SF Chronical: Massican’s Next Move

The former Winemaker of the Year has left his job at Napa’s Larkmead after nearly 15 years.
Dan Petroski

Nfts, emoji apps, instagram magazines: will wacky projects help winemaker dan petroski sell wine?

For a winemaker, Dan Petroski sure is doing a lot of un-winemaker-like things. Last week Petroski, the owner of Massican Wines in Napa, introduced an NFT. On the same day, he launched an app whose main draw is a white-wine emoji which remains unavailable in Unicode’s emoji lexicon. Next week Petroski will debut a “news magazine” that will live primarily on Instagram, comprised of articles written by wine writers about subjects other than wine.

Given all of these extracurriculars, it came as a surprise to no one that Petroski finally quit his day job. Last Friday was his final day at Calistoga’s Larkmead Vineyards, where he had worked since 2006, initially as a harvest intern. Now, Petroski, who was The Chronicle’s 2017 Winemaker of the Year, to focus full-time on Massican, which he began as a side business in 2009.

Larkmead has always been an important Napa Valley estate — going back to its 1895 founding by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, the namesake of San Francisco’s famous tower — but Petroski made it newly relevant. He oversaw the planting of an experimental vineyard designed to adapt to climate change. He hosted a constant succession of “salons” in which wine-industry players discussed important issues. He elevated the quality of Larkmead wines — so much so that the winery was able to pull off a formidable price increase, bringing the Lark, one of its Cabernet Sauvignons, to over $300 a bottle, up from $150 in 2009.

We don’t often report on personnel changes around here, but the direction that Petroski seems to be taking Massican feels so unusual — and, maybe, a little bit confusing — that I was curious to see how he would explain enveloping magazines, emojis and crypto-funded digital art into a wine business.

Turns out, it’s his attempt to answer one of the wine business’s most pressing questions: how to attract a broader, younger audience. All of these side projects are forms of marketing for Massican’s wine, he said. “I’ve been trying to think, what does a 21st century wine brand look like? It can’t just be, ‘Oh, you need to be on TikTok,’” he said. He believes that California wineries have been too complacent when it comes to reaching new customers, and he’s hoping that by branching out into non-wine-related spaces he’ll be able to find some fresh blood. “You can’t just wait for the same people to call your phone line and fax you their orders,” he said. “I want to understand who is into crypto. I want to understand who in my universe of social media actually cares about the white-wine emoji.”

Like almost everyone else who had big ideas this past year, he considered starting a Substack newsletter, but decided against it. He had already started publishing Massican Magazine on Instagram in 2020, a collaboration with Phaidon Press, in which 1,500-word articles are published as Instagram stories. The magazine has allowed Petroski to reach some audiences who might not have traditionally looked at wine content on social media, he believes, though some people have needed some explanations on the logistics. “I had to teach some of my boomer friends about how to stop an Instagram story from moving,” he said with a laugh.

The first 10 editions were dedicated to what Petroski calls “aspirational” topics, like travel and fancy restaurants. The next year’s worth of Massican Magazine will be about socio-political issues, he said, and he’s amassed a roster of wine writers to cover them, including impressive folks such as Dorothy Gaiter and James Suckling. In next week’s inaugural edition, Gaiter has an article about voting rights, and Suckling wrote about single-use plastic in Hong Kong. The production costs, mostly payments to writers and photographers, are funded by Massican wine sales, and Petroski says he plans to donate money to some nonprofits that are profiled in the stories.

The NFT, on the other hand, has not been very successful so far: Since launching it last week, he hasn’t gotten any bids on it. (NFTs haven’t gone very well for the other wineries that have tried them, either.) The emoji app — whose stickers were drawn by Maryse Chevriere, the former San Francisco sommelier best known for her humorous Fresh Cut Garden Hose illustrations — Petroski considers a greater achievement, with 500 downloads in the first few days.

What Petroski really needs to do now, he said, is make more wine. Currently, he produces about 3,000 cases of Massican wines per year, a very small amount. In the next two years, he hopes to reach 5,000 cases, and in the next three to five years he hopes to surpass 10,000. He recently made about 600 cases of a one-off white blend that will be exclusive to Whole Foods, which he views as an important step toward growing Massican’s national exposure. It will be $21.99, cheaper than Massican’s other bottlings, which are mostly around $30. Ideally, he’ll be able to shift more of his products closer to that $20 price tag.

Growing his production, and bringing down his prices, will require Petroski to retool some of the fundamental pillars of Massican. The brand has a fairly esoteric hook: It produces only white wines inspired by Friuli, a wine region in northern Italy that specializes in grapes most Americans have never heard of like Tocai Friulano and Ribolla Gialla. In order to broaden the appeal, Petroski said he’s trying to move away from talking about Friuli specifically and to describe Massican as a “Mediterranean white wine brand” instead.

Moreover, he said, the Friulian grapes are not well suited to climate change, something that Petroski has spent a lot of time talking about over the last few years. He wants to explore the potential of other Mediterranean white grape varieties, from places like Spain and Greece, and see how they will perform in California soils.

Whenever I hear a winemaker talking about wanting to increase production dramatically, I always wonder whether they’re secretly hoping to sell their business. Expansion, after all, often requires outside capital. For Petroski, that hope isn’t even a secret. He openly acknowledges that selling Massican to a larger company is a possibility, citing the example of winemaker Dave Phinney, who created the wine brand the Prisoner and then sold it to Huneeus Vintners for $40 million (who then sold it to Constellation Brands for $285 million), as an inspiration.

I was surprised to hear the comparison, since Massican’s wines carry much more respect within the fine-wine crowd than the Prisoner, which I do not consider a good wine. But Petroski is thinking as an entrepreneur here, not a wine geek. “If I model Massican as a white-wine Prisoner, it could be that I end up selling it, like Dave did,” he said.

These are a lot of ambitious ideas, and they may not all work. That’s OK: Petroski appears to have an indefatigable enthusiasm for throwing things at the wall. He seems to not have a fully formed idea himself of where Massican will end up — and admits that there’s a potential it may not end up as a winery at all.
“Maybe Massican will always be about wine, or not. Who knows,” he said. “I think what we’re doing right now is cooler than just wine.”

-Esther Mobley, July 2021