Promontory Winery in Oakville, Napa Valley

By Published On: June 22nd, 2024

Leveraging a totally unique terroir to produce some of the most uniquely delicious wines in the region.

The wines of Promontory defy a typical sense of time in more ways than one. In the relatively short 15 years since the 2009 became the estate’s first commercially available release, it has quickly taken its place among the most age-worthy and collectible wines in the world, with critics swooning over it vintage after vintage. And while Promontory may be the newest endeavor within the iconic Harlan family domain, it had been something of a white whale for Bill Harlan for decades, since even before his eponymous Harlan Estate was established.

The wines of are among the most respected and collectible in Napa, and represent the apex of what the region is capable of producing. Photo Courtesy: Promontory Winery.
The wines of are among the most respected and collectible in Napa, and represent the apex of what the region is capable of producing. Photo Courtesy: Promontory Winery.

And fortunately for visitors to Napa Valley, it’s easy to book a tasting and visit, though by appointment only. The Promontory winery is in Oakville, which makes it easily accessible no matter where you’re staying in the region. A visit includes a hosted, privately curated tour of the winery and gorgeous grounds, a discussion about what makes Promontory such a standout—not just the wines, but also the vision underpinning it all—and the rare opportunity to taste a young vintage that’s still aging in cask, as well as a range of back-vintages from the Promontory library.

Guests are treated to an elegant, deeply informative, and unforgettably delicious tasting experience. Photo Courtesy: Promontory Winery.

A Serendipitous Hike, and an Unavailable Tract of Land

It all began back in the 1980s, serendipitously, with a simple hike. “My dad was looking for vineyard land for Harlan Estate,” explains Will Harlan, Bill’s son and the managing director of the company, “and he realized he wanted to be in this very specific part of Napa Valley. He wanted to be on the western side in the hills, which meant that, given the shape of the valley, you’d have eastern exposure, so you’d have the morning sun rather than the afternoon sun. No one was really planting on the hillsides at that time, so in order to figure out which parcels of land to purchase for Harlan Estate, he did a lot of hiking through those hills himself—just alone, hiking through the forest.”

Will Harlan, Bill Harlan’s son and the managing director of the company, has been instrumental in the evolution of Promontory. Photo Courtesy: Promontory Winery.

On one of those hikes, Bill came upon an expanse in the forest that stunned him. The only problem was that it was already owned. “He’d already identified a few parcels that he was really interested in, kind of where Harlan Estate is today,” Will continues. “And he was just looking around at what else would make sense. On one of these hikes, he came up to the ridge line and followed it south a bit further than he had gone before, and he came across this property that was completely hidden. He had no idea it was there, and it just really moved him. He thought, ‘Wow, this would be an amazing property to somehow figure out how to combine with the parcels that I’m planning to have become Harlan Estate.’ And again, at the time, there were no vineyards or anything there, it was totally wild.”

Promontory represents a totally unique geology and terroir, and as a result, the wines are among the most idiosyncratically delicious in Napa. Photo Courtesy: Promontory Winery.

Harlan was so taken by this property that he attempted to purchase it, but to no avail. “The family that owned it, I think they were only the second owner since California became a state, or it hadn’t changed hands much, and they were just using it for hunting,” recalls Will. “They had a little cabin up there and they were doing some hunting, and they weren’t interested in selling it.”

At Long Last, the Property Is Purchased

Over the intervening decades, various parcels on the property changed hands several times. Part of it was even planted with vines, though the fruit was primarily sold and blended in with other wines. And the senior Harlan was, during those years, growing his other estates into the world-class benchmarks they are today. But he never forgot about the land below that ridge line.

Promontory brings together the wildness of the natural surroundings with a brilliantly designed and considered estate. Photo Courtesy: Promontory Winery.

Finally, in 2008 he acquired it—and today spans 840 acres. “At first,” Will recounts, “we didn’t really know what we were going to do with it. We felt it had incredible potential, but we didn’t know very much about it. It was so close in proximity to Harlan Estate, and we thought that maybe this could be an extension of Harlan Estate—maybe it would fit under the Harlan Estate umbrella.”

Between the first time Bill saw the property and the date when the family had finally managed to acquire it, one of the previous owners had planted approximately 80 acres of grapes—one tranche in the mid-1980s and one in the mid-1990s. “By the time we were walking on the property in 2008, it was almost like coming across a forgotten garden: Overgrown, not very well maintained,” Will remembers.

“It looked really rough at the beginning, and so we thought we were going to have to just rip out all the vines on day one and start fresh. But on the other hand, we thought, ‘Well, maybe there’s something we can learn before we just start ripping stuff out.’ So we spent the first few years making wine from the existing vineyard, trying to see if there was any portion of it that would make sense to save…. And it was in those first few years that we started making the wine at a temporary winery up in St. Helena just to try to understand the property.” 

