director / harlan estate
Don Weaver has worked for Bill Harlan for nearly thirty years.
Formerly an art director, Weaver came to the Napa Valley on a lark to work the harvest of 1975. Eleven years later, after learning his craft at various wineries including Beringer and Heitz Cellars, he went to work for Bill at Harlan Estate and Merryvale where he was, by various turns, cellarmaster, winemaker, national sales director and partner.
In 1995 he turned his full attention to the launch of Harlan Estate’s first vintages. As managing director, he is responsible, along with the winemaking team, for overseeing all aspects of that small, highly acclaimed wine estate located in the western hills of Oakville. Additionally, he has oversight responsibility for the BOND and Promontory wine estates.
Weaver lives in Napa with his wife Tonya and their daughter Anna.
Drew Kugler: Thank you, Don, for hosting us.
Don Weaver: My great pleasure.
DK: Not a not a bad place to have to sit to figure out good conversations, that's for sure. So, as I warned you, the first question that the listeners expect in a nutshell is: What did you want to be when you were a little kid?
DW: Yeah, I wanted to be Davy Crocket, actually. And I had one of those Fess Parker raccoon tail hats pretty much permanently affixed to my head from about age four to about age eight. And that, to me, was the most exciting thing I could think about. That obviously didn't hold up for a long time. I realized Davy Crockett wasn't really a job. As I got a broader view, it wasn't very much longer, beyond just kidship, that I wanted to be a painter. I love to draw. My my mom inspired, I think, my interest in fine art; and I was particularly attracted to the sort of great Northern Renaissance painters. And so, as I went to school—as I pursued an academic career—I was interested in painting and art history; particularly the sort of Flemish period. I'm still at a loss as why that in particularly resonated with me.
But—and over time, I guess—I realized that as interested as I was in that, I didn't have the gift to the point of being able to actually feed myself with my art. So, I came to this crashing conclusion that I was more likely to be a house painter than a fine artist. And it was fortunate that time that I, well, I tried to convert that fine arts background into a commercial art application, and hated every minute of that. I was an art director for a publishing company and really didn't enjoy that sensibility. And that's when my first opportunity to enter the wine business was presented. I had sold everything I owned. I was ready to go to Europe, spend a year studying all those great paintings I had seen only in books, when a friend who I was going to travel with said, “You know if you want to wait another six weeks, I think I can get us a job in the Napa Valley.” And we came here for the harvest of 1975 and had a ball. Just as hose monkeys, you know, pulling hose and making wine at a little cooperative up St. Helena. We went to Europe—came back ten months later—and what do you know, the next harvest of '96 was here. And that's when I decided, forget being an artist. I'm going to be a winemaker guy.
DK: So, you went through you're telling me, before you went through another winery. But I want to get us up to the point where you begin to help the listener understand the story of where we are, and what it all represents.
DW: Sure. Well, yeah. Very easy to fast forward. Over the next dozen years or so, I worked for a handful of of pretty respectable properties. Berenger was cellar master at Heitz Cellars for a number of years; that was a great apprenticeship... Well, by 1985 I had put together a little bit of a C.V. as a qualified wine maker—although I had never trained for it. And that's when I was introduced to Bill Harlan. He had come to Napa Valley years earlier to develop Meadowood Resort. But I came to understand he was completely obsessed with the idea of trying to create a great wine from Napa Valley that could one day be considered among the great wines of the world. So here's a guy with a little wagon. I see a guy with a big wagon and I thought, you know, here is somebody I feel like I could really hitch my—make my contributions alongside, and really make a consequence. So, it was a very attractive offer. I went to work for him as a wine maker in... 1985.
DK: Do you remember meeting him the first time? And what was your impression and feeling about what was going to happen?
DW: Well, it was interesting. I had known him really by sight and through his reputation. He was quite a figure in San Francisco society. He was the sort of new owner of Meadowwood, and I loved what he had done up there. But I had never met him. I was referred by a friend that maybe he'd be looking for some help. I went down to meet him. He was actually on the crush pad of a place he had he had rented to make his first harvest of wine. He and his wife actually were in their khakis and t-shirts out on the crush pad trying to figure out which end of the pump was the right end. I happen to walk out just at the right time to to be able to help them kind of figure out what they were doing, and about ten minutes later had a handshake deal to to come to work for him. I told him I needed to go home at least, change my clothes and come back. And later that night, about one o'clock in the morning, I was I was filtering a small batch of wine by the headlights of my car in the pouring rain, wondering if I had really made the right career move. But, yeah, he just somehow inspired me by what he had to say about what he wanted to do... maybe there was a piece of that for me too.
