How to describe Dan Petroski’s Massican wines? They’re from California, but somehow don’t taste like it. Ostensibly they’re modeled on the wines of Friuli, in northern Italy, but they don’t taste quite Italian either. The Massican wines are white wines. They’re crisp wines, high in acid. They’re fresh – neither laden with creamy richness nor beset by savory funk. Words like “clean” and “pure” come to mind. Saltiness appears. So does bright, relentless fruit.
Not that the Massican wines are identical to each other. Each wine performs its distinctions: a tart Sauvignon Blanc; a citrusy Chardonnay; a textured Pinot Grigio and Greco di Tufo blend, called Gemina; a perfumed, mineral cuvee based on Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friulano, called Annia. Yet they all, somehow, taste like Massican. Like paintings in a series, cast from the same color palette yet individual, the pieces cohere.
“No matter what you’re drinking, I want you to know you’re drinking Massican,” says Petroski, 44, who launched the label in 2009. Since then, he’s introduced Massican vermouth, Massican beer and – still in the research phase – Massican gin. He makes a Massican wine in Friuli, with the winery Ronco del Gnemiz. All those taste like Massican, too.
“It all has to adhere to a style,” Petroski says. (The name refers to Mons Massicus, an Italian ridge as it was known under the Roman empire; Petroski’s grandparents hail from the area.)
“Style” is a dirty word in some circles these days, if you believe that a winemaker’s strong stylistic vision can obscure a wine’s inherent voice. Certainly, the Massican wines honor terroir, but fundamentally they are a triumph of style, carving out a new expression for these grapes and these vineyards.
As for the style of Petroski himself? That’s harder to say. Massican is not Petroski’s only work; in fact, it’s not even his main work. By day, Petroski is the winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards, one of Napa Valley’s oldest and most storied estates. Larkmead was founded in 1895 by Lillie Hitchcock Coit — the namesake of Coit Tower, legendary patron of San Francisco firefighters – and boasts the sorts of assets of which Napa Valley newcomers could scarcely dream. On 110 acres of prime Calistoga vineyard land, sandwiched between the Mayacamas and Vaca ranges, the Larkmead property gets the best influences of both mountains’ benchlands, holding a remarkably diverse set of soils.
Over his 11 years at Larkmead, Petroski has honed a focused, but ultimately traditional, voice for the estate’s Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Structure, a commingling of herb and fruit, tannins that will outlive decades: These are the noble mandates of Cabernet from Napa Valley as from Bordeaux, and have been for centuries. Petroski enacts them masterfully.
It’s the rare winemaker who can contain multitudes such as these: to forge a style of wine as original and unmoored as Massican while upholding the epitome of the American wine establishment, Napa Valley Cabernet. Or at least, it’s the rare winemaker who can do them both as well as Dan Petroski does. For this, and for much more, Petroski is The Chronicle’s 2017 Winemaker of the Year.
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– Esther Mobley