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What Are You Drinking, Dan Petroski?

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Dan Petroski of Massican in George Vare's Ribolla Vineyard [Photo: Scott Brenner]

Harvest season is wrapping up in California, and soon the region's winemakers will finally get to catch up on some sleep. But before that happens, we wanted to check in with one of our local favorites: Dan Petroski of Massican, an upstart winery focused on making Italian-inspired white wines in Napa Valley. (He's also a winemaker for Larkmead Vineyards, a winery known for its Cabernet Sauvignon.)

Here's Dan's report on the harvest...and on what he's been drinking this fall.

SE: Tell us a bit of how you got into the wine business in the first place.

DP: I am very fortunate to be a winemaker, but I have made it a point to never lose sight of the fact that I am a wine drinker first. My love of wine, an appreciation of its makers and an infatuation with the places wine is made inspired me to move to Italy for a year to spend time with the families that own Valle dell'Acate. When I left for Sicily in 2005 my goal was to learn more about the process of grape growing and winemaking with the intention of returning to NYC and pursuing a job in wines sales for a local distributor or importer.

The wine world had a different idea and when I couldn't find work in sales, some friends in Sonoma introduced me to Andy Smith of DuMOL and Larkmead. Andy brought me onboard for harvest at DuMOL and at the end of harvest Andy told me he wanted to hire me. Honestly, I answered, "to do what"? I had no formal winemaking experience or education, and hadn't imagined I could be offered such an opportunity. Nonetheless, Andy saw something he liked in me and it didn't take much deliberation for me to say yes. I began full-time work in the cellar at Larkmead there soon after.

You're currently a winemaker at Larkmead in addition to your own project, Massican. How does that work? How are the two projects different, and what does each require of you, mentally?

My situation between Larkmead and Massican has been synergistic and supportive; and in that I've been truly lucky. Between the two projects I have the ability to work with a combined nine different grape varieties—four whites from six vineyards for Massican and five reds and two overlapping whites from a great estate at Larkmead.

And the timing of things makes the logistics even easier. Massican harvest, due to the nature of its diverse vineyard sources and style of wines, tends to start in early to mid-August and wrap up before Larkmead begins red grape harvest so it feels like Massican slowly eases me into the kinetic, caffeine-filled Cabernet harvesting at Larkmead.

In approaching the wines and their divergent styles, the theme is the same—the wines in our heart and our head are already made—it is our job during any given vintage year to do our best to capture the essence of that vision. Take Annia for example, over the course of the last five vintages I've hit the dart board. Bullseye? No, not yet. Maybe I never will, but that is what brings you back to the game every day.

How has harvest been going?

Harvest 2013 has gone really well, thus far. The drought conditions and mild temperatures in Napa this growing season have resulted in early vine maturation under pleasant conditions. As a result I've seen some of the healthiest fermentations since 2007.

Massican started harvest in early August and all the fruit was picked by September 5. Larkmead began harvesting red wine grapes on the 4thof September, took a little hiatus, began again on the 9th and finished picking on September 20th.

The logistical blessing I mentioned earlier with Massican harvesting early and Larkmead following suit is not necessarily a blessing for my wife! With weekend vineyard visits, I'm on a seven day a week schedule starting in late July. When harvest activity begins the hours start cranking. During the thick of it, a core of six to eight weeks, we'll average 13 hours a day. 2013 has been a very compact harvest and the end is in sight. I look forward to having my weekends back in about two weeks; spending time with Jessica and putting the final details on our trip to Friuli this Thanksgiving holiday.

What's your take on grape quality and the 2013 vintage? Are you making any new wines this year?

From what we experienced this year at Massican and Larkmead, I couldn't be more thrilled with what is in tank and barrel. The signs point to a beautiful vintage. Vineyard yields across the board were moderate, flavors were shy at first but have really popped post primary fermentation and acid and tannin levels are high. As for any new wines, there is nothing planned on paper, but I always like to have something up my sleeve.

You also make a vermouth, can you tell us a little about it? How does this year's batch vary from previous years?

When I was living in Italy I got hooked on aperitif and digestive bitters. When I moved to Napa I began making amaro at home, trying to replicate the taste, flavors and textures of digestives I've tasted abroad but were unable to purchase in the States. I had no intention of producing a vermouth until I was inspired by a friend, Web Marquez of Anthill Farms, who was trialing vermouth recipes with some bulk white wine.

With a little push from him, and some trials at home, Massican produced its first white wine Vermouth with the 2011 vintage. The recipe remains the same year in and year out, with a maceration of Indian coriander, nutmeg, orange rind, lemon peel, and quassia wood as its base, but I am learning that the quantities vary greatly when you are making smaller or larger amounts of vermouth; so, the 2012 vintage is slightly more aromatic and a little more serious on the palate.

This whole process is very new to me, so my goal is to grow and develop my knowledge of extraction and maceration times, blending and barrel aging. But along for the ride I have had many happy customers, and I am grateful for their support, though my wife swears she will drink every bottle we don't sell! Luckily we've sold the majority of the vintage!

So...besides vermouth, what are you drinking these days? (Is there any time for drinking during harvest?) Have you opened any inspiring wines lately?

My go-to harvest drink is definitely coffee. I leave the house after two shots of espresso and drink at least another two cups throughout the day. Between coffee I'm tasting grape juice in varying stages of fermentation. But, during harvest, my most serious and experimental wine tasting happens at lunch.

Throughout the season, the Larkmead harvest interns take turns preparing lunch that we sit down and eat together. I've been blessed with a diverse, international team with good wine experience so we have fun tasting wines from around the globe. As for white wines we've loved the current release of Miani's Tocai (2011) and the 2009 Borgo del Tiglio Sauvignon as well as the 2005 Buisson Renard by Didier Dagueneau. These are three impeccably made white wines that balance incredible viscosity with acid that is hard to rival anywhere in the world.

We have also tried some brilliant reds that have inspired our daily cellar activity. Favorites to date include the 2003 Vieux Chateau Certan, which showed impeccable restraint and balance for an extremely warm Bordeaux vintage; Gaspirini's 2007 Capo di Stato, which is a mind-blowingly good Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec blend from the Veneto that we've enjoyed watching evolve over the course of four days. And Isole e Olena's 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon from Tuscany, which is a producer I respect but rarely sit down and drink—however, that is sure to change as this wine is probably the top wine we've tasted so far.

About the Author: Maggie Hoffman is a Senior Editor at Serious Eats, based in San Francisco. She founded Serious Eats: Drinks in 2011. You can follow her on Twitter @maggiejane.

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