Visiting Promontory and digging into the philosophy behind the Harlan family’s legacy
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.
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).
Exploring the evolution of one of Napa’s original cult estates, Grace Family Vineyards
Talking to Shawn DeMartino is a breath of fresh air. The whip-smart 30-year-old is a whirlwind of energy. Conversation is double-pace, with an enthusiasm that is energising and infectious. It’s easy to see how he has wound up managing one of Napa’s original cult names, Grace Family Vineyards, at such a young age.
“I’ve been spoiled by prior experience to know how high the bar can be, and now I strive to live up to that example,” he tells me. “There’s just an enormous amount of craftsmanship and teamwork between a great idea and a great wine.” And his prior experience does set the bar high – his resume is ridiculous. He worked at Screaming Eagle and Harlan before deciding to work freelance as a consultant, then being lured to Grace full-time.
If you haven’t heard of Grace, it’s not that surprising. Until recently, the estate was a tiny two acres, producing a mere 200 cases a year – most of which went to their mailing list. It’s never been open to the public, quietly tucked away off Highway 29, just north of St Helena. But the alumni of this property include the likes of Randy Dunn, Heidi Anderson Barrett and David Abreu.
A coincidental cult: the history of Grace Family Vineyards
Dick and Ann Grace bought the property in the early 1970s and replaced a one-acre olive grove with Cabernet Sauvignon in 1976. Dick was a stockbroker and knew nothing about wine, so turned to Charlie Wagner at Caymus for advice (the couple enjoyed his wines, and Dick had done some business with him previously). Wagner ended up buying the first crop of grapes in 1978 (which was picked by the Graces’ family and friends). When he realised the quality of the fruit, Wagner bottled it separately, as Grace Family Cabernet* – and continued to do so for several years, with the last Caymus bottling of Grace made in 1982.
Soon Dick and Ann decided to start their own label, converting their barn into a winery. The 1983 vintage was their first release, but it was in 1985 that Grace was catapulted to fame. That year, they offered a lot of 1981 Cabernet at the Napa Valley Wine Auction. When the hammer eventually fell, the final bid was $10,000, making it the highest-priced lot in the auction. The cult was born.
But the cult was almost an accident – a fluke born of various factors.
When the couple planted that first vineyard (now known as the upper block), they planted it at 1,100 vines per acre – an unusually high density for the time – having been told that it was good for quality. Their neighbours thought they were mad. In 1988, they planted a second acre (the lower block) at similarly high density and when phylloxera struck the original acre in 1994, they replanted at 3,400 vines per acre – six times the average for the time.
They inadvertently farmed organically, choosing not to use herbicides or pesticides, just because they didn’t want to, shifting to more official organic farming over time.
The vine material from the Bosché vineyard – a site originally planted by a San Francisco attorney, John Bosché in the mid-1960s. Sitting between Beaulieu Vineyard and Inglenook in Rutherford, Freemark Abbey used the fruit and it became known for age-worthy and elegant Cabernet.
This clone, now referenced as the Grace clone, combined with the unusual vineyard density and management, created something special – and a wine that became one of the region’s most sought-after. Early vintages of Grace were sold for $25 a bottle – considerably more than many of their neighbours. Although such pricing is a distant memory today, there’s a years-long waitlist for an allocation.
Dick and Ann still live on the property, in the house they bought back in 1976, built in 1881 and sandwiched between the two vineyards. Over the years, the couple has became known for their philanthropy – creating the Grace Family Foundation and working in particular with children’s charities, and charities in Nepal – after Dick developed a relationship with the Dalai Lama. Reportedly over 20% of the profits from Grace were donated to charity. But as they got older (now both in their 80s), they didn’t have anyone to take on their legacy, with their children not interested. Enter, the Greens.
A new era for Grace
Strategy consultant Kate Green met Dick and Ann after employing Helen Keplinger (Grace winemaker since 2014) to help replant vineyards Kate had bought in 2015. Heath Canyon, this 50-acre property (with seven dedicated to vines) had originally belonged to the Van Asperens, the founders of Round Hill wines and Rutherford Ranch Winery. Helen introduced Kate – and her English husband Jeremy – to Dick and Ann, and they hit it off. Dick and Ann saw the Greens as a fellow family willing to take a long-term view and nurture their legacy. In 2019, Kate Green bought Grace (reportedly paying over $5 million for the original estate vineyards alone).
At the same time, the already tiny volumes produced at Grace were temporarily slashed, after the Graces took the difficult decision to replant the lower block in its entirety in 2017 – making as little as 80 cases a year. “Rarity is seen as desirable around here, but at Grace we really understand the flipside of the scarcity coin,” Shawn tells me, half-jokingly.