DK: Right. As I think you've noticed—if, as you've looked at the podcast a little bit, and certainly anyone who's been listening—the word inspiration comes up a lot. And the word, or the words in the phrase is what he said, or what she said, the connection between people taking a bit of risk. People seeing something that doesn't yet exist is typically driven by the language and, obviously, the messages that people choose. And as elementary as that sounds, I certainly know it's the purpose of the podcast—that people get reinforcement from stories like yours, from stories like some of the other guests, that is it. That is where it takes place.
DW: I think you're absolutely right.
DK: And so, we go there. And now comes back to how did I end up finding out about this winery? I was starting my business in 2000. Came out right out of the box as the sole proprietor of the Kugler Company in January of 2000, and I happened to pick up soon after that a copy—because I like to cook—a copy of Food & Wine. There was some good pasta recipe, or whatever it was. There was this article which—maybe we would put up a link for it on your page, on the podcast—that talked about the story of this guy named Bill Harlan. And what was unique—and what's so grabbed me, which I want you to talk about—was this place in all of its grandeur. This place, this business is only about wine for a certain reason. For the mark that it makes—as I understand it—talk about the mark that it makes in the world, and in people's lives. Can you? Because that's what really grabbed me. He's a philosopher, the article. You don't read about a philosopher often in terms of wine.
DW: Oh, that's so true. That's true. And there was a guy who had a career in real estate who was making wine. But somehow in that article particularly I think. The journalist really capture that sort of philosopher-king aspect. And this was a luxury Bill could afford a little bit more by then. As a risk taker, he wasn't sure exactly what his odds were. He wanted to have as many things in his favor as possible. He certainly knew it was all about great land, and he felt like he'd capture a very special place, which is where we are now. He felt that he knew he needed to differentiate himself, and break away from what everybody else was doing in order for it to be something worthy of people's attention, and maybe give it the possibility of lasting. Because longevity was the real measure, I think, of success in this regard.
But I think everyone that has any involvement with the wine understands—at least anecdotally—what it's capable of. I think red wine in particular may be unlike any other beverage or spirit; [it] has this very humane quality to it that ties you somehow with a lot of history; your own and that of the world, as well as this engagement. It sort of nurtures conversation. People sort of tend to wax poetic in a way that honestly doesn't happen to me with white wine, or other things that I love as well. But red wine, to me, gets inside your soul at some point. And it connects you to other people. All the great wines that I can remember drinking, I shared with someone. The other details tend to fade away where we're obsessed on; but we remember the vintage, and the producer. And I think this was something that everyone has at least a brief encounter with.
DK: Right. That's for sure. After I read that article—to prove the very point you just made—I had a client, a management committee of a law firm and they had had a very good year. And I'm producing a management retreat in New York, and they wanted to do a team building event for, frankly, a group of gentleman who didn't really like to think of themselves as a team. They liked to have thought of themselves as great lawyers, or great administrators. And we ended up—this will all, I'm sure, the place will ring a bell for you. The place was called Veritas. And they invited—
DW: A veritable temple of wine.
DK: I had been asked to facilitate their team discussions for a couple days, and then we were going to go to Veritas for dinner. So I made sure that—with part of the very generous fee they had provided me to do this work—that by the time they arrived, there was a bottle of Harlan on the table.
DK: That was 2002—to this day fifteen years later, when I run into one of these guys, inevitably—and I'm not exaggerating—“Do you remember that bottle of wine?” And that is the story. It was it was a lot of money for somebody like me, and worth the memory—worth the connection, right? So that's really what always connected me to that to the notion. So let me get at that. Anybody who has now listened to this podcast has probably already Google-searched Harlan Estate wine. And up has come its premium pricing, and some of the story of how hard it is to get. My question—and in all communication, in all creation of meaning—the best are created, as I say, deliberately and with intention. It is not accidental that this is what it is. There was a purpose. So talk to—talk to me for sure, so I can continue to understand it—how did you decide to create not just wine, but this wine at this premium?
