The last one per cent -BILL HARLAN
The clock above the tennis court said it was 5:32 P.M. and the scoreboard in my head showed that I was losing. I prepared to deliver my second serve. As usual, my opponent stood on the other side of the net, nearly immobile, with the same calculated expression on his face into whose abyss I had been staring for two hours already. I placed my serve to his backhand and rushed to the net. His return floated back so softly you could almost hear the ball purring, but also so sharply, and with such accuracy, that I only managed to reach it with difficulty. Still, my return was good and I was ready to kill the ball with my next volley. Unfortunately, the only thing I managed to kill was any hope of victory. The yellow ball met the blue sky, way beyond my reach, purposefully hovered over me and landed on the back line behind me. The lob was so skilfully hit and so unpredictable that there was only time for a whisper of surprise to pass through my brain. Game, set and match: Bill Harlan.
It was by no means the first victorious game for the modest and sporting Bill Harlan, and definitely not the last. It’s not just his will to win, but his will to achieve perfection in everything he undertakes that sets him apart from others.
The thing is that Bill Harlan gives his all, putting body and soul into his game, with a contagious and joyous, competitive zeal – even in tennis, which is not really his game, just a hobby.
His real game is wine, a game in which he has shown a champion’s toughness, touch and style through the last three decades. Bill Harlan is a genuinely good guy, who appears to have an awfully professional game. Although he has already reached the age of a senior player,he still plays and competes at the top level and is continually striving for the Grand Slam.
Making the vision
In the context of Napa Valley wines and the future of the region, Bill Harlan is often mentioned as a great visionary, and there is no doubt that he is just that.Great visions are needed to prevent the current of daily life from sweeping us towards what is average, ordinary, conventional, mechanical, bland and uninspired.If you don’t want to go with the flow you must take concrete action, and I feel that Harlan is at his best as someone who takes action.His visions are fulfilled, which is rare even in America.He is not satisfied with one major title; year after year, he reaches for the Grand Slam. It was not enough for him to have created one of the best wines in the Napa Valley and the world:he is also the originator of unique service concepts in his region, and has developed new fine wines for our enjoyment.
We are seated in the spacious and airy living room of Harlan’s newest winery, Bond.Although he has just played a couple of hours of tennis, Harlan is so full of energy and enthusiasm that I jumpstart the conversation straight into the future and to coming decades.
“We have had a good start. It has now been 25 years. The children are young adults – one is still in school, the other one has just left school – so their learning curve is still steep. I feel things are in place and that we have a very good team, in both the first and the second generation. But I feel that until we have created something that can last way beyond our lifetimes, I will not have completed what I set out to do.
It is important to continue to do the things that we need to do for succession, and that is my goal here and now and for the next 25 years. Our children are ready to figure out what they really want to do and my dream is that the wine-growing estate could be an important facet of their lives. Will it be the only thing in their lives? Hopefully not. Will either one of them be a winemaker? Probably not, but I feel that we have a great wine-growing team going forward. They are preparing to take on the responsibility, carry on the family values, the culture and the passion, as we move into the future.
I think that in this first quarter of a century we have certainly had the passion for the land, the passion for building a winemaking estate, the passion for wine and the perseverance that were necessary. And so, it is as important as creating the physical wine-growing operations, to create a culture within the family that can really last through the generations.
A part of that is having clarity, and living it and communicating it to the next generation – not only of our family but of the team that works together as an extended family and carries us into the future. It is important for us to start writing down some of the things that are really important, not only for our children, but for our grandchildren and those after that. These are the things that I need to work on over the next 25 years.”
Purpose of actions
People are paying less and less for products and services, and more for the meanings and significances that they contribute.This means that all those involved in the service process must acquire a deep understanding of what is essential and meaningful in the manufacture, purchase and use of products.Harlan has such understanding.Even interviewing Harlan is a unique experience, because it entails counter-questions that are always analytical and perspicacious.
Speaking with Harlan, it is not enough to know how to ask questions: you also have to be able to answer them, which unsettles many journalists.I’m now happy to throw Harlan’s favourite question back at him: What is the purpose of your actions?
