Observations from the Hillside: Harlan Estate

I am the only person on earth who has actually read this book cover to cover. I did so because I know that it looks like a book and is supposed to evoke book-like qualities, but I wanted to know if you could in fact read it. Having struggled through it I can honestly say this is nothing but a vanity project—a luscious, painstakingly detailed mock up of a book for the coffee table of elite Harlan buyers. Who else would buy this thing? The subject is so narrow and yet so expansive in its narrowness. Reading it is like being stuck in an elevator with a pompous know-it-all with inexhaustible breath and time to kill. I felt years being shaved off my life as I forced myself to sit for 30 minute intervals, indulging the writers, whose essays seem like they were cobbled together from California tourism guides, the Territory Ahead catalog, and various presidential Biographies.

It seems ludicrous that the Harlan Estate team could believe that there was enough audience to warrant a book like this. Ask 10 people on the street how interested they are in the Harlan Estate wines from the Napa Valley and maybe one of them will dimly identify the name with the outrageously expensive California Bordeaux-style wines produced there. Now ask that person if they would be interested in reading about the geological history of the Harlan Estate, the history of Land Surveying in the region, the various techniques of forest management, and the transformation of land from forest to vineyard. Now wake them up, because just saying those words will act like a sedative for 99.9% of the population.

I could go on, by the way. Those subjects only cover pages 1-54 of a 200 page book and don’t even begin to comment on the incredibly self important introductory essay by Harry Eyres entitled Wine, Poetry and Divinity. His essay reads like a sedately ironic spoof of itself. Eyres describes wine as “bottled poetry” and references Horace, Homer, and Robert Louis Stevenson as if they all drink together in some elite gentleman’s club. Wine as “bottled poetry” begs the counter-question of whether poetry can be conceived of as textual wine, meaning, some of it’s very good but a lot of it is total crap and if you consume too much, you’ll feel sick the next morning.

I certainly began to feel sick as I rounded page 173, a photograph depicting the core Harlan estate team (read: rich white people) meeting in a stately yet rustic room with a prominent California State flag on the wall, and then turned the page to find the cellar and vineyard crew (read: not rich Mexicans) seated on a stone wall in work-boots and stained sweatshirts. It struck me that the Harlan Estate, like so many high-priced Napa Valley vineyards, was intent on conveying the longevity, cultural prominence, and quality of their wines at the expense of the workers who actually make the stuff.

Harlan is obsessed with its own daring to give the heritage of Bordeaux wines a run for their money but it has little interest in differentiating itself as a new-world wine. In an interview with H. William Harlan and Harry Eyres, Harlan mentions the fact that the land on which the vineyard dwells once belonged to Indians (we can discuss the complexities of that term versus “Native American” some other time) and that their arrowheads and grinding stones were still being unearthed on a daily basis. Eyres responds: “This is a wine that has a pretty good balance between the wild and the civilized. It’s not in any way a rough and rugged wine, but it still has something, a certain mystery.”

Ahh…mystery! What a marvelously meaningless word. Mystery can be adapted to suit all kinds of fantasies from the grim to the whimsical without ever showing its real face. I think the mystery of Harlan Estate has more to do with the Emperor’s New Clothes than it does with Indian arrowheads and bottled poetry.

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