Let’s begin with the fact that, in my opinion, Dan Petroski makes the single best bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in the entire state of California. In a world full of superlatives and cliché, I cringe whenever I find myself saying things like “it blew my mind” but his Sauvignon Blanc really did blow my mind the first time I tasted it. This wine makes you want to violently grab your nearest Napa winemaker (whose 14.5% alcohol, 100% New French Oak Sauvignon Blanc sells out every year) by the lapels and shake them, shouting, “Why the hell can’t you make wine like THIS!?!”
Of course, if you actually did this, Petroski would probably be appalled. This sweet, somewhat goofy guy with his reddish beard displays so much humility alongside his prodigious talents that sometimes you wonder if he’s his own worst enemy.
At a recent public tasting, I watched an enthusiastic taster walk up to the Larkmead Vineyards table (where Petroski has his day job as winemaker) and ask if he had any Ribolla Gialla. Petroski politely said no, we don’t make a Ribolla Gialla. Disappointed the taster walked away.
“Dan!” I exclaimed. “That guy clearly knew that you did Massican! Why didn’t you say anything?”
He shrugged and pointed to the Larkmead sign. “I’m on the clock,” he said.
“But at least you could have told him that it was your project on the side!” I insisted. But Petroski just shrugged again and laughed, and I found myself wondering what his wife would have said.
“My wife and I went to rival high schools in Brooklyn,” he explained to me one morning when I stopped by Larkmead to taste through his recent releases. “We met in 2009 on a blind date in San Francisco,” he remembers, the same year he started Massican.
“We went to Farina and then finished the evening at Delfina. We drank Kerner. It was intense.” Petroski’s wife was “straight off 10 years of Wall Street” and as he explained his new wine project to her, she naturally started asking probing questions.
“She didn’t understand why I didn’t have a marketing plan or a business plan,” he laughs. “She certainly forced me to think about things a lot more than I was.”
Petroski went to business school, but that doesn’t seem to be the part of his brain that drives his thinking when it comes to wine. He’s quite inclined to brush right past the somewhat unlikely story of how he has become one of the hottest new winemakers of California, and instead just talk about the sensations he’s looking for in wine. It took several passes of conversation to get the story of how he got started.
“I grew up in New York and worked in magazine publishing,” he explains somewhat under duress. “I was working for the sales manager of Time Magazine, going out and drinking wine on the town with clients. I had friends who worked on Wall Street and bought a lot of wine. I learned. I started reading Jay McInerney and Kermit Lynch and basically just got romanced by wine.”
Then one day at work Petroski had one of those life-changing thoughts that emerge from the most prosaic of occurrences.
“I was sitting at work staring at all these spreads of really good looking Italian and French people with delicious food and wine sitting under a canopy of trees,” he remembers. As he sat there staring at these lifestyle scenes he realized, simply, that he wanted them to be his lifestyle.
“I quit my job and moved to Italy for a year,” he says. Somehow he talked himself into a job working for the family that owned Valle dell’Acate winery in Sicily, and suddenly he was living his dream. While in Italy he fell deeply in love with “everything Italian.” Even before he left for his stint in Italy, Petroski’s favorite wines were from Italy, in particular from Piedmont and Friuli.
But he knew that if he was going to have a career in wine, it would have to be back in the U.S. He returned to New York thinking that he could get his start in the sales and marketing side of wine, and began to interview with importers.
“After six months, it became clear I wasn’t going to get a job,” he says. So he started casting his net further afield, and came across a harvest intern position at DuMol Winery with winemaker Andy Smith.
“It was the 6 month opportunity of a lifetime,” he says. He began as a cellar rat working at DuMol and then also Larkmead in 2006, and joined Larkmead full-time in 2007. “I’ve been the one working daily in the cellar since 2007,” he says. In 2013 Petroski earned the title of Winemaker at Larkmead, though Smith still consults as Senior Winemaker. Petroski’s transition from a guy who knew nothing about winemaking, to being the day-to-day winemaker at Larkmead took a short six years.