“I think the purpose is to bring people to a place that they may not have reached had they not run into us. The purpose is to help people really enjoy their lives in a way that may not have been possible had they not become associated with us in some way. If we can enrich people’s lives, inspire them to do something beyond what they might otherwise have done, that’s the primary purpose. And it’s not only those who put in the time to understand wine who become really discerning, because there is as much work on the side of the audience as there is on the side of the craftsman or the artist, the winegrowing team, to really understand and appreciate and have a certain discernment about wine.
So I would say that the purpose is to help those who come into contact with us to have a better life.”
Understanding the nature of humanity is a big enough challenge to last a lifetime.The aim should not be to become great in others’ eyes, but to recognise one’s own value.Understanding this ultimately implies identifying one’s own life values and living according to them.It is not easy, but Harlan appears to have succeeded.
The positive impact of his and his team’s actions on the surrounding environment and its inhabitants is unmissably evident in many things.Some of the institutionscreated by Harlan and his team include one of the most desirable wines from Napa Valley, Harlan Estate, the five-star Meadowood leisure resort and the unique Napa Valley Reserve wine club with more than 500 members, as well as an annual charity wine auction.All these offer the public opportunities to acquire personal experiences of the Napa Valley and thus to be a part of the swiftly developing wine-growing culture in the United States.In Harlan’s own view, however, he is still in the early stages:
“We are still learning to understand our valley as much every year as we did in the early years. There is so much more to learn about grape-growing and winemaking here. Due to the phylloxera, the World Wars, prohibition and the Depression, our wine culture did not begin to grow until the 1970s, I would say. That is only 35 to 40 years ago, so we are still in the beginning in this country.
We will learn just as much over the next 60 years as we have in the past 60 years. I feel people have only seen around 25 to 35 per cent of the actual potential of the Napa Valley, so we are quarter of the way there.”
Living in a flower box
Harlan lives and breathes the rich Californian soil and the region’s colourful culture.He has been immersed in these surroundings since his university days:his first place of study, in the early 1960s, was the University of California, Berkeley on the San Francisco Bay, situated just one hour from Napa Valley.
The USA is often perceived as a liberal melting pot of diverse cultures, where a free man is able to achieve anything.Attitudes become significantly less liberal, however, as you leave the large cities for the Midwest and the Deep South.
In 1960s San Francisco, considered the global heart of the hippie movement.In addition to the cradle of the hippie subculture in Haight-Ashbury, the city contains one of the largest China Towns in the west and is considered to be the gay and lesbian capital of the world.The maxims “let all the flowers bloom” and “anything goes” are apt characterisations of the inhabitants of the narrow strip of land on the continental rift between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
The population of Haight-Ashbury was initially a mixed bunch of radicals, artists and musicians from the nearby university town, Berkeley, who had in common psychedelic drugs and a wish to escape the stranglehold of organised society.The San Franciscan environment and the diverse alternative cultures and countercultures of the 1960s provided a heterogeneous breeding ground for Harlan and his dreams.
“The United States is still a young country. We must not lose the pioneering spirit that we have, I think especially here in the west. At the same time, I myself know – after living in California for many years – that you live in the moment, in what is the most interesting thing, and then move on to a point that is just one second beyond this place, this equilibrium, so you don’t know what is going to happen in the next second. It really makes you live in the now.
Living in that zone of the now is always very exciting, but it’s ephemeral, you are not really building for the future or to stay in this zone, in this equilibrium. You need to take greater and greater risks. To take greater and greater risks when you are young, that’s one thing; but as you get a little older, it depends what kinds of risks they are. You can take physical risks and the consequences may not be too good; you can gamble with money, you can gamble with women, you can gamble in a lot of different ways. But the day comes when it may be time to think a little in the longer term.
When I moved to Northern California in my twentiesto attend university, I realised that the legendary wine region of Napa Valley was only an hour away. I first arrived in Napa in the late 1950s. In 1959 I did a little documentary on the valley to get in behind the scenes, to see how it all worked. I said that some day, if I had enough money, I would love to have a vineyard and make wine. This was one of three dreams I had.
