Capitalist Kevin and Doomsday Dan

Italian Grapes in California, Part 3: Mount Etna meets Sonoma and a Napa winemaker finds inspiration in Friuli

Capitalist Kevin and Doomsday Dan
Winemaker Dan Petroski built his reputation with Napa Cabernet, but created a personal passion project called Massican around white varieties from Italy. (Robert Camuto)
May 13, 2022

If it weren’t for wine, you’d probably never find Kevin Harvey and Dan Petroski at the same cocktail party. These two pillars of California’s new-wave Italophile wine scene are pretty much opposites in temperament, circumstances and approaches.

Harvey, 57, a soft-spoken Silicon Valley venture capitalist, works methodically—buying land, studying weather patterns, planting vineyards and delegating details to his team. After success at Burgundy-inspired Rhys Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he developed Aeris in the Sonoma Coast AVA to create the state’s first wines from vine stock sourced from Sicily’s Mount Etna.

Petroski, 48, is a fiery Brooklyn native who left a corporate job 17 years ago to learn wine craft from the bottom up. An autodidact, instinctive winemaker and seat-of-the-pants entrepreneur, he spent a decade as winemaker at Napa Valley’s Larkmead (which he left last year). Meanwhile, Petroski launched his own white wine label, Massican, by leasing vineyards mostly planted to Italian varieties. The label has twice earned a place among Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of the Year.

What the two have in common is their development of transatlantic brands. For years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Petroski also made wines under the Massican label in northeast Italy’s Friuli region. Likewise, Harvey’s Aeris has made wine on Mount Etna since 2014.

Harvey and Petroski are also both disruptors in their own ways—believers in a California wine future with more vineyards planted to Italian varieties.

“I want to show the brilliance of Italian varieties grown in California,” says Harvey, sitting on a leather sofa in Aeris’ newly opened tasting room in Healdsburg, where visitors can sample his Sicilian and California bottlings side by side.

Harvey’s lead-by-example style isn’t out to upend the wine establishment. By contrast, Petroski is a crusader. A part-time climate activist, he believes climate change will doom the state’s reliance on Cabernet Sauvignon—a variety he worked expertly at Larkmead. (In the 2018 vintage, he made three Cabernets scoring 94 to 95 points).

“In Napa, they think Cabernet is king, and the king will never die,” he quips from a leased hilltop vineyard of Tocai Friulano in Napa’s Chiles Valley. “But the king always dies.”

“Everyone here hates me,” he then explains dryly. “My nickname is Doomsday Dan.”

Massican

In his previous life working in sales and finance for Time Inc. in the 1990s and early 2000s, Petroski became a wine aficionado, with expense-account business lunches in New York restaurants as his classroom.

Studying for his MBA nights at New York University, he befriended a classmate with a family connection at southeast Sicily’s Valle dell’Acate and, in 2005, Petroski began a year-long internship at the estate.

Petroski’s next move was west to California, where he worked harvest at Russian River’s DuMol. A full-time cellar job at Larkmead followed, and Petroski’s talents, drive and curiosity propelled him to winemaker there in 2012.

While Petroski is largely known as the winemaker who restored the historic winery’s luster, he had already started his own label, Massican, with $40,000. Inspired by some old Tocai Friulano vines at Larkmead, he produced 400 cases of Massican in 2009 and has grown production to more than 5,000 cases annually.

“I wanted to make fresh, salty, floral, citrusy, Mediterranean-inspired white wines in California,” says Petroski, whose label quickly developed a following and appeared on wine lists at top restaurants like the French Laundry and Chez Panisse.

Massican has achieved a widely praised linear style, often drawing on the natural phenolic bitterness of early-harvested grapes. The current 2020 vintage includes Annia (92 points, $30), a Napa Valley blend of Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Chardonnay, and Gemina (92, $32), a blend of Napa Pinot Bianco and Sonoma-grown Greco. There are also bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc (93, $32) and Chardonnay (91, $50).

Over four vintages, from 2015 to 2018, with his hands full in Napa, Petroski also found time to commute to Friuli to make Massican wines at Ronco Del Gnemiz. There he created another flagship blend—Chardonnay, Friulano and Ribolla Gialla—called Gaspare.

For Petroski, making wine on two continents underscored the impact of place. “The Friuli wines are gray and dark and savory,” he enthuses. “Here the wines are bright and fresh and yellow.”

Petroski’s plans now include expanding Massican by sourcing more grapes from outside Napa—blending wines from across the state and labeling them as California AVA.

“I want to be rich enough,” Petroski says, “to buy some land.”

