With Dan Petroski of Larkmead

Jon Bonne talking about the future of Cabernet

The future of California Cabernet is a point of discussion among vintners, retailers and sommeliers. This past week a panel discussion on the past, present and what we can expect going forward was held at the Blue Farm restaurant, which was led by Jon Bonne, along with the winemaking star power of Dan Petroski, Rajat Parr, and Steve Matthiasson. Jason Wagner of Union Square Cafe rounded out the group as the opinion of the New York City Sommelier, and in the audience sat the who’s who of wine service, distribution and retail.

The questions ranged from what this group thought Cabernet should be and stand for, to if there is a future for it in restaurants and retail stores. As the discussion and comments passed back and forth, the largest points of contention in the audience were price and style. Granted, with a group such as this leading the discussion, the opinion swayed toward wines of restraint, made with a nod to Old World palates. However, what was left out from this discussion, and the group as a whole, was the opinion of a grower still making wines in the style of the ‘90s. In other words, the “Big Fruit” style as Jon Bonne calls it. One which looks to obtain ripeness and uses oak as a main ingredient, as opposed to a seasoning. Also absent was a representative of the nation’s steakhouse chains, who I believe would have a very significant and different opinion regarding what their diners were looking for on restaurant wine lists.

Where does Napa Valley fit in today’s market?

Either way, I believe the point was still made, and made well, that the future of Napa Valley Cabernet is unclear. The continued rise in prices has a lot to do with real estate costs in the valley, as well as a refinement within the wineries and heightened control from start to finish. It’s interesting to think about Bordeaux when we speak of prices of Napa Valley Cabernet. Bordeaux as a region has been regaining much of the ground that was lost over past years, mainly because consumers are starting to realize that there’s a lot to like in the $50 – $85 price point, which Napa now finds difficult to maintain.

Also, even though Sommeliers and Wine Buyers (myself included) prefer a more restrained style of Cabernet Sauvignon, there are still many customers at restaurants and retail who want the “Big Fruit” Cabs that we speak of as if they were dirty secrets. It’s a difficult problem without any answer in sight.

What is the future of Cabernet Sauvignon?

However, the one thing that stood out to me more than any other throughout the event was the closing question posed to each of the panel members and the answer from Dan Petroski of Larkmead vineyards. What is the future of (Napa Valley) Cabernet?

While other members of the panel focused on training their staff better to adapt to customers, how today’s youth would look back to these wines as they mature, pushing the evolution of Cabernet Sauvignon to our wishes, or hoping that there would be a correction in land prices, Dan’s answer was very different and, in my opinion, the most significant. Dan went on to explain “…Cabernet to me has always been an ideal. It’s always something that I have always aspired to drink. Because I’ve always felt that Cabernet was regal. I felt like it had this prominence… this top of the pyramid ideal… There’s a diversity among the grape that no other grape in this world has … It needs to be the King, it needs to be the Queen, it needs to be at the top of the pyramid… It touches both on the romanticism and diversity.”

Modern Day Napa Cabernet with Dan Petroski

This comment resonated with me throughout the entire day. For one thing, I put a lot of stock into Dan’s opinions, especially regarding Napa Valley Cabernet and refinement, because I cannot think of anyone who would have more insight on both topics than Dan.

Why? Because Dan Petroski came to Napa Valley winemaking with a Eurocentric outlook on wine. He cut his teeth making wine in Italy, and when the time came to move to California, it was as the assistant winemaker at Larkmead, which was already known for its restraint, at a time when restraint had a very different meaning in the Valley. While there, he started his own label on the side, named Massican. Here Dan was able to return to his roots, producing wine from small parcels of white Italian varieties that were planted throughout the region, but also adding a 100% Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, both of which you would never guess were from California. Each of the Massican wines may show that kiss of Californian sun, but their tension and energy is European to the core.

Over time, Dan moved from an assistant to the head winemaker at Larkmead, with his continued pursuit of balance reforming the portfolio and becoming the driving force behind the brand’s return to prominence. Today, a major replanting continues to make better use of their St. Helena terroir, as blocks are tended with individual care, harvest dates get earlier and blends within the wines are refined.

You Can’t Please Them all… Or Can You?

With all of that said, one of the most important things that Larkmead can take credit for, in a market that is very much driven by the scores of professional critics, is that the wines are widely loved, and highly scored by nearly everyone who tastes them. Another interesting fact that I learned was that the largest amount of wine that Larkmead sells (in their 90,000-bottle production) is within a one-hundred-mile radius of the winery, both through the cellar door and to their mailing list. When you consider that the entry-level Cabernet of Larkmead starts at $130 and prices go up to over $350 for their premium label, the question of what consumers are willing to pay starts to become clearer. For Dan Petroski, Napa Valley Cabernet remains a relative value compared to Grand Cru Burgundy and 1st Growth Bordeaux, and if it really is the ideal that he aspires to, then who am I to argue?

