Bond Estates is the brainchild of Napa legends Bill Harlan and Bob Levy. The winery focuses exclusively on single-vineyard bottlings from some of the best, most unique sites in the Valley. The approach is essentially Burgundian, and indeed, each of the carefully selected vineyards is labeled as a “Grand Cru.”
Harlan and Levy developed the idea for Bond while they were working together at Merryvale Vineyards in the 1980s. It was there that they first got a look at fruit from some of the best Cabernet vineyards in Napa, and realized the great potential for single-vineyard bottlings. Though similar wines existed at the time — think Phelps’ “Eisele,” and Heitz’s “Martha’s Vineyard,” — it was an era when “Reserve,” “Cask,” and “Special” selections were seen as just as, or even more important than single-site bottlings. Generally speaking, Napa Cabernet was painted with one broad brush, with the individual identity of terroir very much a sub-plot.
Harlan and Levy’s gamble was to find a collection of top-tier vineyards that would capture and reflect the unique elements of their terroirs. Furthermore, they sought to build long-term relationships with growers who could farm to their exacting specifications. The pair identified the first two vineyards, Vecina and Melbury, while they were still at Merryvale. Vecina is an 11-acre site in Oakville, with soil composed of bedrock overlain with fine grained alluvial wash. Melbury sits further north on seven rocky, hillside acres east of Rutherford.
By 1984, Bill Harlan had purchased what is now Harlan Estate in Oakville, the site of the Bond winery, but it wouldn’t be until the sale of Merryvale in 1996 that Harlan and Levy were able to move forward in earnest with Bond. Between 1994 and 1998 they made several experimental vintages from Vecina and Melbury, releasing the 1999 as the first commercial vintage.
Over the years, Bond has been routinely mistaken for a Harlan second label. I can recall hosting a Bond wine dinner for some top clients, where most of the guests — pretty savvy collectors — were under this misconception. In reality, they are two different projects with completely different visions. Where Harlan is very much a single-vineyard wine, the vineyard itself has a multitude of exposures and aspects, altitudes ranging from 150 to 1,200 feet, and is planted to four different grape varieties over a total of 40 acres. Cory Empting, who is winemaker at both Harlan and Bond, says that making the Harlan wines, “is like conducting a symphony,” — his task, to bring the best of its various, magnificent elements into perfect harmony. The Bond wines, in contrast, are much more “naked,” says Cory (more Bach cello suite than symphony). It is one estate, with multiple Grand Crus, each made from a single tiny vineyard, with one exposure, one dominant soil, and one single grape variety.
The number of “Grand Crus” in the Bond portfolio has increased to five as of 2006 with the additions of St. Eden (2001), Pluribus (2003), and then Quella. At any given time, there are up to 12 vineyards in consideration for “Grand Cru” status. On average, Harlan and Levy work with a site for eight to nine years before selecting it, which gives them enough time to decide whether quality is consistently high enough, and whether or not the vineyard possesses a truly unique signature.
While this project has been a long time in the making, both Harlan and Levy are looking toward the future. Cory adds, “In Burgundy they’ve had over a thousand years to figure it out. We hope we can do it a little quicker than that, but vines take time, and we won’t rush it.”
The single varietal/single vineyard model allows for a fairly pure expression of the site, but farming and winemaking can always threaten to override the nuances. That said, winemaking is not done in a formulaic way here. “We work pretty traditionally, and are focused on getting the best potential expression from each site,” said Cory. “That may require employing various farming, pruning, or training techniques in order to best balance each vineyard and get the best ripening outcomes.” Harvesting and fermentation are both handled on a very specific, block by block basis.
Uniqueness of site, or “terroir,” is fleeting and precious, and is first and foremost dictated by the geology and climate of a place. But it is easily squandered — blended, farmed, or manipulated away into something unrecognizable. At Bond, Harlan and Levy are committed to capturing and expressing the unique and singular voices of their vineyards, and they do this, year after year, in exquisite style.