But there was a pipeline for more fruit. The Greens had been in conversation with the Corbetts – owners of a neighbouring parcel to Heath Canyon. The Corbett family had been farming these vineyards since the 1900s, with Cornelius (Connie) Corbett the most recent steward. After leasing grapes, the Greens managed to persuade Connie to sell them this 40-acre parcel (with 22 acres of vineyard), which was another slice of the original Van Asperen property.
This site – now known as Cornelius Grove – is tucked away on the western side of St Helena, just a stone’s throw from suburbia. Here, 30 acres of vines sit in amongst 60 more of forest (another thing for Shawn to manage), forming an undulating amphitheatre with a remarkable range of soils and microclimates at the foot of the Mayacamas.
On the southern edge of Cornelius Grove is a hill with charmingly wonky terraces (currently being re-planted), atop which perches an old redwood tank that was converted into a tiny house. But in another twist of fate, it is this “round hill” that appears on the labels of and gave its name to Round Hill – the label created by the Van Asperens.
The Grace of the future
As if there weren’t enough hints of destiny in Grace’s story, Helen Keplinger gave Shawn his first job in the industry. He worked as an intern in 2015, helping bottle the 2014 vintage of Grace. Returning six years later was, for him, “a little like coming home”. Although originally hired as a consultant, it soon became clear that turning round and incorporating the Corbett vineyards, the ongoing replant of the original site, not to mention building the brand and its distribution, was going to be a full-time project – and one that needed attention and commitment for at least a decade.
“I’ve been given an amazing amount of freedom, but it’s a long game and there’s a lot to get right,” he says, laughing. There won’t be any sudden about-turns, but it’s clear that there’s an evolution taking place – and one that will be exciting to watch.
Having worked with Cory Empting at Harlan, his mentorship seems to have had a significant impact, with a focus on building a relationship between the team, the land and the wine. There is a team of six working in the vineyards, but every Friday the crew is given the day to do what they feel needs doing. Although Grace has long been known for paying its crew well above the minimum, empowering vineyard workers with such freedom remains radical.
The original winery was a converted barn, and while it’s a special space – with its stained-glass window bearing the estate’s trademark “G” and renovated relatively recently – it is far too small. In fact, the wines are currently being made elsewhere, largely because the 2020 fires came right up to the property and they can no longer get fire insurance. Alongside everything else, Shawn is working on a fire suppression system to protect the original estate.
The change in ownership is also bringing a shift to the range. The family had previously made a wine from 1.7 acres of the Blank Vineyard in Rutherford (the Blanks were friends of the Graces). The wine was a source of confusion, another single-vineyard bottling rather than a second wine, and bearing a drastically different appearance, with the front label not even mentioning Grace. The 2018 vintage was the last bottled, with the 2020 made as a rosé, needing to pick it early ahead of the fires.
The original, flagship Grace Family Estate will continue to be made from the original vineyards, of course, but this will be complemented by two new wines, with both produced for the first time in 2019.
Cornelius Grove – named in honour of Connie Corbett, who still currently lives on the property – will be made with fruit from the Corbett vineyards. One gnarly 0.7-acre old-vine plot from this site – 70-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon with a sprinkling of Gamay interplanted – is going to be bottled separately (in fact this was first made in 2018, producing just 25 cases).
At present, the lower block of the original Grace Estate isn’t yet back on stream after its replanting – although a portion will be included in the 2021 vintage which will be blended and bottled in the coming months. Shawn explains how they used the slow-developing 420A rootstock, and they’re trying to resist watering and fertilising it to try and hurry it up. The two original blocks are significantly different – the upper block is more volcanic, creating a more linear, structured and almost severe style of wine that is complemented by the lower block’s fleshier profile from deeper, loam-rich soils. Despite being less than 100 metres apart, the difference is extraordinary.
Tasting the 2019 Grace Estate and Cornelius Grove with Shawn, he clearly feels the absence of the lower block in the property’s flagship wine, but perhaps is biased by his knowledge of the two together. Tasting the upper block iteration of Grace Estate, you can see how the lower block would fit in, but I loved the more strict style of Cabernet. Samantha Cole-Johnson (writer extraordinaire, fellow MW student and a good friend who arranged the visit) favoured the Cornelius Grove. I loved the way she described its “gravel riverbed” character and “unravelling” palate, yet for me the Grace Estate is the one I’d want in my cellar. It might not be showing itself fully now, but I’ve got no doubt that it will be beautiful in 20 years’ time.
Talking to Shawn is invigorating – and I left Grace feeling like this is the start of a new chapter for the property. There’s plenty of history here and a great legacy to protect, but the future seems to hold even more promise – but Shawn is quick to make sure I’m aware that there’s an entire team behind, shaping Grace’s tale. “People talk a lot about culture,” he tells me, “but in truth, real culture emerges from the values of the people that make up and build an organisation. Grace has this kind of culture in spades, and this is perhaps its greatest legacy.”