Aeris

Money and land aren’t issues for Harvey, a co-founder of San Francisco’s Benchmark Capital, which has provided funding for startups from eBay to Uber to Instagram. With Aeris, Harvey is pursuing different types of gratification.

“The idea was to do something really crazy and hard to do,” says Harvey. “We were interested in wine-geek wines.”

 Kevin Harvey sitting on a leather sofa in Aeris' tasting room in Healdsburg with bottles of wine in front of him
Kevin Harvey was inspired to branch out from Burgundian varieties for his Aeris project when he tasted an Italian white made from the ancient native variety Carricante. (Robert Camuto)

When Aeris launched a decade ago, Harvey already had his own winery, Rhys, which began when he planted a quarter-acre of Pinot Noir behind his house in the mid-1990s and made garage wine. By 2004, Harvey was ready to scale up Rhys in his systematic way—studying microclimates and geologic features and then planting.

Rhys’ seven vineyards now produce about 5,000 cases a year of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah, sold mostly by mailing list.

The seed for Aeris was planted when Harvey and his wife were traveling in Italy and “I came upon a wine that blew my mind.”

It was the 2001 vintage of Benanti’s Pietramarina Etna Bianco Superiore, which Harvey remembers “had all the components of a great white wine with drama and complexity.”

In 2010, Harvey traveled to Sicily to meet the wine’s maker: Etna enologist and traditionalist Salvo Foti, who was soon to leave Benanti to focus on his own I Vigneri label.

On a subsequent visit, Foti showed Harvey a vineyard and adjacent land on Etna’s southeast face, just above the white wine–producing town of Milo, 2,600 feet above the Mediterranean. Foti himself wanted the property but couldn’t afford it. So the men struck a deal: Foti would buy the lower half of the property and Harvey the upper 5-plus acres, which Foti would plant for him and manage.

In 2014, before Harvey’s new vines produced fruit, Aeris made its first white wine, using a plot of Foti’s old vines. That same vintage, the brand produced an Etna Rosso from a 6-acre vineyard of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio that Harvey had bought on Etna’s north face.

Meanwhile Harvey convinced Foti to select vine stock that he would register in California and plant around the Sonoma Coast’s Centennial Mountain, chosen for its relatively cool summer climate. Aside from the staple Etna varieties, Harvey also planted Nebbiolo, Barbera, Primitivo and Zinfandel in his 26 acres of Centennial Mountain vineyards.

Harvey has no plans for further growth. In an incident underscoring the perils of planting in environmentally sensitive areas, in 2019, Harvey agreed to pay state water authorities $3.76 million in penalties for environmental violations (including bulldozing a protected wetland) during development of Rhys’ sole vineyard outside of Santa Cruz, in northern Mendocino County.

“I don't think I will develop another mountain vineyard after that very painful episode,” Harvey says.

This year, among his new releases will be the second vintage (2019) of his Aeris Centennial Mountain Bianco, made from Carricante, along with his first Nerello red (2018). Aeris skipped the 2020 vintage in Sonoma because of smoke damage from the season's massive wildfires, but Harvey says his 2021 will be the first “great Nerello Mascalese made in California.”

Tasting his already-bottled Carricantes from Etna and the Sonoma Coast side by side, examples of the former are leaner and more taut, while the latter is riper and rounder.

“The most fascinating part of wine is matching soils and varieties and exposures,” says Harvey. “I love to see the differences in every vineyard.”


For more on the new wave of Italian varieties in California, read Part 1: A Slice of Southern Italy in Paso Robles and Part 2: Bringing the Mediterranean to Northern California. The final of the four installments in this series will appear in Robert Camuto Meets… in about two weeks.

People White Wines Red Wines California sonoma Italy Napa

You Might Also Like

America's Chef-in-Chief

America's Chef-in-Chief

Two new shows broaden and extend Julia Child’s legacy

Jun 30, 2022
A Grower of Wine

A Grower of Wine

Tony Soter helped set the course for Napa Cabernet before championing Pinot Noir in …

Jun 30, 2022
Creative Force

Creative Force

Dave Phinney, the mind behind The Prisoner Wine Co. and other innovative projects, keeps …

Jun 30, 2022
Mare Island: Plans and Promise

Mare Island: Plans and Promise

Adjacent to the coastal city of Vallejo, California, a tiny peninsula has seen little life …

Jun 30, 2022
In the Phinney Spirit

In the Phinney Spirit

Savage & Cooke Distillery brings new life to Mare Island as a craft beverage destination

Jun 30, 2022
Phinney and Friends

Phinney and Friends

Dave Phinney's collaborations beyond wine include a Bourbon and tea venture with Scottie …

Jun 30, 2022