It is often assumed—and for good reason—that the classification of vineyards according to the quality of the wine they produce is a French invention. The French have a gift for analyzing the foundations of their own superiority, and they did, after all, organize the official Bordeaux Classification of 1855, an audacious experiment in which a group of wine merchants at the Exposition Universelle de Paris ranked the region’s châteaux, in order of importance, from first to fifth growth. Yet the first first growth in Europe did not come from France, but from ancient Rome. The most prized and praised wine in the Western world was made from the Aminean grape grown on the hillsides of Mount Falernus, south of the modern city of Naples. Falernian was a late-harvest wine so rare and valuable that only kings and aristocrats could afford it. Julius Caesar and Cleopatra were rumored to have quaffed this rarefied draft together, and historians report that Caligula, in A.D. 39, indulged his palate in the pleasures of the legendary 121 B.C. vintage. The orgiastic excesses of the Satyricon also are said to have been fueled by this decadent drink, the 100-year-old vintages of which Petronius was especially fond.
If the Romans were to seek a wine of similar extravagance in the modern age, one suspects that they might find their 21st-century Falernian not in Bordeaux, but in California. While it can boast no vintage of an age sufficiently venerable to suit the appetites of the great Roman poet, Harlan Estate is one of the most sought-after wines in the Golden State—and certainly one of a very small handful that would qualify for first-growth status if the French were imported to classify the wines of the Napa Valley.
Established in 1984 by the Harlan family, the estate has focused on making Cabernet Sauvignon–based wine that balances old-world artisanship with new-world innovation. Under the care of Robert Levy, director of winemaking, each individual grape that goes into the wine is carefully hand-selected and destemmed before undergoing a whole-berry fermentation—some in oak tanks, others in steel—and extended maceration, which gives the wine its incredible concentration and dark, intense color. The result, in every vintage, is a Bordeaux-style blend of extraordinary precision, richness, and structure; but even within a decadelong flight of outstanding Harlan vintages, the 2002 shines.
Ink black, yet lit from its center by flashes of crimson, the vintage exudes a powerful berry perfume laced with violets, cassis, and candied plum. With each sip, dark clouds of blackberry unroll across the palate, showering hints of violet and rose, then finishing with rich, mouthwatering tannins like crisp, red apple. The fascinating juxtaposition of intense flavors and classical structure is summed up best by Harlan Estate director Don Weaver: “What I see in the vineyard in Oakville,” he says, “is what I taste: the manicured, orderly structure of the rows of vines that come up against the dark, wild, mysterious forest.” The combination should enable this wine to age long enough to have suited even Petronius’ tastes.