Dan Petroski is the winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards, an historic estate in the Napa Valley, and the founder and owner of Massican, one of the few Napa wineries to focus on top-notch white wines exclusively. Dan was born and raised in New York, and went to Columbia University to study history and play college football. He is a self-taught winemaker and is at the forefront of the climate crisis discussion in Napa Valley.
Karen MacNeil interviewed Dan Petroski for WineSpeed in September 2019.
Karen MacNeil: What was your first job in the wine industry?
Dan Petroski: My first job was a stage at Valle dell’Acate winery in Sicily. I moved there in June of 2005 and worked with the family who managed half of its vineyard holdings. I spent three days per week over the course of a full year with the father and son team who managed that aspect of the business. Our busiest time was harvest, of course.
KM: What do you love most about working with grapes?
DP: I am fortunate to spend a fair amount of time these days working with passionate and talented farmers from Larkmead’s in-house viticulture team as well as the seven growers who farm the different Massican varieties. Their passion for grape growing is infectious. Some of these vineyards have been handed down from generation to generation. That not only gives me a lot of pride and inspiration, but also a great deal of anxiety not to screw it up!
KM: Larkmead is a very important historic winery. What are the wines like?
DP: Grape growing and the winemaking at Larkmead date back to the 1800s, but during the second half of the 20th century under the Solari-Baker ownership, the vines were farmed for other winery clients. Today 50% of the grape production is still farmed for other winery clients. Winemaking began again in 1997, so Larkmead can be considered a fairly young winery. It rode the wave of the popular modern style of Napa Valley wines in the aughts, but with the re-development of large swaths of the vineyard, and the new production facility built in 2005 and expanded in 2013, we have taken the opportunity to reflect on what we believe to be a truly special vineyard. The wines that are currently released and soon to be released (2016-2019) are what we believe to be the most authentic expression of Larkmead Vineyards—wines with balanced fruit, floral, savory notes, and powerful tannins, but with freshness and agility on the palate; and 14% alcohol. So: leaning more toward the classical side of Napa Valley.
KM: Why did you name your own brand Massican?
DP: Massican is named after the southern Italian mountain range (Monte Massico) where my great-grandparents were born. Their grand-daughter, my mother, is Annia – the name of Massican’s flagship wine.
KM: What is your favorite white wine (besides any white from Massican)?
DP: This is a tough one as Massican is inspired by the white wines of Friuli, but like most wine-loving folk, I would be remiss if I didn’t say white Burgundy. But quietly behind closed doors, you will always find me drinking Sancerre.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t say white Burgundy [is my favorite wine]. But quietly behind closed doors, you will always find me drinking Sancerre.”
KM: In addition to wine, what’s your other favorite beverage?
DP: I find the aromatics of New England-style IPA beers to be intoxicating, but first you’ll always see me drink a Martini, for the same reason as above—the aromas of gin are a perfume unto itself.
KM: Did you have a mentor? Tell us about her/him.
DP: I have had many, whether they all know it or not, I am not certain. I have been fortunate to surround myself with good people from my corporate career to my winemaking career. I have been able to glean certain aspects of their characters and successes and use those to help shape my professional life. But from a winemaking perspective, without a doubt, it was Andy Smith, who hired me at DuMOL and Larkmead, from whom I learned the most. Andy is a quiet and disciplined winemaker and probably one of the best at seeing a complete wine before he even harvests his first grape.
KM: You played football in college. Is a wine team like a sports team in any way?
DP: From a cellar perspective that is a hard question to answer because I worked alone at Larkmead from 2007 to 2016 when I hired an assistant winemaker, and to this day Massican is still a one-man show. However, I would say that the closest comparison to sports comes during harvest. The repetition of winemaking activities during harvest is no different than the two and three-a-day football practices during the pre-season.
KM: Is wine good for a culture, for a society?
DP: I have a minor in ancient Greek and Roman history from college; so, I feel comfortable in saying that a lot of the world’s great ideas came from the bottom of a cup of wine at a Greek symposium or two.
KM: Besides Napa Valley. What other wine region inspires you the most and why?
DP: Bordeaux. There are wines from around the world that I have had the good fortune of consuming in my life – wines that get me out of bed every day and inspire me to make better wine. But at the end of the day, the wines that haunt me the most have been made in Bordeaux.
KM: Tell us something about you that would surprise most people to learn.
DP: I can’t swim.