In 2009, Petroski found himself looking through the California Department of Agriculture’s grape crush report, which details out the entirety of the state’s grape harvest by region and by grape variety. “I came across all these Italian grape varieties,” he remembers, “and thought to myself, ‘Where the hell is all this stuff planted in Napa and Sonoma?'”
He started calling around to find out. “Before I knew it, I had a ton of this, and a ton of that, and I was making wine,” he says. “I had the good fortune to get my hands on some Tocai Friulano planted in 1947, and then Steve Matthiasson introduced me to George Vare. He wasn’t selling Ribolla Gialla to Luna Vineyards anymore, so he opened up the vineyard to me and Steve. Before I knew it I had 6 or 7 tons for my first vintage.”
At first, Petroski wasn’t exactly sure what he was going to do with all these grapes, but his brain gradually coalesced around an idea.
“I told myself I was going to make the 21st Century Conundrum,” he laughs, referring to the ever-popular, ripe white wine made by Caymus vineyards that is a blend of many different aromatic grape varieties. Petroski’s vineyards had a different idea.
“I realized, of course, that the old vines I had couldn’t ripen to that level in Chiles Valley. And I really liked the steeliness of the Ribolla in its youth. I couldn’t bring myself to take it to the level of richness and viscosity that you get at yellowish gold. I wanted the salinity, the floral tones, and the textural components.”
For his inaugural vintage in 2009, Petroski came up with the name Massican, after the Monte Massico in Campania, where his great-grandfather grew up before emigrating to the states.
“I remember my grandfather in Brooklyn growing up,” says Petroski, “would pour half a glass of [Gallo] Hearty Burgundy and shoot it and then he’d fill the glass half full again, and then add grape soda. My mom used to drink a glass of red wine with ice cubes in it, once per day, five days a week.”
Petroski’s Italian-american family predisposed him towards an interest in Italy that was consummated by a trip to Sicily with some friends in business school. It was on this trip that he fell in love with the white wines of Italy.
“I was floored by the quality of white wines that you’d get in a restaurant by the half-liter,” he says. “I was intrigued by how they were able to capture the saline, the floral, and the richness of these grapes, and each region had its particular feel.”
When Petroski spent his year in Sicily, he visited ten of Italy’s major wine regions, and cemented his love for Friuli. “The lightbulb went on and has kept getting brighter and brighter. Of all the white wines, these appeal to me the most,” he says.
From 400 cases of a white blend, Petroski has grown to about 1200 cases in 2012. “I actually only wanted to make 900 last year,” he admits, “but I got access to so much incredible fruit, I couldn’t pass it up.”
Petroski makes three wines currently: a straight Sauvignon Blanc, a Friulian-style white blend named Annia, and a Chardonnay named Gemina. Gemina began its life as a white blend as well, but over three vintages, Petroski has fallen more in love with the Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay that he has dropped the Viognier and Ribolla from the blend and made it a straight Chardonnay.
Petroski’s winemaking seems to be an equal blend of confidence borne of experience, and the curiosity of someone who is still learning.
“I barrel ferment everything, some in new oak, some in old oak, some in stainless barrels, some in an old port tank in the cellar,” he explains. “I’m trying to wean my way off commercial yeasts. I ferment some things native and some things I inoculate. I do prefer some of the inoculated wines. I’m learning what works best. For me this isn’t a philosophical thing.”
Because he does not let any of his wines go through a secondary malolactic fermentation, Petroski filters all his wines. “I keep sulfurs low if I can,” he says, “but I’m not a natural winemaker. I want to stay out of that battle.”
Petroski does place at least some stock in biodynamics however. “I manage my whole regimen on the biodynamic calendar,” he says. “I didn’t have any exposure to it, and no academic background to work from. But I’d be tasting through things on any given day and wondering why things tasted differently today, tomorrow, and next week. I read [Nicolas] Joly’s books. I think it could be hocus pocus, but it’s something I believe in.”
His old-vine Tocai Friulano is dry farmed, or as he puts it “not farmed at all,” with no soil amendments of any kind. His Sauvignon Blanc comes from the Juliana vineyard in Pope Valley, which is certified organic. His Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay is on its way toward Organic certification, and his Ribolla Gialla from the Vare vineyard is farmed conventionally, as is some acreage in the Russian River Valley.
