Will Harlan, the man with the plan, is in rude health despite 24 hours on the red-eye from San Francisco to Kuala Lumpur. Whatever he’s been drinking, Robb Report would like some.
Harlan is managing director of Promontory, the wildly beautiful Napa Valley terroir whose rhythm and embrace of sun and moon are also his provenance. It took 30 years to acquire the land upon which Promontory was established in 2008. The 200-year plan Harlan holds is for the making of wine that will age to a point of revelation.
It has been entrusted to him by his father H. William Harlan, founder of Harlan Estate, whose aim is to make wines worthy of being called California first-growth. Harlan Senior’s visit to Bordeaux and Burgundy in 1980, arranged by Robert Mondavi, made him realise that great wine is a long game whose players are signed up from the future.
He passed the game plan to Will in January 2021, who is now managing director of the Harlan family’s winegrowing properties, which include the independent entities of Harlan Estate (1984), Bond (1996) and Promontory, each with its own distinctive reason for being.
In a way, Will Harlan became a mythical creature: the near-extinct Napa scion, because few of the valley’s winegrowing families continue beyond the pioneer generation. Noblesse oblige: as a chip off the old block and an outcrop of his epic terroir, Harlan is steward of an evolving winemaking tradition and a phenomenal network of underground kingdoms; of life in earth, so to speak, pivotal for all life on it.
Things could have turned out quite differently. In 2008, Harlan blended wines made from the younger vines of Harlan Estate, Bond and Promontory to make what would come to be known as The Mascot. It was the first public release—in 2013—of what had, until then, only been made in quantities enough for close friends and family. Then he left Napa for Silicon Valley, to find his niche.
He found what he was searching for, however, in wine, eventually becoming director of Promontory in 2015. Of the Harlans’ three estates, Promontory is the most forward-facing; its soils (volcanic, sedimentary and metamorphic) are ancient, alive, and inchoate on a cosmic scale. With its two geological fault lines, Promontory grants perspective on the majesty of passing time and its capriciousness as the earth moves.
In Will Harlan’s tale of two valleys, one exists in synchrony with the rising and falling curves of analogue time. The other cleaves to the square waves of digital time: a stream of ones or zeroes, signifying only on or off, that informs a similar working culture. Silicon Valley defines “ephemera” as social media posts that vanish from our screens — ironically, into the permanent archives of “the cloud”. Robb Report asks Harlan how a new generation of potential collectors raised in warped time might relate to wine:
“The ephemerality of wine: it’s very lasting, but also constantly changing; something that has its own life cycle. Maybe one of the most compelling aspects of it for my generation living in the fast-paced, high-communication, tech world is this return to something tangible that moves at the pace of the seasons rather than a thousand miles an hour. I think people are finding solace in a product that really is of nature.”
Our candid conversation would provide fascinating insight into the business, time, imperfection and, not least, a quest to know terroir and the nature of life through winemaking. Excerpts:
It took twelve years for Harlan Estate to see any revenue, and then eight more before it turned a profit. Would that fly today?
To be in the wine business, you really have to love it; you shouldn’t go into it to make money. At the same time, there are a lot of people that have made a lot of money in other areas to get into the wine business, and they’re doing it because they love it. But oftentimes the generation after them is not interested; or they haven’t set things up for a healthy transition because this is more their personal hobby rather than something for the ultra-long run.
Harlan Estate for my dad was a 200-year plan, this vision for what we could do in the wine world. Twenty years is a long time to break even on a project, but in the wine world, if you’re trying to do something profound, it wouldn’t be rare to find that as a horizon.
You mention a new generation of drinkers and collectors who want to connect with something less ephemeral. You must speak from personal experience, having been in tech for a while.
Yeah, I love staying on top of things. I’m a bit of a futurist; I love the evolution of technology. At the same time, I think it’s about balance: it’s grounding to have something like wine that is a steady pace of the seasons connected with nature; something that can’t be fabricated or mass produced, at this level, this natural scarcity…
I didn’t think that I was going to be in the wine business. It was really important to me that I found something to create that I could be a part of; not just of the founding, but also the creation of the vision and the long-term path. I also don’t want to put my stamp on Harlan Estate and take it in a different direction; no, Harlan Estate is on an incredible path, and has a very specific character. It’s really important to stay true to that at a higher, and higher, and higher level; same with Bond.
