Napa Valley’s iconic wine is futureproofing by redefining its relationship with the land

“When you taste the older wines of Harlan, they smell of the forest,” says Cory Empting.

Empting helms the winemaking at Harlan Estate, one of Napa Valley’s most prestigious wineries. Twenty years ago, he joined the estate as an intern winemaker. Something about the property, he says, felt like home and grounded him.

Harlan Estate is Napa’s answer to the first growth of Bordeaux. The 100-hectare hillside estate is located on the western end of Oakville, Napa Valley, with 17 hectares of vineyards nestled in wilderness and forests.

The wine—a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot—is irrefutably iconic. Over the years, it has earned numerous accolades, including multiple 100-point reviews and glowing praise from wine luminaries like Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson.

Available only on allocation, the list is oversubscribed, with a two-year waiting list, and the current release price sits above many Bordeaux releases.

Of course, the wine’s success is by design. Inspired by Bordeaux’s first growths, Bill Harlan, the charismatic founder of the estate, intended on creating the most prestigious wine of Napa. Going by the status it holds today; he has long achieved that vision.

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Above Cory Empting

The spirit of continuity

The octogenarian Bill Harlan recently handed over the reins of his kingdom to the next generation: his son Will and daughter, Amanda, take on leadership roles at the estate, while Cory Empting takes charge of wine growing and winemaking. Together, they make up the second-generation triumvirate responsible for leading the estate into the following decades.

Helping them along the way are the stewards of the first generations, including Harlan himself, Bob Levy, the first director of winemaking and Harlan's feted 200-year-old plan, which he wrote years ago.

“It clearly states that this land is our inspiration,” says Empting and offers his own interpretation: “To build a sustainable business based on the land, you have to first look at the land and invest in that.”

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Barrel room
Above Barrel room

Cultivating sustainability

Over the years, Levy and Empting have implemented various techniques to achieve sustainability. The estate is mainly dry farmed, which conserves water (California faces recurring droughts) and also improves fruit quality. It also practices organic and biodynamic viticulture, which renders chemical intervention unnecessary. For example, last year, the property didn’t have to spray the vineyard for mildew, which Empting notes are a significant accomplishment.

“All these things help us not use up resources that we don't need to use in order to really transparently reflect the place,” he continues.

Notably, the viticultural plan at Harlan goes beyond the tightly delineated lines of organic or biodynamic farming. Harlan stands at the vanguard of regenerative agriculture using cover crop management and no-till farming to not only improve the soil quality, but also capturing carbon in the soil.

“Focusing on soil carbon became a pillar in our evolution about 12 or 13 years ago,” he says, recalling that an increase of soil carbon by one per cent can increase the water-holding capacity by 16,000 litres per hectare. “We ensure that the life in the soil will be sustained through the summer months and be able to nourish the vines without any need for compost and things of that nature.”

The sustainability drive continues in the cellar. Here, fermentation starts on its own and saves energy. “When you’re not inoculating with yeast, you’re not heating a tank, so you’re not wasting energy. But then because you don’t heat, you also don’t waste energy cooling,” Empting points out.

The seasoned winemaker chalks up the regenerative farming practices to ‘building a relationship with the land,’ a philosophy that sits at the heart of Harlan Estate. 

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Harlan Eatate's iconic wines
Above Harlan Eatate's iconic wines


“I always say that in 500 years when we’ve had as much time as the monks, maybe we’ll have all the block outlines just right,” says Empting, fully aware that his work will easily carry on to the next generation, just as it did in Burgundy through generations of Cistercian monks.

For now, they have initiatives in place to bolster their team, like the Vine Master program, whereby each viticulturist is given complete charge of a block of vines making the pruning and upkeep entirely their decision. Such initiatives impart a sense of ownership and innovation in the team, which is vital to the estate’s plan.

After all, if the land and the wine must perpetuate in the future, it is important for the next generations to develop their connection to the land and explore sustainability on their own terms. 




Harlan Estate

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