This is the English version of an article published for my wine column at Forbes Japan. The Japanese version is found here.
An hour's drive from San Francisco takes you to the southern edge of the Napa Valley. From there, head north on Highway 29 to Oakville, the center of Napa, and then take the westbound sideroad. Passing through the vineyards, and then going uphill on narrow mountain paths, you reach the entrance to the Promontory winery. It's a quiet, isolated place with no other wineries around.
After ringing the doorbell and waiting for the solid gate to open, you see a modern and stylish space inside. It's located halfway up the mountain, so the winery overlooks the vineyards. While you are fascinated by the scenery, you are offered a ‘welcome’ Dom Perignon champagne. The hospitality is unsurpassed.
Napa Valley is the most well-known, premium wine region in California. One of the most successful figures in Napa is William (Bill) Harlan, the founder of Harlan Estate, who developed his wine brand into the highest standard and achieved its cult status by himself.
Starting with a long-term vision, the ‘200-year plan’ that will reach across several generations, Bill Harlan aims to create a Californian wine brand that is equivalent to Bordeaux’s first-growths . To that end, he searched for the right land, employed the best staffs, crafted wine using the latest winemaking facilities and techniques, and built his brand from scratch.
This grand-scale project has now been passed down to his son, Will Harlan (pictured below). The Harlan Group operates the wineries of Harlan Estate and ‘Bond,’ which focuses on the expression of single vineyards, and the Meadowood Hotel, which has a three-star restaurant, and so forth. The group's newest brand is Promontory – the winery that Will is directly in charge of.
Finding an untouched land
Promontory's beginnings date back to 1984, even before the Harlan Estate took off. While hiking, Bill came across an isolated stretch of land in the mountains, away from the center of Napa. Although he was strongly attracted by the power of the untouched land, he didn’t pursue it at the time because he didn't have the money to buy it and didn't realize the full potential of the land.
Twenty years passed, and the opportunity came around again. He heard the news that the land was for sale. He examined the land with a geologist from Stanford University and found that, in addition to the volcanic and sedimentary soils commonly found in Napa, there were metamorphic rocks, which all contributed to a complex mixture of soils that was not found elsewhere. Although there was a degree of uncertainty, he thought that it could be a unique place with great potential so trusted his intuition and purchased it.
The land is vast – 840 acres – but there are many steep areas, and only about 10% is used for vineyards. Because of its high elevation, it has a cooler climate than the vineyards in the valley floors of Napa. In addition, the dynamic terrain and topography creates various microclimates and there are also places where cool air flows in. As much of the land remains in its natural state, a variety of wild animals have been recorded on surveillance cameras at night.
While the land is undeveloped, the vineyards are well maintained and beautiful. In order to respect the diverse ecology, they avoid chemical products, such as herbicides, and adopt a method of organic and biodynamic farming together with Masanobu Fukuoka’s philosophy of natural farming. For them, these farming methods are for growing good quality grapes, not for advertising that they are biodynamic or organic.
My visit to Promontory included a visit to the vineyards, a tour of the winery facilities, and a tasting. The most impressive part of this whole tour was the fact that refined and sophisticated wines are produced from grapes grown in such a wild environment.
Promontory is a full-bodied red wine with a base of Cabernet Sauvignon blended with a minority proportion of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. It has the strength and power of the grapes grown in the mountains as well as juicy and concentrated fruits from the Californian sunshine. The wine was first made in 2008, but this was not sold, so the commercial debut was a 2009 vintage.
In order to express the personality of Napa's mountain grapes, the winemaking process is also customized and not bound by tradition or precedent.For example, for alcohol fermentation, three types of vessels are used according to the individuality of the plot of the vineyard. In the subsequent maturation stage, Austrian Stockinger casks are used as well as French oak barrels. Wines are aged for as long as five years before release. During this time, the high and solid tannins slowly soften, various flavors and components are integrated, and harmony is brought to the wine.
A story across two generations
Will, who received the baton from his father, the founder, spent his childhood in St. Helena, Napa. He was born in 1987 – coincidentally, the first year that the Harlan Estate grapes bore fruit – and grew up watching his father's endeavors from close at hand. He said that, when he was young, he grew familiar with the family business by running around the winery and helping to wash the tanks but hadn’t expected to become involved in the wine business.
After graduating from university, he started to work at an IT company in San Francisco, which was coincidentally close to home. He explains, “It was the proximity that allowed my curiosity to wander back to wine, and I started coming back to learn about blending, and experimenting with a small project of my own; eventually leading me back to wine. As a child I was curious about everything, but the wine business seemed very ‘normal’ to someone growing up in the Napa Valley. It wasn’t until much later once I gained perspective that I could appreciate it for what it was. Now that I’ve joined the family business, it’s hard to imagine following a different path.”
Originally, each of the Harlan Group's three wineries pursued its own concepts and goals and each is run separately. While his father found the land for Promontory, it is Will who has been leading its success, from the concept to the actual release. The baton has been decidedly handed over to him.
Because the land is unique, there were endless possibilities and, even once they had acquired it, there was a great risk of failure. The understanding of the individuality of the land has gradually deepened over the past decade through trial and error. Will says, “Year by year, the wine has increasingly become an expression of the purity of the land, but it is a process that has just begun. I plan to figure it out over a long time to come.”
Since Will became involved, there has been a new wind on the business side too. Napa's premium wines – especially those, like Harlan, where production is small and demand exceeds supply – are mainly sold directly to consumers through mailing lists managed by the winery. In addition to this, Promontory has adopted a distribution channel via Bordeaux's Négociant in order to take advantage of Bordeaux's global network and build its brand.
While the Harlan Estate is clouded in secrecy and its address is not open to public, Promontory opens its doors to general customers and allows visits to its winery and tasting by appointment. That was also Will's idea. He believes it is important to share the stories and experiences of Promontory with its fans and consumers directly while, at the same time, listening to their voices and building relationships.
It's been a decade since the first vintage was released, but this grand-scale, Promontory project has only just begun. The potential of the vast land has not yet been fully disclosed. Replanting of the original vines over the next 25 years is also planned, so keep an eye out for future developments.