Until about 10 years ago, the vineyard now called Promontory was growing fruit that went unmarked into other Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. After serious scrutiny, extensive soil studies, and minimal but high-tech viticulture, that parcel’s steward, Will Harlan, now has confidence that the land can produce—in fact, is producing—the valley’s next bar-setting Cabernet blend. What’s more, he has built a winery complex on a grand scale not only to vinify and age his wines but also to welcome collectors and enthusiasts to come taste them—a surprising move for a member of a family whose vineyard properties have rarely opened their gates to visitors.
Through the early 1980s, in pursuit of a plot of land capable of producing a markedly distinctive, exceptional wine akin to the first growths of Bordeaux, Harlan’s father, Bill, hiked the western hills of the valley, kicking the dirt and letting instinct reign. On these rambles, a large expanse to the south of where he eventually established Harlan Estates caught his eye, visible from a promontory he frequented—but it was not for sale. Twenty-odd years later, the 840 acres became available. Intuition prompted him to buy.
Both vineyard and winery are now in the hands of the second generation. Having launched his own label, the Mascot, within the family portfolio, Will Harlan was well prepared to manage and champion this newest venture, building on the aggregate experience and quality of his father’s work while at the same time establishing an entirely distinct style.
In describing the Promontory vineyard, which consists of about 80 acres carved out of the larger parcel—90 percent of which remains unfarmed—the younger Harlan lets more than a little passion show. Surrounded by forests and traversed by diverse wildlife, “it’s rugged, hidden, raw,” he says. “It’s untamed, like the Old West.” His words conjure a stark contrast to the manicured vine rows most visitors to the valley see. Call it the power of suggestion, but the 2009 Promontory—the first vintage released—hints at wildness, with a vein of minerality beneath bright red fruit and compact layers yet to open.
It wasn’t a given, Harlan says, that this rather untamed vineyard would yield its own label and, eventually, a winery. His family’s philosophy has always been guided by dual tenets: First, “do no harm” (the easy part); second, “only take on something that has the potential to surpass what we’ve done before” (a tall order). As Harlan puts it, because he was brought up with and plans to continue the family’s 200-year plan—in which time and resources are never spared to ensure each project’s viability for generations—he moved slowly with Promontory.
Innumerable soil pits were dug in the cause of extensive geologic testing. “We had a geologist who lived out there for years,” Harlan says. One pocket of soil they found, located between two fault lines running through the jagged property, is unique within Napa Valley. While most examples fall under the general categories of volcanic or sedimentary, Promontory’s rarer soil is the wine world’s third type—metamorphic rock, which also marks such old-world appellations as Alsace, Beaujolais, and the Loire Valley. Years of tasting the wines off the existing vineyard made it clear that the soil yielded a character distinct not only from most Napa wines but also from Harlan Estate vintages. Striking a slightly mystical note, Harlan calls it “an undefinable otherness.”
With exceptional potential in hand, Harlan could justify redeveloping the vineyard—farming it in such a way as to reduce potential erosion, rehabilitating the soil from prior harsh chemical treatments, and replanting where necessary. And he could begin designing a winery that both connected to the history of the land and spoke to the new wine’s distinctive qualities.
Design of the Times
Opened just last June, the Promontory facility—comprising a tank room, a cellar, a lab, and tasting areas—is massive in scale. Thick concrete walls start deep underground and soar overhead, where they’re laced with steel girders. The structure, designed by renowned Napa architect Howard Backen, has an industrial aesthetic that simultaneously evokes the majesty of the surrounding forested canyons and peaks. The style nods to the pioneering era of the late 1800s, when the main stagecoach line between Napa and Sonoma ran directly through the Promontory property.
The tank room is all business: Steel beams crisscross the space, yet the design is as thoughtfully stylish as it is practical. The walls in the vast tasting spaces rise tall as trees. Minimal furnishings direct focus to stones taken from the soil that have been sliced open and polished to show the unique qualities of metamorphic rock. Simple, clean lines like canyon walls frame distant views, while a tree-shaded patio offers valley vistas. On another terrace, a woven awning of willow twigs conveys the dappled light of an arboreal canopy. Perspectives change at every turn, showcasing the wildness of the landscape.
That the spaces are meant to host tasters, who are welcome (by appointment), is a dramatic departure from the practices of previous Harlan properties. Connoisseurs who haven’t secured a spot on the Harlan Estate and Bond allocation lists have had scarce access to the wineries. Will Harlan wants Promontory to be different. He wants to communicate directly with people, to build relationships. “At the end of the day, wine is one of the most visceral experiences someone can have with the land,” he says. “We want people to relate their experience with our wine to an actual memory.” He and his team are making this wine because they love drinking it, and he wants other people to drink it, too—here, where it’s made.
Taste and See
A tour takes guests 20 feet underground to the elegantly appointed cask room, which is surrounded, bunker-like, in earthquake-defying concrete. In the damp coolness, artful lighting highlights a ring of oversize Austrian-oak casks lining the walls. Beauty meets utility here, as director
of winegowing Cory Empting describes it. The goal is always to translate the vineyard site through the wine, and Empting found that smaller new French-oak barrels tended to obscure the purity of the fruit. The more neutral Austrian vessels “encourage a transparency of place,” he says. A cask sample of the 2015 vintage gives up complex, elusive aromas of violets and minerals as well as flavors of dark plums, berries, and rich spice. The wine won’t be released until 2020, though. Echoing the take-it-slow spirit of the family’s approach, Promontory’s wines will age for 5 years, giving them time to settle down, integrate, and get a start on the long life they already promise. There will be no jostling for space here; Harlan secured enough casks to age five vintages for 5 years each.
Back above ground, tastings of several more of those vintages continue in the library. The shelves here don’t hold library wines; instead, they house a large collection of the world’s most significant wine tomes, some dating back centuries. Across the hall is an ultramodern lab for data collection and analysis—a juxtaposition that bears out Harlan and Empting’s old-new approach to winemaking. “We don’t talk in terms of style” from year to year, says Harlan. “The land provides character, and the vintage gives the wine its individual personality. We just try to get out of the way.” Empting resists that simplicity. “Getting out of the way is the hardest work of all,” he’s quick to add. They watch—and test—endlessly to understand the terroir and make adjustments to achieve the best expression of Promontory each year.
The winery was intentionally located a short distance from the vineyard, which remains cloaked from view. Isolated in its canyon from the rest of Napa Valley, the territory remains as free from human impact as possible, as Harlan firmly believes this protection preserves the character of the wines. Guests at the winery will have the opportunity to experience this ethereal quality as expressed in several vintages. The 2012 ($650), the current release, is fresh, vibrant, and mineral driven compared to the riper, fruit-driven norm of today’s Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. And these second-generation wines will likely influence the style of Harlan’s own viticultural peers, just as his father’s first bottlings did decades ago.
To make an appointment ($200 per person), email email@example.com or call 707.944.0125.