“I’m handcuffed in a way,” admits Petroski, who seems to have a preference for more sustainable farming, but is realistic about what is possible. “I don’t feel like I buy enough fruit from these people to tell them how to farm. Everyone is in this business for a different reason. I feel like we’ll all get to a happy place. I save my personal beliefs for how I harvest the grapes and how I treat the wine once it is made.”
Despite the extraordinary quality of his wines, and the vision they seem to evince, Petroski’s beliefs are still evolving, as is his sense of where he is headed.
“It’s going to take me a long time to get where I want to be with these wines. I hope everyone sticks around for the ride,” he says. “Each year I try to do something interesting. I made a passito wine in 2010. In 2011 I made a dry white vermouth. That’s going to be my fourth wine from now on. I love cocktails.”
“We’re growing a little bit each year, now it’s about making it a sustainable business,” he says. “I get a lot of questions about what’s next. ‘What about a red wine,’ people ask. In America and American winemaking, the speed at which we do things is so fast. We want it fast, we want it now. I’m trying to keep the Italian pace, the leisurely pace. Red wine will come in time. If I’m going to be making Massican for the next 20 or 30 years, it will happen. I don’t want to force something down the pipeline. There’s enough red wine in the world that I like to drink. I’m fortunate enough to make a red wine during the day that I’m proud of and that my wife likes to drink. That’s good enough.”
Petroski also dreams of one day making wine in Friuli, but that too may take some time. For now he’s content to bring a little piece of it back home for the rest of us.
2011 Massican “Annia” White Blend, Napa Valley
Pale gold in the glass with a slightly greenish tinge, this wine smells of wet stones, lemon zest, and a hint of white flowers. In the mouth, lemon and lime zest mix with pink grapefruit, deep stony mineral notes, and citrus pith that lingers in the finish. Zingy, bright, fresh, and laser focused, the wine also has a savory saline and herbal quality that is quite compelling. 54% Tocai Friulano, 33% Ribolla Gialla, 13% Chardonnay. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $27. click to buy.
2011 Massican “Gemina” Chardonnay, Napa Valley
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and lemon zest. On the palate, the wine is explosive — there’s no other word for it — with electric acidity that makes tesla coil arcs of lemon zest crackling through the mouth. Grapefruit pith, a hint of nut skin on the finish. Stony bright, amazingly tart and juicy. Wow. 25% new French Oak. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5 . Cost: $45. click to buy.
2011 Massican Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon juice and candied lemon rind, white flowers, and other exotic scents backed by a stony minerality. In the mouth, the wine is gorgeously complex, with lemon zest, floral, wet stone, and mixed herbal notes to the wine. A pithy quality marries with the deep, wet-chalkboard minerality that lingers in the finish. 13.8% alcohol. Quite probably the best California Sauvignon Blanc I’ve ever had. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $27. click to buy.
2010 Massican “Annia” White Blend, Napa Valley
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of slightly spicy dried lemon peel, green apple skin and white flowers. In the mouth, lemon zest, white flowers, and pomelo mix on a crackling bed of stony minerality and tart green apple skin.. Phenomenal acidity, and there’s a hint of waxiness that lingers with lemon juice and grapefruit juice in the finish. A blend of 47% Tocai Friulano, 33% Ribolla Gialla, and 20% Chardonnay. 12.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5 . Cost: $27. click to buy.
2010 Massican “Gemina” Chardonnay, Napa Valley
Pale greenish gold, this wine smells of ripe apples, cold cream, and white flowers. In the mouth wonderfully saline flavors of lemon curd, cooked quince, and gorgeous deep minerality swirl beautifully with perfect balance. Notes of pink grapefruit linger on the finish as your salivary glands go on overdrive. Fantastic acidity. 20% new French oak. A blend of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Ribolla Gialla.14% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2010 Massican Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of gorgeously floral linalool and star fruit mixed with melon and candied green apple. In the mouth gorgeous green apple and green plum flavors are layered with sweet floral aromatics. Fantastic, even searing acidity, Slippery and quite silky, with incredible balance and precision. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $27. click to buy.