Harlan Estate A First Growth California Cabernet Sauvignon Wine


Harlan Estate Wines

Harlan Estate has over the years become a mythical California Cabernet. Only Screaming Eagle is held is higher esteem.  How did this happen and how are some of the wines showing today?
Bill Harlan created Harlan Estate in 1984. The 36 acres of  vineyards are located high in the western Oakville hills. The site overlooks the famed Martha’s vineyard. The peaks and valleys range in elevation from 225 to 1225 feet.   The vineyards are part of a much larger property. In total, Harlan controls over 240 acres. Much of that land is devoted to hills, valleys and stunning vistas.  According to Bill Harlan, his goal was eatfor Harlan Estate to produce a First Growth equivalent in California.  He’s achieved that with Harlan Estate wines in quality, price and status.
eHarlan Estate began taking shape in 1984, when Harlan planted the original 6 acres. The vineyards consist of 70% cabernet sauvignon, 20% merlot, 8% cabernet franc and 2% petiti verdot. That varietal combination would be at home in Bordeaux in any First Growth property located in the Meodc.
All great wines share a common thread, they are produced in the vineyard. Harlan Estate practices severe selection.  To insure the elegant textures, freshness and complexity Harlan is known for, they desteem without breaking the skin, forgo pump overs and strive for gentle extractions.  The wine is fermented in small, open top vats. Malolactic takes place in 100% new French oak. The wine remains in barrel for 24-36 months, depending on the vintage. 
The first commercial vintage of Harlan released was the 1990. The team consists of  Don Weaver, estate director, Bill Levy, wine growing director, Mary Maher, vineyard manager, winemaker, Cory Empting and Michel Rolland, the consultant.
Average annual production of Harlan estate varies from 1,200 cases to slightly over 2,000 cases.  Harlan also produced a second wine. The Maiden made its debut in 1995. The wine is a different blend than you find in Harlan Estate. The average annual production is about 900 cases.
Harlan Estate is expensive. The wine is sold direct to customers on Harlan’s mailing list.  The current release costs over $500 per bottle. Is it worth it? That depends on your income level and desire. From a quality point of view, you’re going to have a hard time finding a better expression of California Cabernet. The wines are refined, powerful concentrated, elegant, sophisticated, perfectly balanced and offer intense purity. 
What do they taste like? I was fortunate to experience two vintages recently.
2002 Harlan Estate – With its explosive nose of licorice, blackberry, blue fruit, jammy berries, oak, fresh herbs, oak and caramel grabs your attention. Thick, juicy, dense and concentrated, with layers of creamy, polished jammy blackberries and coffee flavors, this made a solid impression. I tasted this on release and thought it was over the top.  I did not understand Robert Parker’s high praise.  This tasting changed my mind.  I was surprised by how much I liked it.  It’s truly a world class wine. 99 Pts
1995 Harlan Estate  – When this was poured, I was told it was the 98 I was blown away by how good the wine was. I was convinced this was the California cabernet of the vintage. When I discovered it was the 95, I did not care, this was compelling.  Filled with black cherry jam, licorice, smoke, herbs and truffle scents, this rich, dense wine was a treat for the senses The wine ends with silky blackberry and chocolate flavors. 97 Pts
If you have comments on this article, or any thoughts on Harlan to share, please post.


  1. Jeff. I so enjoy this site. Your articles are always fun to read, and insightful. I had a bad experience with the 2002 Harlan a few months back. I found it disjointed and unremarkable. If it was a bad bottle, this was not obvious, but perhaps it was. And given your review I suspect it may have been. I will say that a number of other people have reported similar experiences with this wine. Now the 2004 is another matter altogether: special in every way.

  2. Steve Matthesen on

    Bill and Don still have some ’87, ’88 and ’89 around — but I haven’t been able to talk him into sharing. Would be a fun addition.

  3. Steve Matthesen on

    They are big wines, but I generally find them to be elegant as well. The 1997 is the only vintage I find to be riddled with VA — and even there, have found significant bottle variation.

    Jeff — we should do a full vertical. Last time it was quite fun. I have one or two more…

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