DW: Well-intentioned is the right word, I think. And Bill Harlan is for me still the world's most curious man. He wants to know everything he can about every possible subject. And he's relentless in pursuing what it is that really interests him. We had a brief conversation of Mike about his evolution and how he came to be in the wine business, but it really all came together—where this romantic notion of perhaps making wine was brought into a crystalline focus, when he had spent about a month in the fine wine regions of the of the Old World in Bordeaux and Burgundy. Having met with some of the great producers of all time in their homes, in their estates, in their chateaus, walking their land, hearing their stories, dining at their tables. He got a much broader appreciation into what this commitment to make—not just a great wine, but to create a legacy and to create a contribution to the world that would live beyond your lifetime, and add to the texture and the warp of life.
And so, he came back really with the resolve to create—in quotes—a first growth of California. Admitting there is no such thing; I think we're probably glad about that. But what that meant to him and the message that we took to the world was we were committed to doing something, whatever we could, to influence the quality, to deepen the commitment, to continued improvement. That's what he set out to do—which is a big task. He knew it was about capturing the right land. He had done his research. He was a risk-taker, a gambler, poker player. But he wanted to have as many odds on his side. He knew that some of the greatest wines from California had come from the western side of Napa Valley. Most of them had come from the valley floor, or just at the foot of the hills. But based on what he'd seen in places like Tuscany and Burgundy, he came to understand that the many of the great wines came from the hills. This is something the Romans knew; you could plant grapes when nothing else would grow. And those grapes work a little bit harder and have to struggle a little bit more for nutrients.
So, he was committed to capturing the right piece of land with slope for drainage and exposition. We had reasons to believe this property had the right kinds of soils, although it had never been cultivated. And so, he took the big risk to buy this land; to clear the forest—certain sections of it. Eighty-five percent of it remains very much the way we found it. It's—as you can see—it's a beautiful kind of natural reserve. But we also felt there was a scale at which we could go about this; which was making a couple thousand cases of wine. This wasn't the grand vision of maybe doing twenty, thirty, fifty thousand cases of wine. This was about expressing a very specific piece of land in a very specific way; and to do that through good farming, thoughtful farming. Doing everything along the way in terms of handling the fruit in terms of... But we didn't want to just—we didn't see this as craftsmanship. We thought this was more artisanal. This was taking it into a realm where you're really trying to capture the essences, as little as you can do. We're always looking for one less thing to do, to try to get the very most authentic expression.
And then, you know, I'm happy to say there are a lot of things that conspired to our success. The intention was very strong, and I think we were very much driven by what we believed was possible. But there were a lot of things that helped us and encouraged us along the way. As we were doing this, to our first decade of making wine here, we had more good years than bad, which is California in a nutshell. Northern Europe is a much more challenging place to farm. We had a crazy economy that could support almost anything. We had the dot com era in San Francisco. And then, you know, again we had a team that was very dedicated to make great wine. We got it out in the world. We had a few people say some really nice things about us; Mr Parker and others put some wind in our wings pretty early on in our in our first releases. And so, we were off to an auspicious beginning. And because we made so little, and because it became so highly sought after, that added an extra element. I think that also added an almost mystical quality. Everybody wants what they can't have; and so I found myself in a position where I was more about handing out disappointment than I was about satisfaction. And that lent a little different aura to the wine business.
DK: Right. So that intention and what you have created and presented to the world—I'm curious though, how—if it does—how does it affect the inter-workings of the organization? The conversations that take place—and I think I've read that you and Mr Harlan—and there's a key group of you that have known each other for years—that has its own special effect. But this intention to be the very best; how does it change working here?
DW: Very good question. Yeah, we spend more time than anything else talking about, really whether we're on purpose or not. It is just always coming back to making sure that you're doing what you say you're doing and what you set out to do. As I say, it's largely a strategic talk—that the tactics kind of take care of themselves. But we do have a sort of inner group of those of us that have been involved for the longest time; it's our winemaking team, our viticulturists. And, you know, just making sure that we don't lose sight of the prize, really. And then, once you've been honored by this sort of patronage, how do honor that? How do you continue to foster that relationship? And because, again, we weren't really in a position to have to sell our wine. It was about making sure it went in out into the world in a way that positioned us as auspiciously as possible. We knew we needed to be international. And so, we would talk about not so much channels of distribution, and market share, and all of this. It was just talking about how do we find the individuals, the sort of true believers who will resonate with what it is that we're doing? How do we talk to them? How do we treat them? How do we differentiate ourselves from the thousands of other people who are trying to do the same thing? And, you know, while there wasn't just any one person that was in charge of that, it was always collaborative. We wanted to help keep each other on track, be a resource for each other. And while there is room for everyone's personality in this, we wanted everything to kind of fit into the central vision and be consistent regardless who was delivering that message.
