This is another little extra for this week's review of Bar Tartine in the print edition: an interview with the man who made one of the most impressive wines on the restaurant's very interesting wine list.
When I called Dan Petroski to ask him how he managed to make Massican "Annia," a Napa Valley white wine, at just 12.1 percent alcohol, I learned that we used to work together, sort of.
Petroski, 37, spent nine years working for Time Inc. One of his first jobs was launching the Sports Illustrated for Kids website in the mid-'90s, at the same time I sold them a few articles. ("Hey, kids, a bourbon-infused chocolate will give you the energy to get through those Little League doubleheaders.")
Petroski did a variety of jobs for Time Inc.: editorial, production, and marketing. "If I was going to publish a magazine someday, I didn't want somebody to say, 'You've never done my job,'" he said. This is an ambitious man.
At the same time, "I became the wine connoisseur among my friends," he says. "I would read about wines but I never knew the process. One day this bright light came on. I had never lived abroad. I never spoke a second language. I have relatives in Sicily, so I resigned from Time Inc. and spent a year working in a winery there." For no money.
When he returned to his native Brooklyn, he looked for a wine-sales job but couldn't find one. So he came to California to learn more about wine marketing and got a harvest intern job at DuMol in the Russian River Valley.
DuMol winemaker Andy Smith liked Petroski's work ethic, so he recommended him to Larkmead Vineyard, where Smith is also the winemaker, but as a consultant. Petroski, the associate winemaker, is the guy there every day.
But like many Napa Valley hired hands, Petroski wanted his own project, so he started Massican to make exactly the type of wine he hasn't made elsewhere.
"At Larkmead on a daily basis I make wines with power and structure and intensity," he says. "I wanted to create a wine that has a lot of restraint and subtlety. I want to make wines high in acid that bring texture to the palate, that make you want a second glass."
He learned that Tocai Fruliano and Ribolla Gialla vineyards exist in Napa Valley because he read about them in a crush report. He called around until he found the vines, then contracted with the vineyard owners for some of the grapes. He also found a musque clone of Chardonnay that has a floral character which would fit in well with the other two aromatic grapes.
So how did he get the wine down to just 12.1 percent alcohol? Judicious blending. The Tocai is 11.4 percent alcohol; the Ribolla was 12.1. The Chardonnay was 14 percent alcohol, which is why it only makes up 20 percent of the final blend.
It's common for new winemakers to say, "We make the wine in the vineyard," and, "We don't pay attention to sugar levels; we pick the grapes when they taste ripe." This is why so many California wines are so high in alcohol, Petroski says.
"It's very easy to let grapes get really ripe and pick them, but it's already too late when you're trying to get the perfect flavor profile in your mouth from a grape," he says. "You're really just tasting sugar content. You can't taste the texture of a wine."
Petroski's results are impressive. I loved the Massican Annia Napa Valley White Wine 2010 ($47 on the list at Bar Tartine), and the Massican Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2010 ($59) as well. The Annia packs a lot of melon and lime and dried pineapple fruit onto a lean frame with plenty of minerality. The Sauvignon Blanc has a focused lime flavor with a hint of minerality on the finish, and has the restraint he's shooting for, even at a more normal 13.9 percent alcohol.
So far Petroski's side project, Massican, is still tiny: 409 cases in 2009, 492 cases in 2010. He has sold all of his wine to restaurants, and plans to make more this year, though it's not his fulltime job.
"My wife asked me the other day if I was going to see her during harvest time," he says. He didn't answer.