The Power of Three

Life lesson No. 1

Don’t over-think your decisions. If we only did things that were totally rational and logical when we went into them, we wouldn’t follow too many dreams.

Harlan didn’t grow up in the wine business. The Southern California native came to the Bay Area to attend the University of California at Berkeley, and first went to Napa Valley in the late 1950s for the same reason many college students today head to Canada or Mexico—it was a student-budget-friendly place where he and his friends would be served without charge and without ID. As such, he found it a great spot to entertain a co-ed. He began to frequent the area and it wasn’t long before his passion for wine and for Napa Valley in general was ignited.

“In 1966, I came to the opening of the Robert Mondavi Winery,” he recalls. “At the time, the main wineries in Napa Valley had been built in the late 1800s. So when Bob Mondavi started his brand-new winery, it wasn’t of inconsequence. It was a new look for Napa Valley.” This progression implanted the dream of creating a winery of his own in Harlan’s mind.

Such an aspiration may not have been the most logical goal for someone with no experience in the wine business who had earned a degree in communications and public policy. Nonetheless, it was during that time that the winery mission began to take form. Harlan also had two additional dreams: to get a sailboat and sail around the world, and, one day, to get married and have a family. As time has told, Harlan is nothing if not a dreamer whose plans become actualized, no matter how grandiose they may seem at conception.

After graduation, Harlan spent a decade of “adventure” seeing the world. By the early 1970s, he began to plow a path in real estate, and in 1974, he and a few friends partnered to form a real estate development company, Pacific Union. “At that time, there were three things we felt were important: one was to make money, one was to make a difference, and the third was to have fun.” The reasoning paid off and the real estate success provided Harlan with the means to manifest his other dreams.

In 1975, he traded a dozen parcels of land for a sailboat and sailed around the world off and on for almost the next 20 years. In fact, he lived on boats until his mid-40s when he could still fit most of his possessions in his car.

He continually trekked to Napa Valley in search of the perfect land on which to launch his wine mission. In 1979, his quest brought him to Meadowood Napa Valley, a small private country club in St. Helena founded in 1964. The 250-acre site was, as it is today, breathtakingly beautiful and natural, embodying the essence of northern California. While Harlan instinctively knew it wasn’t the right property for his vineyard, he felt it too special not to pursue. “There are certain things that intuitively seem like the right thing to do,” he says. “When I drove onto that property, it had a great feeling. You can’t create a feeling like that. A place just has it or it doesn’t. It’s very rare to come across something that gives such a magical impression.” Acquiring it seemed like the right decision. Within 48 hours of first seeing the property, Harlan had entered into an agreement to purchase the property.

“I realized then that Napa Valley was about agriculture and about making wine,” he says. “But it was also about visitors. One can grow the grapes and make fine wine, but if the consumer doesn’t know about it, you won’t be doing it for long!” Before travelers would be enticed to Napa Valley, word about the revitalization of the region had to spread beyond northern California. “There was a need to draw people to Napa Valley who had a certain appreciation for fine wine and who would respect the Valley for what it was,” Harlan continues. “And, to accomplish this, there needed to be somewhere for these guests to stay, preferably a place where they could learn about wine and experience the natural beauty that we have here in Napa Valley.” Thus, a collection of guest rooms and cottages was added to the Meadowood property.