Will Harlan has been the Director of Promontory, the latest of his father Bill Harlan’s Napa Valley wine projects, since 2015. After graduating from Duke University, with a degree in Philosophy in 2009, Will began working for a consumer telecom startup in San Francisco. And then co-founded equipster—an internet shopping search engine for outdoor gear—also based in The Bay area.
In 2013, Will released The Mascot, a cabernet blended from barrels of wine produced from the younger vines of Harlan Estate, BOND, and Promontory.
Learn more about Will by reading the written interview below.
Karen MacNeil: When you succeeded you father at Promontory, you had a lot of senior Harlan staff to advise you. But it must still have been a massive project for someone not quite 30?
Will Harlan: The Promontory endeavor was—and is—certainly daunting, but the excitement for its potential outweighed the apprehension. I’ll admit this has been an incredibly steep learning curve for me, and I don’t see that curve flattening any time soon. Of course, we as a team could not have undertaken this project without the guidance and wisdom provided by our previous generation. And the exciting path we now find ourselves on is due in large part to the foundation from which we have had the opportunity to build. This foundation stretches from farming and winemaking all the way to relationship building and philosophy. Granted, Promontory has begun forging its own path, and we are deeply grateful for the freedom to do that.
KM: Your younger sister Amanda is also involved in the business. Do the two of you work closely?
WH: Yes, Amanda has joined The Napa Valley Reserve ‘branch’ of the family business. While we work in somewhat separate roles, we are quite complementary; and I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to work with her as we take on more responsibility together within the family endeavors.
KM: Unlike Harlan Estate, famously shuttered to the public, Promontory offers tours, tastings, and wine for sale at the winery built adjacent to the Harlan property. Tell us about this decision.
WH: We felt strongly that it would be impactful to be able to build personal relationships with our patrons, and provide an experience where they could learn about our land, our team, our philosophy, and our wine. In essence, an experience where they could see for themselves this translation of place into the character of Promontory. And selfishly, we wanted to be able to form a personal relationship with people with whom Promontory resonates—I think it’s wonderful to be able to get to know the people who are drinking your wine.
KM: The wine business is extremely multifaceted. There’s making the wine. But before that there’s growing the grapes and caring for the land. There’s selling and marketing and creating the brand. Is there one part of the business that you love the best?
WH: We are fortunate to have a dedicated, focused, and visionary winegrowing team, whose efforts are in pursuit of capturing this territory in the bottle. I see it as my role to make sure every one of those bottles lives its very best life, and to create the environment within which we can engage and connect people with Promontory. I love this aspect, and seeing the light go on in someone’s mind in the same way it has for us, as we begin to glimpse the character of this place.
“We felt strongly that it would be impactful to be able to build personal relationships with our patrons, and provide an experience where they could learn about our land, our team, our philosophy, and our wine… I think it’s wonderful to be able to get to know the people who are drinking your wine.”
KM: It’s often reported that your father initiated a “200-year plan” for his businesses before you were even born. Do you feel that blueprint exerts a lot of pressure on you or liberates you?
WH: I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a good bit of pressure, and I’m well aware that most aspiring multi-generational businesses fail in the transition from the founding generation to the second. There is much to live up to, but as mentioned above I feel the foundation I’m able to work from is strong. The 200-year plan was a tough one to wrap my head around as a 5 year-old kid; it’s pretty difficult to think in timelines like those when a single year feels like eternity. Now that I’m fully immersed in the business, and I’ve had a few decades to internalize the concept, I find that it is liberating. Once I got in the habit of focusing on the long-term vision, it often made the shorter-term decisions much simpler.
KM: What’s the best advice your father ever gave you?
WH: That’s a difficult one. I’ve probably learned more from him, by several orders of magnitude, than anyone else in my life. So, lots of advice. Maybe, “It is essential to take risks, just try not to get killed. Try and always know the odds.”
KM: In addition to wine, what’s your other favorite beverage?
WH: The Martini ! Tanqueray, very dry, and shaken very, very cold…with a twist.
KM: If you had not ultimately heeded the call to winemaking, what would you be doing today?
WH: The tech world was always fascinating, particularly the consumer-facing side. The rate of innovation, as well as the often-low capital requirements to get an idea off the ground is seductive. So, I’d probably be working on a startup of some kind.
KM: Tell us something about you that would surprise people to learn.
WH: My pandemic hobby has been building mechanical (typing) keyboards. I’ve got about five under my belt now, and have really enjoyed the rabbit hole of the community that surrounds it. I spend so much of my time typing, either emails or vintage offering letters, that I wanted to completely personalize and elevate the experience. Which it turns out you can do, if you’re willing to break out the soldering iron, or seek out one-off components.