But Promontory, we’re still in the founding years. Having been a part of it from the beginning and to be able to mould that and be a part of what it could be — putting that vision out a few hundred years — that’s what was exciting. I didn’t know it at the time but that’s what would fully bring me back to it. I thought that I was gonna find that opportunity in tech; I found it in wine. Honestly, that’s what brought me back.
It’s also helped that Napa Valley is pretty close to Silicon Valley. I have a lot of friends still in tech that are doing very, very well and I angel-invest very small amounts here and there. I’ve got my job that I’m a thousand percent in, but I still have a lens into other things that I am fascinated by. But I’m both feet in wine now.
FORESTHow have disasters such as the Glass Fire changed the way you relate to the land, and how can winemakers contribute to protecting it? (The Glass Fire at the end of September 2020 destroyed more than 64,000 acres of land in Napa and Sonoma counties in California after raging for 23 days.)
It’s a great question. The Glass Fire or even the fires in ’17 were really strong signals that the path we were on is the right one. But we need to be pressing even further on these elements. We’ve had a full-time team for quite a number of years now that just takes care of the forest surrounding our vineyards, to understand the interface between forest lens and vineyard lens. All Harlan Estate and Promontory vineyards are hillside and surrounded by forest; it’s very different from being on the floor of the valley.
This interface with the forest has a huge effect on the wine-growing environment and the character of the wine. We’re realising that there are so many symbiotic elements, and so we’re starting to blur the lines between where the vineyard ends and where the forest begins. It’s a holistic approach to treating the environment with just as much care as we’re giving to the vines.
We’ve got to take care of the forest. Not only does it protect against fire when we reduce the fuel loads and remove the dead trees, but we make better wine and better decisions because we’re following the colour of the trees and time of the season.
It’s like a return to nature, this realisation that we actually never left but convinced ourselves that we had superseded nature. This is a path that we have been on for a long time. We’ve been organic for 25 years; biodynamics we got going about 12 years ago. But over the past dozen years, we’ve really moved pretty far beyond even biodynamic practices.
Cory (Empting) our director of winegrowing, calls it natural farming. We’re not tilling the soil anymore and dry farming almost the entire property. We’re using cover crops to find the balance in the vineyards, to re-carbonise the soil and de-compact it. It’s about understanding and then tweaking these small levers within the existing natural systems to achieve an ideal winegrowing environment, rather than very blunt-force inputs.
(Insightful and entertaining conversation on natural wine ensues; Harlan notes the potential effects of dogma for the process discovery.)
What is your relationship with the land, with wine? We know about life on earth, but we don’t really know about life in earth. Terroir is not just a bunch of rocks. If we say that wine should be transparent to the expression of the land, then we need to find out what that is. We’ve got about 60 years of cultivable soil left; soil is going extinct because of farming methods and how we treat it. Below the surface, the forest and vineyards, is a fantastic communication network, or so I’m told…
The mycelial network is something that we’ve been very hyperfocused on for a while now, and that’s why we don’t till the soil anymore; we don’t want to disturb these networks that have been created for so long. This is the interface that the vines have with the geology; vines don’t interact with any mineral directly.
There’s water and [carbon dioxide, for photosynthesis]; everything else, it (the vine) has to get through the fungal network. There is communication between the vine and the fungal networks [which] find the minerals the vine needs from the rock. And then they trade resources (minerals, for the plants; sugar, for the fungi).
So, step one, don’t disturb the soil so you don’t disturb these networks. And two, how do you build the soil? Carbon sequestration is super important, especially for an environment like Napa Valley, because we don’t get any rain during the growing season. It’s very different from Bordeaux or Europe, for that matter. Most of these other winegrowing regions get rain throughout the growing season.
So retaining moisture is super, super important for us, especially since we’re not irrigating (the vineyards). So, how do we do this? Increasing the carbon content of soil increases its water holding capacity by incredible numbers. (Organic matter can hold 90 percent of its weight in water and release it gradually over time.)
