A Dream Wine Tasting For Oenophiles

Don Weaver, estate director of Harlan Estate (left), leads the Harlan Estate vertical wine tasting at the Halekulani during the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival with Joe Spellman, Master Sommelier from Landmark Vineyards and Justin Winery | Photo from Roberto Viernes

There are wine tastings, and then there are I-can’t-sleep-the-night-before-because-I-am-so-excited-and-would-give-my-left-kidney-just-to-get-into-it wine tastings.

That is the kind of tasting that took place this Sept. 7 at Halekulani for the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival. It was titled “Harlan Estate: California’s First Growth from the Hills of Oakville.” This was a vertical tasting of 10 vintages, all the odd years from 1991 through 2009, from one of not just California’s but, in my opinion, one of the world’s greatest Cabernet producers. We were blessed to have Don Weaver, estate director of Harlan Estate, in attendance to help lead us through this once-in-a-lifetime tasting.

Bill Harlan established the estate in 1985 on the hills east of Oakville, Napa Valley. It had never been planted to vine prior to this, so the estate was created literally from scratch. The philosophy here was to create a world class red wine to rival anything ever crafted in Napa Valley. When they released their first wine, the 1990 vintage, to the market, they asked for an unspeakable price of $65 per bottle. At the time, Opus One was selling for $55 per bottle. Today, the current vintage sells for $600 per bottle and there is a waiting list for clients. Harlan Estate is one of the original “Cult Cabernets.” There is so much to be written about the estate, but I would rather fill this page with my impressions of the wines.

All of these bottles came directly from the cellars of the estate, so they were in pristine condition. The vintages from 1991 through 1999 were decanted at least one hour prior to the tasting, and the 2001 through 2009 were double decanted an hour prior. Normally, one would taste from youngest to oldest, but Don suggested we taste from oldest to youngest. I, of course, started that way, and then went back the other way just for good measure, but I list the wines in order of my initial tasting. Let me also state that because I don’t give point ratings, this is truly a beauty pageant. All of these wines are truly beautiful in their own right, and having one single bottle in your cellar, or better yet, on your table, is truly a world-class experience.

First the 1991: It began with a brooding almost “quiet,” demure nose, showing some sweet fruit but laced with a brown earthiness, almost akin to aged Bordeaux. It was very Bordeaux-like both on the nose and on the palate with mocha, wet stone and more dried black fruit. It is a bit on the dry side relative to the other vintages, with the tannic structure drying out the palate and showing some definitive secondary and tertiary aromas. It is starting to show its age and, for my taste, I think would be good to drink already over the next three to five years.

The 1993 version was even earthier, for me, in a good way. There were sous-bois (hiking-on-the-forest-floor) aromas, along with some sweet mushroom. In the mouth, it was distinctly rocky and more tannic than the 1991, almost aggressive with its structure, but it was fleshed out with that crushed black and blue fruit component that is a hallmark of the estate. I think this vintage would fool any blind taster as an Old World wine. With its structure, this still has another five-10 years before it sees any deterioration.

The 1995 is one of my favorites of the tasting. It seems to balance effortlessly the power, structure and fruit. My notes read “great fruit, elegant, long and regal.” The sweet oak has melded into the fruit to truly represent the velvet hammer. I cannot remember a better-tasting Cabernet from the 1995 vintage in California. This is gorgeous and will easily span another five-10 years in the upper echelon.

The 1997 was a bit controversial among the tasters in the room. Some pledged their love for it, whereas others stayed silent and, from their facial expressions, were less than enthusiastic. For my part, I tended to agree with the latter. It was without a doubt one of the richest of the entire tasting, but my impression was of overripeness, especially on the nose. I could feel the alcohol before I could smell the wine. It seemed slightly disjointed in its expression as the structural parts of the wine were not in sync. Undeniably luscious on the palate, but I think could use some delicacy.

The 1999, on the other hand, was for my palate the most “complete” of all. You always can tell your favorite by the amount left in the glass – and this was my first empty glass. It had a wonderful and beguiling purity and seamlessness. Both texture and flavor came together front initial attack to the beautifully lingering finish. Notes of mocha, fruit and earth were bountiful. I can definitely drink this now, but it should stay on this plateau for another five-10 years.

The 2001 was more herbal; minty, in fact, showing plenty of sweet vanilla and wood notes. It is quite a knockout on the palate, with more apparent viscosity than any of the previous wines. The big flavors of fruit and wood almost stain the palate, the wine is so lingering on the finish. This is just a baby and will perhaps be one of the most long-lived of all of these, easily another 10 years to start.

The 2003 also was quite rich but much more overtly so. There was plenty of black and blue fruit confit along with sweet cedar aromas. It reminded me a bit of cough syrup, in the best way possible. (If this is cough medicine, please increase my dosage!) This too will need some time for the components to come together. Give it another five years.

The 2005 mirrored the 1995, in a sense. I loved the sweet scent of super-ripe fruit, but what really gets me about this vintage is the velvety structure. I wrote “sexy and great!” I think that sums up this one. The wine is fleshy and rich without being burdensome. To me, this is a classic example for Harlan Estate. Its hedonistic flavors are undeniable and yet there is an underlying sense of place as well. This will last well more than a dozen years. Just be prepared to wait.

I thought the 2007 was a bit closed down. It was a bit reticent and withholding on the nose. I had to swirl it quite a bit to wake it up (even after the double decanting). But on the palate you can taste the beautiful and explosive fruit. There is a perfect ripeness on the palate framed with ripe tannin and a perfect amount of new oak influence. The fruit is almost sweet. Wait another five years before opening another bottle of this one.

Lastly, the 2009 was impetuous. The ultra-fragrant fruit is lined with sweet vanilla notes. Yes, you definitely can smell and taste the new French oak, but it is also a “baby.” The aromatics are crazy intense and the flavors even longer than the 2007. This is clearly a showpiece of a wine and a definite crowd pleaser. It says to the world, “Smell me, taste me, love me!” This will last 20 years and more.

One of my younger colleagues said it was the greatest day of his life to be able to attend this tasting with these treasures. Another guest asked Don what makes Harlan Estate so special. He answered that, at every step of the process, there are little things that add up to the final product, but in the end, what they truly aim to do is “express faithfully what the land is.”

For me, it is simply one of the best expressions of Cabernet on the planet.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. Email rviernes@southernwine.com or follow him on Twitter @Pinotpusher.