“This was good for a few reasons,” Will elaborates. “First of all, we realized that even though the vineyard looked really rough, there were certain portions of it that were actually producing wine of very high quality, and those became the heirloom blocks that we ended up keeping. We started redeveloping the remaining vineyard pretty aggressively. So the first few vintages of Promontory, the first decade or so of vintages, are really made from these small blocks of existing vineyard that we were able to resuscitate and bring back to health.”

Since then, they’ve replanted the parcels that didn’t achieve the quality and expressiveness the team was after. Yet even today, only around 10% of the 840-acre property is under vine—a figure that will more or less remain, as the rest of the property will be left as wilderness. And fully understanding those parcels was a herculean effort.

Promontory utilizes natural elements in its construction and design, further ensconcing guests in the character of the land. Photo Courtesy: Promontory Winery.

The Learning Curve of Unprecedented Geology

“It’s pretty wild place out there,” Will points out. “We started to realize that, even though it was very close in proximity to Harlan Estate, this place was totally different. We started with our playbook and our practices that we had refined and honed just a few hundred yards away at Harlan Estate, applying that same mindset to the wine growing, farming, and winemaking at Promontory. And we realized pretty quickly that the things that are really great for Harlan Estate don’t really apply to Promontory, and we wanted to figure out why.”

They called in a team of geologists from Stanford University to help them understand the character of the land. Their discoveries were nothing short of stunning.

The nature of the Promontory estate demands a willingness to understand its nuances, and the work to find ways to fully express its unique geology. Photo Courtesy: Promontory Winery.

“There are only three geologic formations found on planet Earth,” notes Will. “You have volcanic, sedimentary, and metamorphic. Napa Valley is basically split more or less half and half volcanic and sedimentary. And what these geologists discovered is that we have a fault line that runs through Promontory, and it actually continues north, and it runs through Harlan Estate as well. We had known about this fault line at Harlan Estate, but what they discovered at Promontory is that we have a second fault line almost parallel to the first, and that these two fault lines acting together pushed up a piece of material much, much deeper from the Earth’s strata,” exposing metamorphic rock. At Promontory, then, “We have this island of metamorphic material unlike anything in our region, which at first was very exciting. On the one hand, it was like, ‘Okay, we have a potential here to produce something very, very different than anything else in Napa Valley.’ But at the same time, it was very scary. We have no experience farming on this material. And we realized we needed to kind of step back, be a little bit more open-minded, and say, ‘Okay, we need to almost unlearn the things that we had learned at Harlan Estate and relearn our approach to farming, winemaking, etc., in a way that fits what this metamorphic material was asking for. And so that was the key discovery there.”

The Land Dictates the Wines

“The vineyards are between 500 and 1,100 feet, so you’re still within the inversion layer where you have really cool nights and warm days,” Will explains. “We’re not mountain fruit by any means, but just slightly higher in elevation than Harlan Estate, and then we also have these very steep hillsides—the average hillside slope at Promontory is like 38%: Really steep. And then as I mentioned earlier, it’s totally surrounded by forest…. So after a few years of working with the land and making the first few vintages of Promontory, we realized that this does not belong as a part of Harlan Estate. This really needs to have an identity of its own.”

The Promontory winery in Oakville was completed in 2017, and it has allowed winemaker David Cilli to produce a wine of very different character to those of Harlan or BOND. “It’s much more of a mineral-driven expression of Cabernet,” says Will. “It’s got this incredible focus and linear drive. But the thing that really stood out to us was that you have a very structured wine, but at the same time you have this feeling of weightlessness. And this paradoxical element was so exciting to us. We wanted to find a way to translate that as purely as we could into the wine and make sure that we were in no way covering that up or distorting that.”

 David Cilli, the winemaker at Promontory, has worked with passion and patience to bring out the best of this thoroughly unique land. Photo Courtesy: Promontory Winery.

On a practical level, that meant focusing less on new French oak and more on larger, neutral vessels. “We use these large Austrian oak casks with the intent of having a more neutral aging environment,” he adds. “French oak is lovely, it brings aromatics, it has this vanilla and oak lactone, this softness and this flesh, which is great for wine that already has those elements in it. Harlan Estate already has that; it’s a part of Harlan Estate’s character. French oak for Harlan Estate works great, but French oak for Promontory would be bringing something to the table that didn’t already exist. So the larger Austrian oak casks offer a much more neutral environment, which allows us to age Promontory for a little bit longer without impacting the character of the wine. And the longer aging is really, I think, important with Promontory. We realized that time just moves at a little bit of a different pace with Promontory, so we needed to give ourselves a bit more time for aging, for release.”

That slowing of time has been a consistent theme with Promontory ever since Bill Harlan first hiked the land. As with all great creations, time and vision are key. And Promontory has benefited from both.

Acquiring the Wine

The wines are available to members of Promontory’s allocation list. They also are available on some of the world’s finest wine lists, and occasionally through top retailers.

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