The Grace Family Vineyard wines
2019 Grace Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon: Made exclusively with the one-acre upper block, just 80 cases were produced. This is for me a wine of perfume and precision – there’s a punch of oak spice at this youthful stage, sweet and toasty, yet beneath that is an intense, savoury and rich power. Concentrated and firm, with the structure of these volcanic soils, you can see where the fleshier lower block would fit in, yet there’s a velveteen feel, and I love the purity here, with herbal layers and a lightness that feels at odds with the depth. If you’re lucky enough to get a bottle, hold onto it.
2019 Grace Family Vineyards, Cornelius Grove Cabernet Sauvignon: This is more floral with sweeter fruit, but a distinct graphite edge. The fruit is darker, with a plushness – richer and rounder than the Grace Estate, its fleshiness making it feel more approachable. The oak dominates still here, but brings a creamy sweetness and texture to the mid-palate, with more delicate notes playing on the long finish.
I’ve been in California for two weeks now, spending a week at the MW seminar here and exploring wineries around Napa and Sonoma. I’ll be writing much, much more on the back of my trip, but – for now – I spent some time thinking about what makes the region so exciting today.
As soon as you start reading about To Kalon, you know you’re in complicated territory. This is a site that commands a serious premium. And so much has been written about it. Many would argue that, at its best, it’s the greatest site in Napa. But, and here’s the hitch, where does it start and finish? Where is the best part of it? Who gets to use the name? Did the fruit actually come from the vineyard, whatever the label says? And is even asking these questions sensible?
For anyone interested, GuildSomm’s legendary feature on the vineyard by Matt Stamp, tracing its history, is an incredible read, and it was absolutely one of the sources I used when trying to put some thoughts on the site onto paper. But trying to look beyond To Kalon’s storied past, I turned to some of the region’s leading winemakers – Andy Erickson, Tor Kenward and Paul Hobbs – to dig into what really makes it special today. I delve into the history, the wines and why it’s deemed a “Grand Cru”.
“What’s the alcohol?” I asked. Paul Hobbs looked rankled. He replied with a slight sigh, “14%.”
I was struck by how light the wine in question felt, his 2019 Goldrock Estate Pinot Noir, I’d guessed it was lower. When I expressed my surprise, Hobbs said something interesting – the sort of thing that doesn’t often come out of a group Zoom tasting of the latest releases from X or Y estate. But Hobbs clearly isn’t your average winemaker, with a depth of knowledge that is profound, and a clear desire to dive into the nuances of each wine he makes.
He’d said that there was much more to alcohol than a number. That it was so much more complex. That no one talked about it. Obviously, I wanted to know more.
I ask about alcohols a lot more than I used to, a result of needing to nail them blind in an MW exam, and knowing that they can provide an essential clue for a wine’s identity. Of course we know that it’s easy for alcohol to be masked by other elements in the glass, but Paul offered a fascinating eye into how climate change doesn’t just mean that there’s a little more alcohol in a wine – but is changing the very nature of the alcohol produced.
Highlights from the last month’s worth of recycling
I love Syrah. Two consecutive nights yielded two extraordinarily different wines. The first was my inaugural taste of Piedrasassi, a Santa Barbara producer focusing on cool-climate Syrah. It’s a collaboration between the talented (and I assume incredibly busy from all the pies he has fingers in) Sashi Moorman and Melissa Sorongon. I’m keen to try more after tasting their entry-level PS Syrah – a touch of brett (which wasn’t to everyone’s taste) added interest to the juicy fruit. The next night I rustled through my wine rack and dug out a bottle of 2010 Tildé, St Joseph from Pierre Jean Villa – offering intensely ripe fruit but enough acidity and spicy, meaty notes to be deliciously quaffable.
I don’t drink much Burgundy (I don’t have the money), but this month someone shared some superb bottles with me. The highlight – the bottle that made me wish I could afford the stuff – was a 2005 Pommard, Rugiens, 1er Cru from JM Boillot. Enchanting, complex, structured and silky – it was extraordinarily good. My budget, meanwhile, was limited to a totally different face of Pinot: intensely smokey, much simpler yet superb Toreye Spätburgunder from Eymann. A bottle of rather aged yet fascinating Premier Cru Chablis – 2003 Les Lys from Daniel-Etienne Defaix – also fell into my hands this month (ok, I ordered it at the ever-excellent 10 Greek Street). It’s at the end of its life but going down in a delicious dance of honeyed, rich, almost exotic fruit, minerality and smoke.
There should always be Champagne
I moved house and the main priority – on a sweltering day – was to ensure that we had cold Champagne to enjoy once we had sweated all our boxes up two flights of stairs. The Champagne in question wasn’t really Champagne – it was serious, serious wine: Larmandier-Bernier’s 2008 Vieille Vigne du Levant, intense, saline and mineral – an almost Manzanilla-like power. Just the ticket with takeout pizza.
