In the early 1980s, Bill Harlan began acquiring selected parcels in the western hills above Oakville in his quest to produce what Antonio Galloni later called  “an American First Growth.”

From the first commercial release nearly thirty years ago, his wine, Harlan Estate, has been one of Napa Valley’s most coveted and collectible Cabernets, and its stature has only grown over the succeeding vintages.

But during all that time, Harlan dreamed of making another wine, from a remote, rugged site he discovered earlier while hiking in the Mayacamas Mountain foothills south of Oakville.

As Harlan relates, the site’s “untamed ruggedness was a surprise—quite different from anything I had encountered in the Napa Valley. This wild place, overlooked for most of the 20th century, emanated a power and a mystery and an undefinable allure.”

The valley’s slopes were steep, and most of it was thickly forested. But a small portion of the more accessible areas were planted, primarily to Cabernet, with tiny amounts of Petit Verdot and Malbec. The owner didn’t want to sell it at that time, but decades later Harlan had the chance to buy it. And so he did.

As he had with Harlan and then later Bond, Bill began slowly, working with winemaker Cory Empting and vineyard manager Mary Maher, to understand the site. Years of geological studies revealed a terroir unique in Napa Valley, a steep, narrow valley of sedimentary soils facing west, and volcanic soils facing east.

Both are characteristic soil types of the eastern Mayacamas range and are found at Harlan as well. But what sets Promontory apart are the metamorphic shales, slates and schists of the valley’s center, revealed by two east-west running fault lines. At elevations up to 1200 feet higher than Harlan, the site is cooler and moister as well.

New Ideas

The early Promontory vintages, starting in 2008, were made along lines of Harlan and Bond, but Empting decided that French oak barriques weren’t appropriate to such a powerfully structured wine. So, in 2012, the team not only began transitioning to longer aging in larger barrels; it also brought in a new winemaker, Davide Cilli, who had plenty of experience working with large barrels in his native Montalcino.

Under Cilli, Promontory quickly went to 100% botte aging, receiving its first perfect 100-point score from Antonio Galloni for the first vintage aged entirely in botte, 2014. Galloni wrote: “I knew it was only a matter of time before Davide Cilli would make a wine at Promontory that would represent the maximum expression of this rugged hillside site.”

But Cilli’s influnce was just as great in the vineyard, as he instituted vine-by-vine farming that could likened more to gardening than to conventional viticulture. Twenty people are on the property every day, meticulously tending the vines. And picking is staggered among the 90 different blocks to harvest each at optimum ripeness.

In the cellar, each block is fermented as an individual small lot, with the vessel material dependent on its soil type and exposure. The more tannic nature of the fruit from the sedimentary parcels sees a shorter fermentation in stainless steel, while the volcanic and metamorphic lots are given longer extractions in oak and concrete. This allows Cilli to capture the precise character of each block.

The result is a wine with few precedents in America, and the full measure of a great terroir.

 

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