Harlan Estate Vineyard Block.

Harlan Estate and the Benefits of Playing the Long Game

By Published On: July 1st, 2024

The best producers understand that greatness often takes time.

Harlan Estate’s place in the pantheon of American wine producers may be assured today, as it has been for decades at this point, but there was a time before it was anything but. Much of this success, in hindsight, is a result of a steadfast willingness to play the long game. Because even early on—and this is the case with Harlan Estate, BOND, and Promontory alike—the Harlan family was willing to buck the trends of the time, and sacrifice short-term profits for something deeper and far more important: A true sense of understanding of each individual parcel, and a willingness to allow each vineyard, each block, to fully express itself in whatever way the vintage dictated.

“We’ve been on a very steep learning curve, just trying to understand the land and trying to get our heads around what this character is,” explains Will Harlan, referring to Promontory but also, in a sense, speaking to the patience and curiosoty that has guided and defined all of the family’s estates. “It’s not something that you can just understand immediately. We’re still on a very steep learning curve. I would say it’s probably more a conversation around how has our understanding of the property evolved, and how has our ability to translate that understanding into the wine evolved.”

BOND Wine Estate and vineyard.
BOND (pictured here), Harlan Estate, and Promontory are all built on the idea that greatness takes time. Photo Courtesy: BOND WINE.

That’s the crux of the work that the Harlan family domain has undertaken over the decades, and it is, by definition, a slow, laborious process. In fact, they’re learned over the years that the best way to get to the heart of a vineyard, and of the wine that grows in it, is to slowly, methodically excise anything that might potentially cover it up. “It’s more like we’re removing the layers that are extraneous, and so we’re left with a very, very essential representation of the character,” Harlan says. He likens it to Michelangelo’s famous quote about how every block of marble already contains its eventual sculpture within, and it’s the work of the sculptor to remove the unnecessary stone and reveal it.

Harlan also speaks of Picasso’s study of the form of a bull to explain more viscerally the work over the years at Promontory—though again, it could absolutely apply to the domain’s other estates, too.

“You start with this very detailed, almost literal representation of a bull, and you have twelve frames, and by the end, you have this incredibly simple but clearly evocative representation of a bull that is unmistakably a bull, but it’s only [a few] lines,” he says. “All of the complexity is subsumed within that. But what you see is this very essential, very kind of pure expression of the bull. I couldn’t come up with a better way to explain our evolution with Promontory.”

The willingness to play the long game, to work with each successive vintage to remove anything that’s unnecessary in the quest for a pure expression of place, is one of the hallmarks of the Harlan family domain. In the beginning, it was far from a sound way to guarantee early profits, but in the longterm, it’s lifted the family’s wines to the very pinnacle around the world.

Sometimes, the slowest work is the most impactful.

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