Promontory. Long time Napa vintner, and proprietor Bill Harlan first discovered a unique piece of property located between Oakville and Yountville in the mid 1980’s while hiking a ridge trail in the Mayacamas Mountains. These are the mountains that form the western side of the Napa Valley and are the site for his two other properties, Harlan Estate and BOND.
Looking out over this unique part of the Napa Valley – a region that few people will see based on its rather isolated location Harlan reflected on a word that might best describe his overlook – he began referring to the view he saw from the ridge, as a Promontory, referring to a point of land that juts out overlooking something below – usually a body of water but in this case a tiny valley with vineyards. And in reflecting on the vineyard’s location, he calls it ‘the territory’ a fitting description considering Mr. Harlan’s fascination with history. It is a word that perhaps labels the land as an outlier – and a tribute to its contiguous size.
Vineyards were initially planted here in the 1980’s with additional plantings in the mid 1990’s overseen by Girard Winery. Mr. Harlan purchased the vineyards in 2008 and in 2010 purchased another section of the property – in total, just under 900 acres.
Promontory rounds out what is now a trilogy of Harlan owned Napa wineries – including Harlan Estate and BOND. Among of sea of significant ongoing Napa winery and vineyard changes in ownership, Bill Harlan subscribes to what he calls the ‘200 year plan’. Inspired by generation after generation owned wineries in Europe – he always acts with his feet squarely planted in the present but with an eye on the future. He has studied some of Europe’s most successful long running wine families and taken heed of those who have failed. Passing on leadership to the second generation has already happened – his son Will Harlan is Managing Director at Promontory.
While physically isolated and surrounded by forests and rugged often steep terrain, the site is relatively not that far from the valley floor (takes maybe 12-15 minutes to reach by car). From Promontory the northern reaches of the property are only about 2 miles due south. Nearby neighbors including Dominus, Blankiet and Martha’s Vineyard with BOND and Harlan Estate located just to the north.
Currently approximately 30 acres of the site are under vine with the majority planted to Cabernet Sauvignon with small blocks of Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc – with a number of blocks undergoing replanting. Ultimately the goal is to have 65 to 70 acres under vine (less then 10% of the total acreage). Each year the vineyards are harvested in 60 to 90 separate lots.
The property can be challenging to manage due to it’s often steep terrain (15 to 30 degree slope) yet exciting at the same time due to its diversity of soil types and exposures. A vein of volcanic soils run through their lower vineyard, parts of the vineyard are planted on sedimentary soils and the majority of vines grow on metamorphic soils. Also unique for a vineyard planted in the Mayacamas Mountains are the amounts of exposure this site has – a remarkable 360 degrees in some cases.
The vines are dry farmed and are very much farmed by hand – by their own team of vineyard workers.
Our first visit to the winery property was many years ago when it was operating as Diamond Oaks Winery. Before that it was home to La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi which was open to the public at the time for tastings focusing exclusively on Italian varietals, and prior to that, a production facility built in 1982 called Vichon, eventually owned by Robert Mondavi Winery. Vichon was named by combining the last names of the primary partners at the time, Dr. George Vierra (Vi) and Brucher (ch) and Watson (on).
The estate is 20 acres perched in the hills with great views mostly to the south overlooking the Napa Valley. Five acres of vines are planted on site but the fruit from these does not go in to the Promontory wine.
The winery is the creative work of both the Promontory team in conjunction with Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects (the same firm that also designed Harlan and BOND). The winery is built to match the diversity of their vineyards.
The Fermentation Hall looks like it is from another era – while modern it has a feel of a time harking back to the Industrial Revolution perhaps. As equally appealing as the visual aspects are the functions housed within it’s confines. During harvest, a hopper can be attached to a crane and overhead rail system which then will be delivered to a specific tank. 30+ small lot custom made tanks are housed here – some concrete and some wood and individual lots are picked to match the sizes of their tanks.
To further micro manage what the wine making team calls the “corners and angles” of their vineyard, the pieces that are often too small to fit into tank – go into barrel for fermentation in a separate barrel room. The number of barrels they choose to use really depends on every vintage – some vintages see very even ripening while other vintages showcase the diversity of their vineyards. The barrels sit on OXOline® rollers and are rotated in full several times a day during fermentation. The barrel fermentations are slow – rather then a quick extraction of color, flavor and tannins from the skins – these components are slowly infused into the wine over time.
In what is certainly quite unique for the Napa Valley is their approach to aging wines. Rather then aging in the traditional wooden barrels they age the wine in 820 gallon wooden casks that were made in Austria. The wines age slower here and and are not as influenced by the oak in such a short time as compared to aging in barrels. The wines are on an up to 5-year aging program so current releases are typically released 5 years after their vintage date. The casks were introduced starting with the 2012 vintage. Vintages to date have ranged from 1000 cases to approximately 1,400 cases. Ultimately when more vineyards are planted production will increase to around 3,000 cases.
Significant thought went into choosing their wine making equipment – the space, the tanks, the use of barrels the ease of moving equipment around all reflect a philosophy that puts a strong emphasis on being flexible. Wine making is not rigid – it is a piece of art that is painted differently every year and the winery certainly reflects this.
The winery was fully functional in time for the 2016 harvest.
In a unique offering for a Harlan owned winery, hospitality is an important part of Promontory. Guests are treated like family with visits highly personalized one on one experiences with a Promontory host. Visits start with an overview of their philosophy on terroir and the uniqueness and importance of their particular vineyard site. Views from the property are exceptional – looking mostly south including overlooking both Harlan Estate and BOND.
Guests are taken into the winery and aging room. Visits are highly informative, are at your own pace and are tailored to your own interests. A visit offers a rare insight into one of Napa’s most innovative and premium wineries. Your experience culminates with a tasting of both a library wine and a newer current release. Visits are for collectors and serious wine enthusiasts.
With a sizable commercial kitchen on site and plenty of intimate space they cater to select private events (often corporate).
After acquiring the property in 2008 they made wine later that year. However while still learning the nuances of the property and not yet managing the vineyard for a full year, they elected to not release wine this year. 2009 was the first harvest fully under their control and is their first release.
The wines are fermented using indigenous yeast. Based on their style these are wines that should age extremely well. Both wines listed below contain small amounts of Malbec and Petit Verdot.
The 2009 Promontory (inaugural vintage) is fairly dark red in the glass. It opens to a powerful bouquet which is exceptionally well layered. Shows notes of ripe blackberry covered in dust, aromas of an older cedar box and hints of smoke. As the wine breathes the aromas become more elegant – with a sweetness of fruit showing complemented by a french vanilla spice. The wine is nicely balanced across the palate with good acidity. Fairly refined on the finish – the tannins linger for some time but do not dominate. This wine clearly has a lot of life ahead of it still.
The 2012 Promontory reveals notes of red cherry, chocolate, toasted cedar and blueberry aromas. The wine is seamless across the palate with a texture that is highly appealing – supple yet powerful at the same time. Flavors of blackberry lead to a lively finish. The tannins show on the front of the palate initially and build in structure persisting for some time on the finish. Full bodied but very balanced.
For more information and to join their allocation list, visit: www.promontory.wine
Old Diamond Oaks Winery (we provide these photographs below for historical reference)