So, how do we do a better job of carbon sequestration? What kind of cover crops can we use? And then realising, well, cover crops also shield the soil from the sun and keep it from washing away during the winter. So you reduce erosion, you keep the structures intact, you keep the sun off it so there’s less transpiration; it’s cooler because you don’t have the sun reflecting off the bare soil. It’s actually better for the vines. At night, the sorghum or whatever else we plant in between acts as a condensation method [to collect] more moisture.
So, all these things are about how we can build soil, how we can retain that soil once we build it, and then how we preserve the networks that are then created in that soil. Promontory has 38 percent average slope (gradient), so erosion is a real concern. We have cover crops year-round, depending on the time of year. We plant different species, some annual, some perennial. We’ve been using more and more species that we’ve been finding in the surrounding forest, bringing them into the vineyard.
A few times a year, we bring in sheep; every so often, we’ll bring in foxes to deal with the voles, and we have owl huts for the other little rodents. It’s all about developing the ecosystem that can start counterbalancing itself.
So, you haven’t really talked about this much before, have you?
We don’t shout it from the rooftops; we don’t shout anything. I think it’s more our culture to be inner focused. We spend so much of our energy just figuring out how to get a deeper connection to our land, and not telling everyone else about it. We probably need to do a little bit of a better job with that.
Does what makes a great wine change in different places? Is there a universal aesthetic or benchmark?
Personally, and this is just my opinion, a great wine has to be able to age. (Attaining) the highest quality is how you get to play the game. From there, it’s about character. Again, personal views: it’s not about perfection either, not about which wine has the fewest flaws. For instance, your favourite people are oftentimes ones that have certain flaws. Is it distinctive? Do you crave it without craving something that’s also of a very high quality but not that one thing?
What are you looking for ultimately in a glass of great wine? What are you seeking?
Oh, probably different things at different times, I don’t know. I feel wine is ultimately a medium. And yes, it can be an end in and of itself, and that’s fine. I think, for a lot of people, it tends to be the focus.
For me, it’s inextricably part of a mindset that I want to find myself in, taking a step back from technology screens; slow down, take a moment out of the normal timeline…
It’s almost like a meditation.
That’s a much better way of saying it. And that’s what I’m looking for if I’m investing in a significant bottle. Either I’m alone or I’m with a few people, the right people, in a relaxed setting. And we can just kind of be; we don’t have to talk about a whole lot of stuff (laughs).
But that’s just me. Other people may want to have that super vivacious party. That’s a great thing. Everyone’s got their own way that they enjoy wine. I’m more on the meditative side, but it’s not just to sit there and analyse everything about the wine. It’s that …
That’s the intellectual part of it which you’re actually trying to shut down.
You’re looking for something of the infinite in the time and the place where the wine comes from, and…
Yeah, it gets very spiritual very quickly.
Cory Empting has been working with the family for 22 years. He started with us when he was 19 and he’s only a few years older than I am. I’m very biased, but I think he’s maybe the finest winemaker on the planet. He’s been the one pushing a lot of these initiatives.
He found out about the Japanese farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka, who wrote the book One Straw Revolution. That was the start of Cory’s approach: we need to be moving away from inputs, and not just substance inputs, but doing things just because we’ve always done them, such as tilling the soil (which nature has evolved its own ways of doing).
We talk about the family and this generational handoff. Family might be the best caretaker for a culture, which is important for a business if it wants to maintain its identity while evolving, so it can persist and flourish.
We’ve whittled things down to, What is our identity? What are the things that won’t change, pretty much no matter what? What are the things that we need to be open to? We know that we’re going to have to continue to deepen our connection to the land, and elevate our translation of its latent character into the wine.
We usually leave the business part off the really spiritual sides of the conversation, but that’s where I’m spending a lot of my time. Cory makes the wine. You can’t do one without the other. At least, not for very long.
Continuity is really important; we’ll have three generations working in the same role at the same time, within production: Cory; his mentor, Bob Levy, who is in an emeritus role with the company; and Cory’s protégé (David Cilli), are all already working together.
