The Cult of Cabernet: The Paradox of Napa's Most Expensive Wines by Esther Mobley

A note from Lou Zant, Wine Ambassador: I've been a wine lover for such a long time. In fact, I fell in love with wine way before I knew I what I was doing. So when I come across an smart article that helps me advance beyond some of the things I felt like I should beleive about wine, I really perk up. This particular article is a well written journey into an "experience," and I'm the wiser after reading it! I hope this will add to your personal wine experience as much as it did mine. You're welcome!

Original article appeared on by Esther Mobley - April 21, 2016

It’s a situation I never thought I’d find myself in: I’m the lone visitor at Harlan Estate, one of Napa’s most elite wineries.

Perched on a divan in the “tasting room” — it feels like the fanciest living room I’ve ever set foot in — I watch as estate director Don Weaver, gregarious and hospitable, opens three bottles of wine and pours them into glasses on the coffee table before me. He reclines on the sofa opposite mine, awaiting my reactions. There is no one else on the entire property; it feels as if my voice might echo.

"If each glass contains a 6-ounce pour, I am sitting in front of $500 worth of liquid."

What would Harlan taste like? It’s a wine with a myth, firmly in the history books as one of Napa’s most expensive, most sought-after, most critically acclaimed products. It’s a wine I never expected to taste. But would I like it?

Harlan’s reputation is for big, lush Cabernets, which, depending on the crowd, can be praise or a gibe. In certain circles, the wines get a bad rap, dismissed as jammy, saccharine fruit bombs.

I pick up the 2012. A warm vintage. At first sniff, I might have called it as Syrah: It smells ripe and robust, like roasted meat and blackberry jam. I smell dry cinnamon spice, pencil lead. When I taste it, it’s enormous. Its power swells to all corners of the mouth, pierced by a firm frame of acid. The cinnamon returns on the palate — could that be a little too much oak? It flirts with excess, as if coyly considering and then rejecting it.

Next, the 2011, a notoriously cold and difficult year. I immediately recognize it as a very differently styled Cabernet than the ’12. It brings fresh, damp forest floor; mint leaf. The texture remains rich, and the tannins are formidable, but its heft is cut by fresh flavors, luxuriating in Cabernet’s herbal side. It merely verges on power.

The two wines’ differences reflect their vintages

And the finesse of the ’11 certainly challenges the fruit-bomb charge. I can see how some might find the ’12 overblown, though I think it carries its power well. It’s like foie gras: primally appealing to the taste buds, though far too rich to have at every meal, and too expensive for that anyway.

The tasting room at Harlan Estate in the hills of Napa.Photo: Gabrielle Lurie, Special To The Chronicle Photo: Gabrielle Lurie, Special To The Chronicle The tasting room at Harlan Estate in the hills of Napa.

Weaver acknowledges that many people assume Harlan wines are overripe and hedonistic. “Our site is so inclined for ripening fruit that for a long time we were being rewarded for ripeness, whereas our real pursuit is harmony,” he says. “I wish more people could taste and see for themselves.”

But few people ever will.

Fewer still will ever visit the Harlan estate, located at an unlisted address off the serpentine Oakville Grade, high up a winding road in a secluded hillside forest. The winery protrudes gloriously from this seclusion: a farmhouse made palatial, in the typical style of its architect Howard Backen.

At this elevation, facing east toward the valley floor, Harlan seems to reign over Napa like a moat-flanked castle on a hill. The 240-acre property wants nothing, perhaps not even people in it. It is complete: as design critic Stanley Abercrombie wrote of it, “neither seeking nor needing crowds of new admirers.”

"Weaver’s wish, then, is undermined by this sacred-temple vibe. He can’t have it both ways. The prince cannot be feared and loved."

That’s the paradox now confronting Napa’s cult wineries, a group of ultra-elite Cabernet producers that includes Harlan. Today, the mythic quality of these cult estates is running up against a wine culture that may no longer buy the hype. The castles on the hill remain. But has the crowd wandered?

Back then, the barrier to entry was more knowledge-based than financial: You just had to want the wine enough to haul yourself there. More like lining up early on a Saturday at Tartine Bakery. Less like joining a country club.

By 1988, Grace was $63. Opus One, a considerably larger project from Robert Mondavi and Bordeaux’s Baron Philippe de Rothschild, was $62. Dalla Valle launched its Maya bottling that year at $45. At the time these numbers seemed astronomical for Napa. The unprecedented prices coincided with a new critical attention on California wine, a growing interest in wine worldwide and a dot-com boom in the Bay Area. Surely the convergence of all these forces was leading to something.

And it did. Within a six-month period over 1995 and 1996, five new wineries released their first vintages: Araujo, Bryant, Colgin, Harlan and Screaming Eagle. All were Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. All were grown on mid-slope hillsides, neither valley floor nor mountaintop. All were the visions of people who had made their money elsewhere (some with more staggering success than others). All were sold primarily by mailing list, not traditional distribution. And perhaps most notably, all were made in extremely low quantities and released at audaciously high prices for the time, from $36 (Bryant) to $65 (Harlan).