Harlans other two dreams were to buy a boat and sail around the world, and to get married and raise a family. The boat was the first dream to come true after he traded a little land to buy a sailboat. During the 1960s Harlan often visited Napa Valley, and then in 1966 he went to the opening of the Robert Mondavi winery. It was this visit that opened his eyes. Harlan realised that he could start his own winery rather than buying an existing one.”
Key to Napa Valley
By the 1970s, Harlan had “grown up” and was involved in several investment projects related to real estate and land in areas including Napa Valley.A successful career in real estate investment and a deep interest in wines soon led Bill Harlan to start fulfilling his second dream: finding his own winery.His objective was to produce not just any wine, but the best possible wine.This required extensive research,and a decade passed before Harlan had found and acquired the rocky forest plot he wanted in Oakville.Harlan says that the greatest risk he ever took was buying that estate, because there were no guarantees of the suitability of the soil for wine-growing.However, he was convinced that the area had potential.Just below his estate was the legendary Martha’s Vineyard run by Tom and Martha May, and next door was Robert Mondavi’s To Kalon.
Before buying his own vineyard, Harlan had got his foot in the door into Napa Valley and its society by acquiring the Meadowood estate and its surrounding areas.
“In 1979 I finally acquired the property in Napa Valley known as Meadowood. It was a small club founded in 1964 for people who lived in the area. By the end of the 1970s it had fallen into foreclosure and I ended up acquiring it together with my real estate business associates. As a small, shadowed valley, it was not an ideal property for wine-growing.
I was trying to figure out what to do with it; maybe golf courses, but it turned out to be less than ideal in length. I then got in contact with Robert Mondavi, who was willing to organise a wine auction in Napa Valley to help promote the region as one of the great wine-growing regions of the world. For this purpose, Mondavi was searching for a neutral surrounding in the area and he thought Meadowood would be suitable. I agreed to host it there, but I told him that I wanted to learn more about organising a wine auction first.”
A steep learning curve
The first charity auction was held in Meadowood in 1981.Over the years, the auction has become the biggest event in the wine world.It has raised over 90 million US dollars to support local health care and youth programmes.
Initially, before starting his own winemaking operation, Harlan’s main role was to develop an interest group for wine producers and to organise the annual charity auctions in Meadowood.Many who have succeeded in bringing their wines to the whole world’s attention have in common the ability to flexibly adapt modern winemaking methods and a nose for the right terroirfor their wines.They acquired these skills by travelling around Europe, particularly in the most renowned wine districts of France.Harlan, too, had his awakening in France.
“In 1980 I took the most inspirational five-week wine trip to France, first Bordeaux, with visits to its finest wineries, and then Burgundy. After the trip, it was very clear to me what I wanted to do. My dream was no longer to have a little vineyard and to make wine: I wanted to create a first growth wine from California. I realised that I needed to learn and understand more terroir factors before acquiring the ideal land. I travelled several times to Bordeaux and Burgundy to try to find out the common thread among the most valuable vineyard properties in the world.
My exploration led me to look for land that was not on the valley floor but on a hillside. I wanted to have history on my side, and the best red wines produced in the United States over the longest period of time had originated on approximately a three-mile strip on the west side of Highway 29 between Rutherford and Oakville Grade. So I wanted to buy land in that area, but out of the valley floor. The land that I considered to be the very best for wine-growing was a forest, and the owner lived in Canada.
It took me a while to acquire the land, since I knew I needed a large enough property to produce fruit to make enough high-quality wine for the global market.
While I was doing my research and looking for the land of my dreams, I was desperately wanting to make wine. I told my associates at Meadowood of my plans to start my own winery and they joined in. I started making wine in 1982 with Robin Lail and her husband John. First we did not own a winery or any land: we bought grapes and learned how to make wine. We ended up buying a winery – in fact it was the first winery that Mondavi’s had had, the old Sunny Ceiling winery built by Mondavi’s father right after the repeal of prohibition. Robert gave us a lot of ideas and told us interesting stories about what it was like growing up there as a kid and learning to make wine with his brother, Peter.
This project, called Merryvale, provided a very steep learning curve. Learning about wine land, learning about Napa Valley, learning about what varietals really worked best in this valley and in what areas. It gave me the opportunity to learn how to put together a team, to find a great winemaker, to work with different distributors and importers. We found out which importers you could trust, and which distributors. We learned what works and what doesn’t, we learned that we have good times and bad times.”
