Building a dynasty

Visiting Promontory and digging into the philosophy behind the Harlan family’s legacy

The view from the Promontory winery, out across the Harlan vineyards

Will Harlan is oft-quoted as having said they had to “unlearn and relearn” everything at Promontory. While the property might have been discovered by his father, this unique estate is his baby – and it’s growing up.

I first tasted Promontory over Zoom, during a lockdown. In true Harlan family fashion, however, it wasn’t a regular Zoom, with a drone-shot video that took you into “the territory”. Trapped in my tiny flat in London, it was genuinely transportive. Combined with the taste of the 2016 – a Napa Cab of such textural elegance, it was memorable.

Visiting last month was, however, an experience like no other – it’s a place that feels mythical. I spent a long time geeking out with Cory Empting, now Managing Director of Winegrowing for Domain H. William Harlan – the family’s group of estates, Promontory, Bond, Harlan. A local boy, he left school aged 15 to start working in wineries. He was just 20 when Bill Harlan called him up, telling him he was looking for someone to help him build his legacy, take over from Bob Levy and develop Promontory over 35-40 years. Cory signed up instantly – and he’s now been working for the family for 22 years. Bill gave him six weeks’ leave each summer to travel the world, allowing Cory to visit and work in many wine regions. His influence seems to have been significant, pulling back on extraction and oak, as well as the incredible work they’re doing in the vineyard.

In the vineyard at Promontory, tucked behind the ridgeline

I philosophically struggle with the prices of Harlan, Promontory and Bond – and the only way I will ever get to taste these wines is at the property or other trade events. But, having now spent some time at the estate, it’s fascinating to see the incredible investment that is being made, in the land itself, in endless experiments and research, in the farming and people.

It was fascinating flitting from Promontory to Matthiasson. These are two drastically different projects – with wines that command extremely different prices, and demand on the secondary market – yet the underlying philosophy is almost identical.

I’ve written a long piece delving into the place, the farming and philosophy – as well as the 2020 vintage, a year that marks the start of a new era here (and a wine that may well divide the crowds).

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