The Harlan family pushes into uncharted territory with the new Promontory Winery
Words by MICHALENE BUSICO
Thirty years ago, Bill Harlan was hiking through the hills southwest of Oakville, scouting parcels of vineyard land for what would become Harlan Estate, one of Napa Valley’s most prized cabernet sauvignons. Along the way, he stumbled upon a steeply sloped, rocky landscape that wasn’t vineyard land at all, but a dramatic expanse of forest, grassland and creek. “It was a whole different scale than what he had been thinking about,” his son, Will Harlan, says, “and no part of it was for sale.”
Still, Bill had a feeling great wine could be made there, and when a portion became available in 2008, he bought it—and continued buying until he owned 840 acres, only 80 of which were planted with grapes. “We think about it as a small national park,” Will jokes, but there is an underlying truth there, too. The terrain is distinct from the rest of Napa Valley: It sprawls through the Oakville and Yountville viticultural areas, as well as undesignated land, and it includes a soil type and climate variations found nowhere else in the valley. It has also inspired the Harlans to create a new wine that expresses a wilder sense of place, and build an ambitious new Howard Backen-designed winery to house it.
Called Promontory, the wine has become one of the most buzzed-about on the market since its first release, the 2009 vintage. It breaks with many of the traditions of the Harlans’ prestige labels, starting with the viticulture. The grapes are grown in line with the natural principles of the Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka. The wine, made by David Cilli, ages for five years in large Austrian casks, instead of the expected French barriques. About 1,000 cases are produced each year, with plans to increase to 4,000 or 5,000 cases. A bottle of Promontory sells for $450 to subscribers, and about $600 retail—about half the cost of a bottle of Harlan Estate. “We think of it as a mineral expression of cabernet, rather than a fruit expression of cabernet,” Will says of Promontory. “The property is further south, higher in elevation and has a unique topography that almost creates its own weather patterns. It makes for a fresh, foresty, much wilder-seeming wine.”
“We wanted a place where people could come and see for themselves what goes into the wine and how we think about things”
There are changes beyond what’s in the bottle too. Thirty-year-old Will, Promontory’s managing director, has taken a more central role from his father, who is now 77. And in June, Promontory became the only Harlan property to offer a peek behind the curtain: For $200, visitors can make an appointment to see the clean-lined, industrial-inspired winery on the nearby Oakville Grade and taste the wine in cask, along with current and library vintages. An abbreviated tasting on Saturday mornings is $50. At Harlan Estate, or their other property, Bond, “we never had visitors—we wanted to keep it shrouded in mystery,” Will says. “But at Promontory, we wanted a place where people could come and see for themselves what goes into the wine and how we think about things.” 1601 Oakville Grade, Oakville, 707-944-0125.