Lucky with people
Many management guides turn leaders into heroes.That may suit some of the management types who are prone to self-admiration and power thirst, but it is not Harlan’s style.He knows that even the best managers cannot lift operations to a new level by themselves; it takes a large group of enthusiastic and reliable partners.When people work together in a positive atmosphere, it leads to new ideas that no one could generate by themselves.Bill Harlan is a team player and considers finding the right partners to be the most crucial element of his success.
“While Merryvale was a learning project for me, I managed to buy the land I wanted from the Canadian owner in 1984. My dream of my own Harlan winery was about to come true. The team from Merryvale – Bob Levy and Don Weaver – helped me with construction works on the site, which began immediately. By 1985 we began planting our first vineyard at Harlan Estate. It was clear we were only going to produce one wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based red wine. It took about a decade of acquiring more land, starting with 40 acres and reaching almost 240 today.
It was here that I saw my passion, goal and vision unite. It was here that I could create my dream team from the very beginning. Don Weaver, he is way better in the marketplace than I could ever be, and Bob Levy is better at making wine than I am. They are people enjoying their lives while they do their work, creating what they want to create and what they have a passion for. It is also about the whole team fulfilling their potential; about having a medium in which to follow their passion. We hope to assist those who have really great skills and strengths, and an interest and passion for different facets of what it takes to accomplish these things. I feel that we have also enriched their lives and helped them have a better life.
I would say that I am very fortunate – one of my strengths is being lucky with people!”
Fear of action is blind
On the surface, Harlan exudes wisdom and serenity, which are emphasised by his stylish, precisely trimmed white beard and his observant light-blue eyes.He sits calmly throughout the interview and uses little body language to accentuate his speech.He keeps his slim figure in good shape and says he enjoys exercise daily.In fact, the only distraction to our conversation is provided by the window and its view over a faraway tennis court, to which Bill’s gaze will sometimes stray.
“I like doing sporty things, especially playing tennis. I think we need to feel good to succeed in life in general, and to feel good we need to stay fairly fit, eat a fairly balanced diet. We need to not have too much stress.
I didn’t quite get to the gym today, but I try to get in five days a week for an hour. Sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. I think staying fit is important, and I feel time spent with good friends is really, really important. I like downtime, time alone, time to think, time for contemplation. As the saying goes, ‘the fear of action is blind’. A life of contemplation is impotent, so we need a balance between contemplation, reflection and action: we need to have a chunk of our life where the rubber meets the road, where we are not just thinking but doing.”
Living on the receiving end of today’s abundant supply, Americans are not satisfied with things being good, or there being just a little of it.The extensive supply has led to a buyer’s market.Unprofessional operators disappear quickly from the market, because they have no attraction.That leaves only the professionals, which means that even high-quality operations cannot guarantee success.You have to shine to stand out.Bill Harlan shines, both in his visions and in his actions.Everything Harlan does has two major aspects in common: striving for perfection and a passion for new things.In Harlan’s view, a person who thinks he knows everything stops investigating new things.He becomes a prisoner of his own thoughts.On the other hand, those who are curious and explore come alive and give rise to new things.
“To me, it is important to follow our passion, to follow what is really interesting and important to us at a certain time in our life. And I think it is important to do it at every step and every phase of our life, because if we don’t follow our passion and do our very best, do what we really think is right, we don’t have a chance to reach our potential or know what we really want to do.
I think if we have clarity of vision as to what we want to do and reach a certain autonomy, we can figure out how to get to where we want, still have a good connection and an ability to deal with people, and do the things we need to stay healthy.
We are not doing things because we think we have to or because someone else thinks we should do it or society wants us to do it: it is a combination of being really drawn to it and also, following from that vision and that drawnness, having the drive that makes it not feel like work. I feel that once you have all this energy and a direction in which to channel it, then life is very exciting.”
Our conversation is momentarily interrupted by the phone.It is the most important member of Harlan’s team: his delightful wife Deborah, to whom Bill owes a lot of his success.As a young man, Harlan loved to gamble and take risks, and it is no surprise that Bill and Deborah should have met on a blind date arranged by friends.And so Bill Harlan fulfilled his third dream by marrying in 1986.
