mahal
‘I had great interest in Follies – the architectural statements. I was very keen on Islamic architecture and read a lot of books on Agra. In the mid 70s I made a trip to Agra. I also visited the houseboat communities in Aberdeen in Hong Kong and Dal Lake in Kashmir 30 years ago.’ He lived with his family in the ‘Taj Mahal’ where his son Will grew up. He sold it after living in it for 25 years, in 2007  when he moved to Napa.

Visit to India

Bill had arrived in Delhi with his son Will Harlan and his Director Dan ‘harvesting the last fruit yesterday ‘ when I met him for the second time. He had already visited the Taj, Oberoi and Leela Hotels and was planning to go to Agra the next day. After spending 3 days in Mumbai they were planning to go to Villa d’Este near Milan to attend the 3-day World Wine Symposium where I would meet them again.

As Bill would tell me later at lunch at the Virk Restaurant at the Taj Mahal Hotel, the heir apparent Will had sat on an interview for the first time and quite enjoyed it (in fact, Will sent me several pictures of the ‘Taj Mahal’ in which he grew up. The coincidence was not lost on us. 

Background

‘Best way to be a millionaire in wine industry is to start as a billionaire,’ goes the cliché which is hardly applicable to Bill, though he may have started as a rich real estate developer. He may not have made billions in the real estate boom of the 60s and 70s but had made enough as a developer to follow his passion of winemaking. First he created Meadowood Spa and Resort in St. Helena which went on to become one of the top hospitality properties not only in Napa but also the USA with the Restaurant at Meadowood winning Michelin 3-stars in 2010. ‘I am very happy that we were awarded 3-stars last week for 2011 as well’, says a beaming Bill.

An idea is born

Giving credit to the late Robert Mondavi for his being in the wine business he says, ‘In 1966 I went to the Robert Mondavi winery when he suggested my St Helena property for his auction, as a neutral property. He sent me on a trip to France for 5 weeks two of which were in Hospice de Beaune. I got romantic idea of making wine there. I also went to Bordeaux and met the owners of first growth. I wanted to go beyond the romance and make wines like the first growth of Bordeaux except that they would be First Growth of California. So Bob was the first person who created the idea in my mind,’ he says unabashedly.

Seed is Sown

‘After the idea went into my head, I started looking around for land. I was very clear the land had to be on the hillside. We searched for 10 years till I finally came across the forest land, near Martha’s Vineyard.’

‘ I spent a lot of time visiting many wineries. I was confident that most valuable land would be in the hills-not too far or high. You don’t want too high as it gives too much vigour. Soils should not be as rich.’

‘After 10 years research, we wanted to break away from what has been done before but we did not want to forget history either. We spotted the land in the Oakville Rutherford bunch and bought the forest land, taking the risk. We cleared the land hoping we would be fortunate.’

To clear the area, build road and infrastructure- passion, patience , perseverance and 12 years of wines before it was ever sold, were required. It was capital going out before getting nickel of revenues.

Name is Bond..William Bond

Along the way- one hustles as one waits, says Bill. 'While waiting for Harlan Estate to develop, we started buying fruit in 1983 from 70 grape growers and also started to build relationships in California and getting to know distributors and importers. So we knew which ones would be with us in the long run. We got to know the vineyards of Napa. Out of 70 there were 5 which were head and shoulders above the rest. When we sold the first winery, we decided to build a portfolio making grand Crus of Napa Valley.  1999 was the first vintage for Bond and 2000 was released in 2004. Bond wines are also similar Bordeaux blends that sell at 60% of the Estate wines. We pre-sell Bond wines 12 months-15 months before,' he informs me

Correcting the misgivings that people have sometimes, Bond wines are not Seconds or inferior to the Harlan Estate, clarifies Bill. ‘They are like our estate wines accept they are produced from the 5 estates we selected out of the 70 I have talked about as the vineyards we had dealt with.’ St. Eden 2005 was the Bond wine we tasted together today. The full bodied opulent wine was generous in black fruit and danced in the mouth.

‘When you think Bond, think DRC.  We own the Bond label, we oversee the master-plan, there is great transparency and we have evergreen contracts with the 5 estates with 10 year- mutual contracts. We pay them by the acreage and tonnage etc, based on the index. They also share in the bottle price.’ 

