Somewhere, under the radar, oblivious to social media and oenophile fads, Stephane Vivier and Dan Petroski are quietly forging links between the wine-making of old, the Napa Valley of today, and Napa Valley circa 2025.
The French ex-pat and Brooklyn-born winemakers are not bad boy vintners.They don’t reign over the newest, flashiest operations along Highway 29. Nor do they thumb their noses at the winemakers who have come and gone before them. By day, Vivier, 40, and Petroski, 41, are celebrated winemakers at HdV Wines and Larkmead Vineyards, respectively. For these two oldsoul vintners with a preference for the rhythms and traditions of what they call the “old world” of wine-making, working for established family wineries is a perfect fit.
But it’s what Vivier and Petroski are doing after hours, and how they are doing it, that piqued our interest. Gentry had the opportunity to sit down with the two vintner friends over dinner and bottles of wine to discuss their “side projects,” Vivier’s Vivier Wines and Petroski’s Massican. Relegating wines of such quality to so humble a status as “a side project” does not seem just.
Instead, to drink Vivier Wines and Massican is to taste the creativity of two of Napa’s leading winemakers, not sip the fruits of a hobby project.
Beyond the quality of their wines, what’s different about Vivier and Petroski is their approach to the wines they make. Discussing wine with these two is as much a conversation about philosophy and artistry as it is science and marketing. “You have to respect that Mother Nature has the final say on your product. The wine is already made. It’s up to you to make the right moves to finish the picture,” says Petroski. Similarly, Vivier equates wine to an artist applying strokes of paint to a canvas. “I want to make the best wine with the land. To add one more brush stroke, to make every vintage better than the one before.
“In the old world, in Europe,” Vivier continues in his thick French accent, “for winemaking, nobody is in a hurry. It’s a very emotional part of life. That’s what we are trying to produce in Napa.” However, in the new world of winemaking, where technology and money are changing the rules, it’s hard not to wonder if the traditions of the slow, emotional “old world” are at risk of being lost in the Twitterverse. But both Vivier and Petroski are steadfast in their approach, laying the foundation for their labels one vintage at a time, and resisting the fast-paced, marketing-driven pressure faced by today’s winemakers. And in doing so, each is harkening back to what drew him to wine from the very beginning.
Vivier, a native of Burgundy, France, grew up amongst the vineyards, drinking rosé of pinot noir in the garden with his parents. From a young age, Vivier knew he wanted to be in viticulture. He explains: “My first job was working in the vineyards of our neighbor. I had broken his tulips with my soccer ball and needed to repay him.” Working in the vineyard, growing up in the cradle of the world’s best chardonnay and pinot noir, laid the foundation for Vivier’s future in wine. But his path to vintner was not as romantic as his childhood. After attending viticulture school in France, Vivier found the pro-genial Burgundy wineries closed to him. “It was like going to school, but not falling in love with any of the girls,” he says. It turns out the girl he was to fall in love with, both literally and figuratively, was waiting in Napa Valley.
Tapped by HdV Wines in 2002 to be a winemaker, Vivier is, in Petroski’s words, “making the best chardonnay to come out of the Napa Valley.” As a Burgundian, it makes sense that Vivier would thrive making chardonnay. But there is another varietal coursing through his veins: pinot noir.The void from not making pinot noir was pointed out to Vivier by his wife, Dana.
“We had just gotten married, and Dana looked at me and said, ‘Something is missing.’ I was shocked.
We have just gotten married. What could be missing?,” Vivier says, reliving the moment with mock incredulity. Dana then pointed out that Vivier needed to make pinot noir, that it was in his blood. Recognizing the wisdom of his bride, Vivier mentioned one very distinct problem: wine labels require money. “And that’s when Dana told me, ‘Don’t worry, this is America,’ ” Vivier recalls with a smile. One credit card application later, Viver Wines was born.
