Introducing a New Red from a Famed Napa Winery
Lastly, Promontory Vineyard's flagship is pushed to the limits with the Penultimate wine.
It is not uncommon for producers to release another bottle of their flagship wine, often (but not always) a bigger batch, sold at a lower price, and containing fruit that did not make the cut for their flagship wine. It is useful to have a model (which is growing), as it allows the estate to steer grapes away from its iconic wine into a profitable channel for grapes, thus allowing the estate to make its icon wine from only top-performing vineyard blocks in order to produce the best wine possible.
In this way, a broader population of consumers can enjoy the cheaper wines, which are often treated with the same care and attention that the flagship wines receive; and for collectors, the “second wine” can often be enjoyed sooner, while they wait for the flagship bottle to shine in the cellar, while they can also enjoy the “second wine” earlier.
The Penultimate wine, from Promontory Estate, one of Napa Valley’s newest releases under an iconic brand, does indeed meet several of these criteria, but it is much more than that. It plays an integral role in relationship to the pinnacle of winemaking that is Promontory in the region as a whole. Quite honestly, it contributes to the elevation of the wine it strives to be in a remarkable way.
The family business, owned by Will Harlan since his father, Bill, retired, is named after the stage at which the business was built. In Will Harlan's words: "next to the last stage." It has been a constant cycle of discovery since 2011, when they began aggressively replanting the Promontory Vineyard. Younger blocks of vines have been planted, offering a constant cycle of discovering Promontory's unique geographic character and diversity, which are located in the western hills of Napa Valley, a world apart from the rest of the region.
As winemaker David Cilli strives to elevate Penultimate lots to the next level, he admits that they almost get more attention as the company works to improve them. The blocks that go into Promontory, he says, pose a greater challenge than the blocks that go into the rest of the estate. It is where he spends the most time, learns the most about farming this particular, unusual place, and has the most fun.
It is through nudging these fruitful individuals to greatness that he learns how to make his Promontory blend ever better.
The end goal of Promontory Vineyard, however, is not to taste great Napa Valley red wine (as wonderful as it can be), but rather to taste something that is not familiar. When Bill Harlan was kicking dirt in the hills to the west of the valley in the early 1980s looking for a site that he would eventually build as his bar-setting namesake estate, a swath of still largely wild land caught his eye.
When the younger Harlan saw the chance to buy the untamed property twenty years later, he jumped at the opportunity. During extensive geologic testing of the jagged property, they discovered a pocket of soil that was quite different from the two main volcanic and sedimentary types of Napa Valley, which are described by the younger Harlan as a piece of the Old West.
As a result of the metamorphic rock and years of tasting wines from the existing vineyard, it was evident that the soil yielded a distinctive taste. After initial rehabilitation and replanting, Promontory began to grow in the vineyards, including hints of wildness, a vein of minerality under bright red fruit and tight layers that will allow you to relax into it for many years to come.
As it stands, Penultimate is hovering close to that profound character. A fantastic aromatic wine, the 2015 (current release, $325), boasts a savory-sweet interplay of earth and herbs that leads to a fresh mineral lift on the nose, which leads to generous, round fruit: juicy cassis and blackberry layered with cocoa that stretches with lovely tension through a long finish.
In contrast to the 2013 (coming soon), 2016 (coming soon) is even fresher, tighter, like a wrapped-up Christmas tree that is ready to let its layers open up. This wine is vibrant and mineral in nature, with a range of flavors including damp earth, forest, mint, and deep fruit that develops as it sits in the glass.
Penultimate is available to Promontory members, of course, and those who aren’t there yet can sign up for the waiting list since the ancient arrowhead depicted on the label (located on the property) is so nearly perfect that it could be considered a prototype for others to be patterned after. However, visitors to the winery can also purchase the wine from the library list in three-packs if they wish.
In the end, because Penultimate is produced in a small amount (these are exclusive vineyard blocks in line to attain Promontory status), visitors are unable to get a taste of it. Despite this, a tour of Promontory, surrounded by a cellar ringed by artfully backlit casks, as well as the chance to taste several vintages of the signature wine (in that cellar setting), is a special experience in and of itself. It will also provide fascinating insights into the spectacular "next-to-the-last stages" behind Promontory in the event you have a three-pack of Penultimate stored in your cellar at home after the fact.