Bond has separate winemaking facilities but everything else is the same, says Bill. Bond costs 60% of the Harlan Estate wine. Many people like it just as much as the Harlan Estate, claims; his missions is to educate people about Bond too.

Everything With Cabernet

Bill would be the last person to want to join the Anything But Cabernet Club; he is a strong supporter of Cabernet for Napa. ‘When I was younger I wanted to try every varietal we could think of. But then I realised that you need a focus and I started concentrating on Cabernet Sauvignon. We are now doing a Cabernet blend; a 100 years from now also it will be a Bordeaux blend, ‘he says. Although his love for wine grew in Burgundy where he also understood the importance of the hill side and slopes, he is confident that Pinot Noir is not for Napa. ‘Napa is cabernet. We are not Pinot experts,’ he adds shaking his head.

Vintages

Both the 1990 and 1991 vintages of Harlan Estate were released together in 1996 as the first Harlan Estate wines. The ‘88 89 vintage was released too but was not good enough so we did not sell it,’ says Bill. He is too modest to tell us that four of his vintages have earned 100 points from Robert Parker including 1997, 2001 and 2002.

Effect of Recession

So did the recession affect market for the Harlan Estate-or the prices?- ‘We have a long waiting list for subscribers which perhaps got a bit shortened but there was no reduction of prices,’ he says, adding ‘we don’t sell all our wines only to them as we feel the customers should find our wine throughout the world. Although we could sell all wines to subscribers- a third is reserved for the market.  In the after release market wine prices keep on appreciating.  Harlan Estate is pre sold 18 months before release to subscribers.’ To give me an idea of the market vs. release price, he told me that last year vintage of 2007 pre-sold at $500 and went out for $750 in the open market when released . 

He further explains, ‘demand continues to increase. The estate is not going to get any larger. For 10 years we looked and looked to buy as much as we could. It is not possible to buy any more land in the foreseeable future- it is either too steep with no excess or would have negative effect on aesthetics.’

Bowled Over by Maiden

What might be considered as the second wine-although it is made from the same grapes and the blend, Maiden is the second label of Harlan Estate, says Bill. Explaining the wine making process he says, ‘our wines are a blend of volcanic soil. We make 70 different wines and blend them. A group of 4 people taste the wines under evolution every 90 days from the barrel. The top selection goes to Harlan Estate while the next goes to the Maiden.

Maiden is pre-sold 6 months in advance and released in 3.5 years after the harvest. ‘It is as age-worthy wine as Harlan Estate,’ Bill clarifies but is priced at 30% of the Harlan Estate; at $150 it is a great value-for-money wine unless your palate is so evolved that you get all the nuances of the Harlan Estate. In some vintages they are very close but real connoisseurs can tell the fine differences, he adds.

20,000 bottles of Harlan Estate are produced every year whereas only 10,000 bottles of Maiden are made.

 

Harlan in India

Tasting at the World Wine Symposium at Villa d'Este
Harlan has been in India for 4 years and is shipped on allocation basis through Brindco. Maiden used to be available at Hotel Aman. Bond is also available. Obviously not possible to sell in retail, Harlan Estate is being sold in Leela for Rs.65,000 ($1300) +tax as well as Imperial but a few more outlets will stock it soon, hopefully.

Bill’s Philosophy

‘Best place to make the great wine is in vineyards,’ says Bill, adding, ‘I am here to give a message to people. We are champions of consumers in this part of the world,’ he says.

Bill believes in Return on Life- not return on investment For 26 years, wine was a small part of his business with 95% being in businesses like real estate and hotels.Bill knows he has to work hard to get people to accept his wines as like the Bordeaux First Growths.‘Bordeaux can get away with 1855, but  we follow Petrus model,’ adds Bill.  We are working as art, our target audience is like that only.'

When  I asked him about Global warming he said , ‘humans always get better with managing environment. We are responsible as stewards of environment- everything we do, it must be sustainable. After all the land will be within the family for many  years.'

We will drink a Harlan to that, Mr. Bond! or even a Maiden!!

Subhash Arora

Comments:

 
 

Debra Meiburg MW Says:

Interesting profile. Enjoyed very much!

Posted @ November 23, 2011 10:40

 
       

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