DK: But what I can envision in this group of you sitting together—and please correct me if I'm wrong; though obviously the philosopher-king image is from the magazine—it sounds like the essence of the conversation in those rooms, as often or as rarely as they happen, are shared conversations. There's not one dominant voice. You know, lots of research these days points to the highest performing teams as literally having shared voices—not what you think of is the big-mouth person.
DW: Well, Bill, there's no question Bill is our or sort of leader and el supremo. He's very collaborative and has lots of—he segments often his conversations, and this is why—it's more, always maybe our initiative that we always bring that information together. So, it's always shared.
DK: I see.
DW: I think of the way he manages life. He's happy to work with the person sitting right in front of him, on a specific topic. The thing that we work as an organization to do, is make sure we're all sharing that same kind of information.
DK: I understand. So what's the—it's an obvious question to me—what's the hardest part about all this? This sounds so, you know, thoughtful and intentional, and deliberate and successful, and beautiful—that's what you get by sitting here! But what's the—as one client used to say—what's the sand in your shoes?
DW: Farming is never easy. I guess at the base level, all the beauty and the romance, and the romantic notions of wine are all superseded by a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and dusty, dirty farming. Nature is there to keep us humble and to challenge us. And God bless our team who does it so beautifully each year. We're learning. We're striving. We're trying everything that we can to sustain our land, to farm responsibly and sustainably, and keep our vine health and our soil health alive and vibrant. And again, that takes a lot of innovation. We're not following any one bright philosophy. We're borrowing from many ways of thought that we think makes for the best health of our property here. So that's part of it.
As far as sand in your shoes, I guess I come back to this: scarcity kind of cuts both ways. You know, again, and I was—my role in my family—was the pleaser, I was the one that took care, made sure everybody was having a good time and and yet I have not as many opportunities as I'd like to—with as limited [the] wine—I'm handing out a certain amount of disappointment; where we're never able to sell maybe quite as much wine to people as they'd like, which is frustrating. And I think just... staying out of the clutter—that takes a certain amount of work... You can't just rest and say we got things figured out. We'll just do this for the next two hundred years. We're challenging ourselves all the time. It doesn't feel like a hardship, but it's definitely something we're mindful of. And now we have kind of a new audience; our demographic is changing. The Baby Boomers bought us to the dance, but they're aging. I'm one of them. I'm drinking less wine than I used to. So we're now having to find new dialogues, new messaging, new points of engagement and new ways of meeting the next generation that will take us—we're also, within the organization, going from Mr. Harlan to Will Harlan III. H. William Harlen III; Will, who is Bill's son, who is now very much involved in the business. So we are at this stage of succession with the next generation as well as a sort of subtle shift in our our market support and audience, so we need we need to create. We need to find out what gets this group excited in a way that's different from those that got us here.
DK: A new challenge.
DK: Well, I'll close with one quick story of something that Don taught me. And he probably doesn't even know it. I signed up for the mailing list—I was obviously, and it might have been at least the rumor at that point was it's THE mailing list to get on; The mailing list—something of that narrative. But Don, who was that at that point overseeing the marketing, wrote—they didn't send you an e-mail. That was the first thing, because in that time, it wasn't a very active way of communicating. So you had to send cards and to explain what was happening, and you wrote a card, or it came under your signature, and you used the term, “inviting my interest.” And I always remember that as a way to talk with people. That you can't force them. You can't. I've always told clients you can't make people change. You can only invite them, and their interest, and their emotion, to come to you. And that note which you wrote, or authored, seventeen years ago has guided my work. It really has.
DW: That is—I'm blushing from head to toe. First of all, that's cool. That's really heartening for me.
DK: It would be cool to save it, but they only, they only went by snail mail... But sure enough this has been, as I had hoped, an amazing experience. Ari [TMWTS sound engineer] and I are lucky enough to go have a little tour of the winery now. So, not such a tough job we have at times. But most of all, Don, thank you for for helping me, and hopefully helping the listener.
DW: It's been lovely having you here. I hope we've created a spark in there somewhere.
DK: I think so.
DW: I hope you return.
DK: We will.