Yeah, California does great Pinot, Chardonnay and Cabernet – but it’s also full of people working with funky grapes, putting them on the map. Napa-based Matthiasson’s 2014 Ribollia Gialla is one of those rare really good orange wines. Two weeks on skins, 20 months in barrel produces a rich, concentrated, oxidative yet tropical, mineral yet fruity maverick of a wine. Just enough tannin to make it an incredible food wine. I should have decanted it, as it was even better and more expressive the second night. Its maker, Steve Matthiasson, is a viticultural king in California – a consultant for more vineyards than I can name, and a real pioneer. He is just one of the many people revolutionising farming in California (and, as it happens, you can read more on that theme here).
There isn’t enough time to dedicate a feature to every delicious bottle uncorked, so – in lieu of that endeavour – here is a soon-to-be-regular round-up of the producers and wines that have lingered in my memory most over the last month
I’m still learning more about this ever-so-edgy Californian producer, and popped into Sager + Wilde for their takeover last month. Despite some dubious service from S + W team, I did eventually get a taste of the Valdiguié Rosé (only the second example of the grape I’ve found in the UK – the other being Broc Cellars‘ fantastic red), and the famous Trousseau Gris. The reds I’ve had previously have tended towards the overly natural, seeming a touch blurred in their expression; but these were delicious, clean, enchanting wines, with great acid and aromatics. Their annual Roberson release is looming, I believe, and I can’t wait to try and snap some up – the Gamay escaped me on the night…
Phwoar, this is Champagne that is well worth the Insta-hype. I enjoyed a bottle of the Pinot Meunier dominant Les Béguines at Bright (read my review of this excellent restaurant here), and fear it may be a while before I can stump up the funds for another, alas.
A new producer just arrived at Berry Bros. & Rudd, this whacky couple is creating sensational, fascinating wines in the Napa Valley. Their top wines take the name of an extraordinary-sounding site, Proof vineyard – the red a field blend of Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet, the white a concoction of Green Hungarian, Golden Chasselas and Sauvignon Vert. The “lower-level” Old Vines isn’t quite as complex or deep in flavour as the Proof White, but is stunning nonetheless – layers of rich stone fruit, citrus pith, honey, minerality and such length. I’m a fan, and – having spent some time with them last week – there’ll be a write-up of an interview in due course. (And they were just one of the US invasion that took place last week – my Cali obsession continues, see my piece on the maverick duo at Birichino here.)
Reminiscin’ and missin’ Margs with a bottle of Leeuwin’s ’13 Art Series Chardonnay – still extraordinarily tight, it needed a decant but really opened up over a couple of hours. It’s proper good stuff. (And for more Margs escapism, I’ve penned a travel guide to the region, and a piece on the folks at Pierro.)
Relatively cheap and cheerful, a bottle of this producer’s single-vineyard Orestilla Lugana hit the spot on a sunny evening, consumed on the roof – slightly less glamorous than the vineyard and winery near Lake Garda. Much more serious than its price, it offers plenty of weight and fruit density, yet is oh-so-gluggable.
Gin and cold, cold lager
It’s hot, and this is really all I want at the end of an overly sweaty day (I may not have been too discerning on this front of late).
Me and the Yaris, my trusty companion throughout the trip
So, not to brag, but I’ve had a fairly awesome couple of weeks. I was tasked with the burden of receiving Berry Bros. & Rudd’s award for Best Industry Blog 2016 at the Wine Blog Awards, which were being presented at the Wine Bloggers Conference in… Lodi, California. It was difficult to accept such responsibility, but – ever dutiful – I obliged and rapidly booked flights. And two weeks’ holiday around the conference.
I split my time before and after the conference between San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Napa/Sonoma. I met so many wonderful people (including some fabulous bloggers, hello Wine Not Whine, Pig & Vine and 80 Harvests, and many many more), and had the chance to visit 15 producers, tasting 174 wines and driving 1,079 miles. While I feel I had the chance to see the full spectrum of California’s wine scene (from the more unusual and currently trendy to the established, polished and utterly glamorous), it’s hard to feel like I’ve totally grasped what’s going on: the state is huge and the sheer number of producers utterly daunting. But it is exciting to taste refined, elegant and restrained wines that are in stark contrast to the huge, over-ripe and highly alcoholic wines of yore.
You can have no doubt that I’ll be writing up features on my visits and the region soon with my take on the region, but – in the meantime, and if you happen to be at a loose end – you can read my report on Lodi here on bbrblog.com.
Last month I got to interview Jim Clendenen, the famously free-spirited “mind behind” Au Bon Climat and an icon of the New World. It’s fair to say that it was a fun day at the office. Read an account of our meeting here on bbrblog.com.