Vivier Wines is both an extension of Vivier’s viticulture dreams and his way of bringing Burgundy to Napa. The label is currently offering four pinot noirs, including a refreshing and elegant rosé of pinot noir, reminiscent of Vivier’s childhood. Vivier’s wines, the cuvee and the single vineyard, are each distinct, striking unique balances between earth and fruit. In addition to the pinot noirs is a pineau, an aperitif that pays homage to Vivier’s grandmother.
It is clear that pinot noir is a varietal that awakens a distinct passion and enthusiasm in Vivier. “I get very excited when I drink pinot noir,” he states with bright eyes and a big grin. “I try to play it cool, but I just . . . .” He begins to trail off but quickly adds, “Dan has seen me get intense with pinot noir, too, and it’s just, oh, boy!” Having witnessed Vivier’s schoolboy crush-like reaction to pinot noir, Petroski adds, “I think if he had it his way, Stephane would have pinot noir everything in his house—soap, candles, you name it.”With VivierWines, Vivier successfully imparts that “oh, boy” sense, and from the first sip transports the drinker to la vie en rose.
Unlike Vivier, the seeds of Petroski’s life in wine were planted with more obscurity. Indeed, Petroski’s first love was not wine; it was not even Italy, the country in which he found his inspiration. Petroski’s first great love was magazines and he spent his childhood voraciously reading every one he could get his hands on. “My sense of adventure and aspiration always came through magazines. I fell in love with a bunch of really good-looking people sitting under canopies, eating and drinking in Italy, Spain, and France,” Petroski shares. A career in the magazine industry was only natural, and after attending business school, he made his way up the magazine corporate ladder, working in finance, consumer marketing, and publishing for Time, Inc., and Sports Illustrated.
But like Vivier, Petroski felt that something was missing. Those people in the magazines—the beautiful, happy ones traveling the world—were still just pictures on a page. Petroski’s self-described mini-midlife crisis was met with simultaneous and opposing opportunities: go work at The Wall Street Journal and start the Weekend Journal, or move to Sicily to work in the vineyards and winery of an acquaintance. Both were opportunities of a lifetime—but one was safe, and one required a total life upheaval.
Thankfully for anyone who enjoys vibrant white wines, Petroski took the risk. Leaving behind the security of a successful career, family, and friends, Petroski moved to Sicily for one year. In that time, he immersed himself into the world of Italian wine making. “I kind of learned Italian on the fly, learned about wine making and viticulture,” he says. “I used it as a midlife crisis tool to change my career.”
Petroski’s Massican is both an homage to his time in Italy, and a way to transport himself back to his year under the Sicilian sun. Inspired by the aromatic whites he drank there, Massican offers four white wines. In addition to a chardonnay, a pinot grigio blend, and a sauvignon blanc, the fourth, titled Annia, is made using the lesser-known Italian varietals tocai friulano, known for its soft and floral notes, and ribolla gialla, which is lively and acidic. With each wine, Petroski invokes the taste of the fresh citrus he ate, and the salinity from the Mediterranean sea that he inhaled. ”When I put my nose in a glass of Massican, I think of my friends in Sicily, of living on an island,” he says. “Everyone has those moments in life, and wine brings them back, it transports them. When you taste wine, you are tasting a story.”
And the story for Viver and Petroski continues to unfold. These two vintners are not looking for a quick shake-up. Instead, they are the low and steady rumble, building up momentum, shaking the valley walls one vintage at a time. And like their wines, Vivier and Petroski aren’t brash. They aren’t arrogant. They are humble. They are dreamers. They are artists. They honor and cherish the old world of winemaking, the tradition rooted in tending to the vines, practicing balance, and respecting what each varietal offers year after year.
The wine industry, in Napa Valley and beyond, will never cease to change with the times. Wineries will come and go, and only time will tell which ones have the staying power, the strength to withstand the ever-shifting currents of the modern winemaking world. But with winemakers like Vivier and Petroski as leaders of this generation, the customs and rhythms of the old world will not be lost. Molded and adjusted to the ways of the new world, yes, but never lost.
– Emily Mangini