Jane Anson speaks to Will Harlan about the launch of Cabernet-based Promontory outside the US via the Place de Bordeaux , and hears more about Harlan Estate's '200 year plan'...
When Bill Harlan arrived on the Californian wine scene, his stated ambition was to create a Napa first growth along the lines of Mouton Rothschild.
Few doubt that Harlan Estate has achieved that aim since launching its inaugural 1990 vintage back in 1996, but it’s always been a First Growth firmly in the California mould – which means notoriety, rarity, price tag, waiting lists, the whole nine yards.
Harlan is a resolutely private space, with no visitors allowed, and even seasoned trophy hunters would find getting hold of more than a few cases a challenge.
A few weeks ago, while chatting to Bill’s son Will Harlan, I found out exactly why. Harlan has not only followed the traditional American model of only one distributor per market, but they are draconian in what they do with each bottle. ‘We have never sold more than 1% of our wine to any one person,’ he told me.
That is a whole other level of tight control, and makes it all the more interesting that for their new wine, the heavily anticipated Promontory, they are choosing to go through the Place de Bordeaux for all export markets. Numbers are small, with exports expected to be around 40% of the current 25,000 total bottle production, at least until the replanting fully comes online and that figure rises to around 60,000 bottles.
‘Thirty years ago, we were new on the scene. We wanted to understand the market first hand and to have control over where Harlan wines were being placed,’ says Will.
‘I grew up watching how Don Weaver and my dad built our network. They were out there meeting all the key influencers, and from very early on demand outstripped supply. So when we started looking at Promontory, I looked back at what worked then, and how the market has changed. We don’t want in any way to be in competition with Harlan, and we knew that we needed a different relationship with our international ambassadors. A few years ago we were approached by three Bordeaux négociants, who had formed a small group to represent producers outside of Bordeaux (Duclot, CVBG and Joanne).
‘My father and Don have been going to Bordeaux since the 1980s, and have seen this alternative distribution model close up, so the idea wasn’t completely out of the blue. We know that négociants are looking to change their model to do more brand building, so we won’t be spending any less time out there in the market, we feel it is still key that we the family are out there telling our own story. But having the resources and in-depth knowledge on the ground of these merchants will help leverage our efforts.’
The fact that it’s Will taking charge is also a reminder that part of the Napa First Growth strategy pursued by Harlan is the creation of a ‘200 year plan’. Harry Eyres, who co-wrote the Harlan book Observations from the Hillside describes how the generational shift is key to understanding Promontory and how it sits apart from both Harlan Estate and the family’s Bond wines – all Cult Cabs at the top of their game.
‘Promontory is a different story. Different soils, at higher elevation, a little more pared back than Harlan, very much a wine that is about capturing a sense of place. And it’s not just Will who represents this shift, but also Cory Empting, the director of winemaking and successor to Bob Levy. Cory is 36, around five years older than Will, and they share a similar feeling about wine. It’s hard for any son to forge their own identity in a family business, and it’s very important that it feels like Promontory is their project, even though the land was originally scoped out by Bill.’
Promontory is a Harlan story that has been a long time coming. The land was first spotted by Bill Harlan when he was out hiking in the hills behind Oakville in the early 1980s (‘he was always just out there looking for land,’ is how Will puts it). At the time it was totally undeveloped, no vineyards, no houses, just a wildly rugged canyon with the remains of a former bootlegging still from the Prohibition era – all of which maybe explains why they still like to refer to it as The Territory rather than a vineyard.
‘It’s a place where you feel thousands of miles from the rest of Napa’ – Will Harlan
It wasn’t for sale back then but Bill kept his eye on it over the years. When he was finally able to buy it in 2008, it had passed through a few hands and had vineyards planted, but ‘no one had ever given it the attention it deserved’. They did a full soil study and found ‘a whole new metamorphic soil type that doesn’t really exist elsewhere in Napa, at least not side by side with formations of schists and clays, all the result of two fault lines that pass through this spot’.
It means that the topography has greater diversity of soils and elevation than Harlan Estate, and the micro-climate is cooler because the blocks span elevations from 150m to 340m. Although much of it had been carelessly planted over the years, there were 11ha of heirloom blocks that gave them a clue to the quality, and that they have kept, replanting 16ha of the rest block by block from 2011, and expanding by an extra 5ha.
‘It’s a place where you feel thousands of miles from the rest of Napa, even though it’s only 20 minutes from Harlan,’ says Will, who helped clear out and prepare the land back in 2008, between his junior and senior year at college. Even today there is no real road to get up to Promontory, and they want to keep it that way, even though unlike Harlan this new estate is open to visitors – not the vineyard, but a winery and tasting room which they have built on Oakville Grade Rd, closer to Harlan and Bond. Importantly this is on the site of a former winery, which in tightly-controlled Napa means licensing rights.
It was Ariane Khaida of Duclot who first told me about the Bordeaux connection. ‘Napa always been about selling direct to private consumers, certainly at this very top end, which makes this is a real recognition of Bordeaux expertise on export markets’.
She’s right, but it’s also a fascinating recognition of how Bordeaux and Napa are increasingly finding common ground – Napa in its move towards the European idea of wine reflecting specific geology and terroir, and Bordeaux in wanting to take on board the Napa brilliance in branding and understanding of the customer experience. Promontory is creating such a buzz (the first vintage is out already in the States, and will be released in Europe on March 8) because it sits somewhere in the middle of this. It captures both the controlled high-end buzz of a new Napa release with a wine that is a throwback to a more classic Napa style, using only 30% new oak barrels along with the larger-sized Stockinger Austrian oak casks. Adding to all that is the promise of what it means for one of Napa’s most eagerly-watched First Families.
‘My dad loves to identify things,’ says Will. ‘In Promontory he saw an opportunity that maybe went beyond his original idea, and he’s selfless enough to give my sister Amanda and me the chance to approach a fraction of what he achieved with Harlan’.
Updated 23/02/2018: Harlan Estate’s inaugural vintage was 1990, not 1992 as initially stated.
See a vertical tasting of Harlan Estate wines (Wines tasted in 2017)