Recently, after visiting Harlan Estate in the western hills above Oakville, California, an opportunity emerged of the sort that comes along only a few
Recently, after visiting Harlan Estate in the western hills above Oakville, California, an opportunity emerged of the sort that comes along only a few times in a wine writer’s professional career.
In this case, it was to study the historical record of a unique moment in American wine history: the letters that were written from the now-iconic Harlan Estate to the very first buyers of their wines, starting in December 1995 and spanning to the fall of 2007.
By the end of that stretch, of course, Harlan’s mailing list had extended far beyond “Bill and Deborah Harlan’s Christmas card list,” as Director Don Weaver joked about the first letters sent to potential customers. But at the time the people who received the option of purchasing bottles of Harlan were “friends of Bill’s that felt sorry for him,” Weaver said facetiously, “and thought they ought to at least encourage him and buy some wines.”
Were that were still true, as any wine lover today might say (wistfully) who has even an inkling of awareness around the historical significance of Harlan and the market influence it has exerted over the positioning of Napa wine on the global stage.
Revising Public Opinion
The wine industry as a whole has developed, certainly, an opinion about Harlan, and there’s long been a curtain of mystique around the wine and the brand. But how would that opinion and its curtain of mystique hold up, if I were to engage Harlan in a direct, primary way? I was curious to understand Harlan from the inside, so to speak, rather than rely on others’ interpretations.
An effective way to do that, it turns out, is to open up some old letters.
The opportunity to study these earliest letters — the original source material, written between 1995 and 2007 — was an exercise in primary research. As a voracious reader, this hit a sweet spot for me: I happily lose many hours in libraries and bookstores, and I’m secretly (and geekily) thrilled by archival research. Back in graduate school, it was one of the ways you cut your teeth as a scholar: studying original documents in their raw, unpolished format, and deciding for yourself what you think rather than piggy-backing on others’ interpretations. (That way, too, you avoided the sneer of criticism of your work as “derivative.”)
Which brings us back to the letters themselves, and a perspective onto Harlan’s own opinions as seen through their writing over time. For as much of a close reading as I’ve been doing with these letters, it’s felt more like a “close listening” than anything. It’s an intimate exchange, before mass adoption of email and the internet but right at the emergence of Harlan’s presence on the market.
Evolution Over Time of Voice and Brand
The letters are a tangible view into Harlan from both sides of the desk, so to speak: from the point of view of the person writing the letter, and also the person receiving it. The letters were written and signed at first by H. William Harlan himself and then by Weaver, though he’s careful to acknowledge the “group think” of contributions from the team around him.
The letters illustrate a chronology of sorts, an evolution through time of the voice and the nature of Harlan’s letters to its members. Today’s post introduces this small series dedicated to teasing out the nuances of the letters over time, from a modest start in December 1995 with just a few lines, through various stages of “adolescence,” and eventually to full maturity of voice and brand.
Along the way we’ll explore themes and observations of interest to wine lovers and business people alike, from pricing and availability to managing demand of a scarce product.
A Final Note on Pacing
As the reader you’ll be able to skim the subheadings of the posts in this series for its highlights, of course, but I encourage you to slow your reading down. Doing so will align yourself with the unhurried pace of the words as they were originally written.
It’s a matter of savoring this unique moment, and this unique documentation, of American wine history. When you slow your pace a click or two, you begin to sense the measured longevity that the letters embody, literally, through words like “discernment,” “deliberately,” “gently,” “care” and “maturing,” each of which find their way to the page of a particularly poignant letter to members from the fall of 2004.
I look forward to unfolding my “reading” of these letters in the subsequent posts. Please stay tuned.