“I think her role is to do what she feels she likes to do, where her interests lie, and what she enjoys doing, in a way that supports the family. The kinds of things we have been talking about here, the family, the culture, building for the future and the extended family... I think of this place as a winery, it is really the winery of people who love our wines. I think she sees that a bit too. She really enjoys meeting people and I think she genuinely helps in building relationships. She is really better than I am at it, she gets out and meets people.”
In three decades, the Napa Valley has become the world’s only wine district whose desirability can challenge that of Bordeaux or Burgundy.It is not just a question of producing high-quality wines, but of understanding their significance.Napa Valley’s wine-growers and service providers have perhaps been the best at understanding what customers appreciate, how products and services are linked to customers’ life values, and how they can improve the customers’ experience of life.Discerning customers want to gain meaningful experiences through consumption; to be convinced of the fact that as people they can change, grow, be renewed and become different.In this case, the objective is not an impulse buy but a long-term, close customer relationship.The best example of this idea is in Harlan's service and product concepts.Napa Valley wine and service producers are also characterised by an enormous desire for success and demonstration, as well as by respect for each other and, particularly, for the history and terroir of the valley.
“I think we have a great responsibility in Napa Valley. We are very fortunate in what was brought to us by our forebears – the early pioneers who planted the first vines in the valley. Those who were the stewards of this land from the days of the pioneers, families that came here from all different parts of the world in the 1800s. They kept it going through prohibition and, after prohibition, regrouped and helped make the valley what it has slowly become. They were able to create these agricultural preserves in 1968, turning Napa Valley almost into a national treasure.
So we have a great responsibility as stewards of the valley. Not just in terms of the vineyards and wine-growing, but also in our economic contribution to the valley and the environmental concerns of the valley. We also have social responsibility for those who live in the valley and those who work in all its different facets.
One of the most exciting things is that this is a very homogeneous community. It is not a place for people who go to retire, made up of a lot of wealthy senior citizens who have moved here for recreation or retirement. No, this is an active community and all those who deal with agriculture and the vagaries of mother nature have great respect for each other. We all need each other to make this work, not to mention our responsibility to pass on the region to the next generation in a better state than that in which we received it.”
Last one per cent
Listening to Harlan, I am struck by an all-encompassing insight: it is the last one per cent that is decisive.
A large-scale change often begins will a small shift.Things can change through slow development or sudden revolution.In Napa Valley’s case it was the latter, a radical transformation effected by just a few generations.One of the major injections of energy for this transformation was provided by Bill Harlan.
What makes Harlan stand out from the rest of us is his yearning for that last one per cent.He knows what distinguishes the best work from good work, just as one point sets a perfect wine apart from a 99-point wine.
Most of the time, that last one per cent requires as much time and dedication as the previous 99 per cent: this, too, is something that Harlan has learnt, often the hard way. His attitude towards his own achievements and his future is humble and sensitive.
“As for outside the Napa Valley, we are still 100 to 200 years behind Bordeaux, maybe 500 to 600 years behind Burgundy. We have a big task in continuing to produce the level of quality wine that warrants respect among the discerning public worldwide. We must continue to learn more about our terroir and make better wines, but we also need to reach out to all the key markets in the world to let people know about us.
People like Bob Mondavi and some of the earlier pioneers, as well as those that started in the 60s, 70s and 80s, really helped to bring Napa Valley to the awareness of the global wine world. Now we need to continue taking our wines to the world’s markets and placing them next to the greatest wines of the world.
I can say that it is an exciting way to live, in the moment. But it is not really rewarding or fulfilling after you get to certain point. Sure, we like chasing girls, we like sports and competitions, all of these things that are exciting for us when we are younger, but I think a time comes when we have done those things and other elements become more important in life. I am sure that as I get a little older, I will recognise a lot of things that are more important than what I am working on right now!
Still, thinking a little in the longer term, working on things that can last longer than our lifetime and hopefully being a part of leaving this place better than we found it, will make us feel better than leading the most exciting life in the now.”
Text : Pekka Nuikki