It’s so important for something like winegrowing and farming because so much of it becomes intuitive … so many thousands of those little decisions that you couldn’t possibly write them all down. And even if you wrote them all down, you couldn’t possibly be able to refer to that one specific thing at any point in the future. That’s why we need continuity and this passing of experience, wisdom and information.
So that dynamism is only possible because you have that continuity.
Exactly. If you have a closed-enough loop system where you’re still evolving and changing variables but have enough consistency that you can actually see what those are leading to. If it’s a totally closed-loop, then you’re not changing any variables; you’re not evolving. You’re not doing anything. And if it’s totally open, you don’t learn anything because any one of those variables could have affected any number of the outcomes. How do you find this balance of a closed enough loop with enough consistency, enough continuity, so that you can evolve? It’s super fun. I enjoy that.
The wines were tasted over dinner at DC Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur in early September 2022, in the sequence below. My menu was vegetarian (kudos to the team), and the wines were sampled before each course, and throughout the evening. All previous appraisals and ratings were studiously avoided, including Promontory’s own, until this writing.
Promontory Vintage 2017
“This is gorgeous,” I sing to myself, with feeling, surprising everyone at the table still inhaling, and myself! Blame the direct line from the nose to the unprocessed, emotional limbic brain. Ineffably uplifting, happiness of freshly baked pastry on da nose! Earth upon swirl; rocks, many types of rocks. Lovely crimson. Pellucid? Translucent, for sure; mushroom, iron, earth palate. But that’s not fully conveying the energy and robust yet beguiling aromas framed and unframed by a kind of mutable, geometric tannic structure. Cue cast-iron wok, fire, hot stones, glowing kiln, lovingly made confiture of just fallen fruit, truffles from below magically retrieved by the now all grown-up porcine epicure, Babe: here is a movie of all the senses, dinner is optional. (DC the man will undoubtedly seize the challenge by the decanter). Curious about the radiance of its robe, I ask if carbonic maceration was involved. Yes, for some of it, and there were multiple, all part and parcel of Promontory savoir-faire.
Promontory Vintage 2016
A quiet, comforting familiarity of grands crus classés but warmly, and yet more expressive; a walk in the woods in autumn, whiffs of cinnamon, cedar, a scintilla of vanilla? and other spices in the air. Fine tannins, lithe body, poised on the palate. A sense of continuity, and also of, oh what do we have here now? coming after the elemental aliveness of the 2017. Tasting this in between the other two vintages shows them all as a continuum, but 2016 is a clarifying, non-judgmental companion of its own accord that you repeatedly return to as it takes in and reveals the world from its looking glass.
Promontory Vintage 2015
Again, a familiar ring of classed growth at first scent, perhaps at a higher octave of ripe, red fruit. Slightly tense, but so harmonious on the palate; the finesse of naturally aspirated power (intense and linear; if you will, like late-90s Alfa Romeo singing with perfect pitch towards the top end). This quality is echoed in the very fine tannins that delineate a seamless fruit and mineral balance. Given time, it is redolent of the (then considered) unusually hot Médoc 2003 vintage; like the sensation of late-morning sun in a cloudless sky, broadly comparable with Rauzan-Ségla, tasted similarly youngish?
Post-tasting notes: Winemaker’s David Cilli’s observations make for fascinating insights into one’s own. Without wanting to provide spoilers, here are salient points, starting with 2015: small yield, minimal rainfall throughout previous three years, temperature spikes. 2016: five years of drought, much-welcomed rainfall; subtle aromas of wet rock, native flora and lichen, mingling with airy notes of forest canopy. 2017: warm September, loss of moisture; unusual natural regression restores acid and freshness; fifty-two passes at harvest before wildfire, each batch assessed and vinified to suit; spine of acidity and chiselled tension; tightly coiled energy, introverted…
It all brings to mind a concept in Ayurveda, the holistic system of well being, known as prakriti and vikriti. To simplify, the former is the hand we are dealt at birth; the latter, how we play it and thus become, as we move through time and space; as are terroir, élevage and provenance for the trajectory of discovery and destiny.