With the future of Napa Valley Cabernet fresh on my mind, I arranged to taste through two of Larkmead’s most recent vintages, 2014 and 2015. For one thing, my experience with Larkmead goes back ten years now. On my first trip to Napa Valley, I was introduced to the wines and joined the mailing list. I think it’s also important to note that it was the only list from the Valley that I joined. Even at the time, with my Italo-centric palate, I believed that Larkmead was “The” Napa Valley producer that should be in my cellar. Because of this I’ve had a lot of experience with the wines, while watching their evolution first hand.

The tasting was eye-opening to say the least. It’s always fantastic to taste two different vintages side by side. Both 2014 and 2015 were drought years, with 2015 being warmer and dryer with yields down 20%. Picking in 2015 started on August 28th, which is amazing when you consider that at Dan’s first harvest at Larkmead they started picking on October 20th. As for 2014, Dan referred to it as a “Below the Knees vintage” as the wines are darker in fruit, brambly and savory, with notes of earth and forest floor. The differences between the two vintages couldn’t have been more stark. Frankly, it’s less about quality and more about personal taste and opinion. While the 2015’s are riper and will appeal to a wider audience, the 2014s are more my speed and drinking beautifully right now. That said, the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon is drop dead gorgeous.

Are these wines worth the increase in cost?

In my opinion they absolutely are. Let’s be honest here. There was a time when Larkmead was considered one of the best values in Napa Valley for Top Shelf wine, but what keeps quality high? Over the past ten years Larkmead has replanted, brought winemaking in-house, added a tasting room, brought farming in house, and moved to organic viticulture. What’s more, if you believe in the quality of the wine, the terroir and raw materials, with a production that sells out every year, doesn’t it make more sense to say that the wines were severely undervalued for way too long?

These are, in fact, some of the best wines being made in Napa Valley today.

With all of that said, if you ask me what the future of Napa Valley Cabernet is, I have to side with Dan Petroski. Napa Valley is an ideal, it is that relative value in high end premium wine, and tastes will always continue to change. All winemakers like Dan Petroski can do is to follow their palates, the palates of their customers, and keep making the best wine that they possibly can.

Eric Guido

On To The Tasting Notes

Larkmead Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014 – The nose showed dusty spices and minerals up front with crushed raspberry, cherry, currants and dried flowers. On the palate, I found silky textures with zesty spices and balancing acids as tart cherry washed across the senses leaving an herbal twang in its wake. It finished wonderfully long with tart cherry, lingering spices and a coating of fine tannin. (92 points) M

Larkmead Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2015 – The nose was dark with rich brown spices giving way to crushed stone, plum, black currants, hints of coco, tobacco and sweet herbs. On the palate, I found silky textures, yet cool-toned and well-muscled with notes of sweetened black tea, blackberry and currents as savory spice and minerals saturated the senses. The finish was wonderfully long with an echo of dark red fruits, minerals and hints of bitter herbs. This is simply gorgeous and wonderfully refined. (94 points) M

Larkmead Vineyards Firebelle Red Blend Napa Valley 2014 – The nose was remarkably pretty and lifted by dried florals and sweet herbs upfront, as crushed cherry and minerals came forward, developing into earth tones with undergrowth and moist soil tones. On the palate, I found silky textures contrasted by zesty acid and spice as crushed strawberry and blueberry gave way to minerals in an ultimately juicy yet structured expression. It finished medium-long and spicy, showing blueberry skins, lingering sweet herbal tones and hints of fine tannin. (93 points) M

Larkmead Vineyards Firebelle Red Blend Napa Valley 2015 – The nose was slightly restrained with crushed blackberry, blueberry skins, lavender, hints of bay leaf, and dusty soil tones. On the palate, I found a zesty expression of red and blueberry fruits with brisk acidity and saturating spice, yet pure and refined. The finish was long, showing red fruits with lingering sweet spice and fine tannin, which coated the senses, yet so fresh. (94 points) M

Larkmead Vineyards LMV Salon Red Blend Napa Valley 2014 – The nose was deep, dark, and sensual, showing an inviting mix of black cherry, plum and blueberry with hints of wild herbs, and sweet spice. On the palate, I found velvety textures with dark red brambly fruits, sweet and savory spice, fine tannin and a brisk wave of acid that excited the senses. The finish was long, spicy and intense with saturating tannin, tart cherry, and lingering hints of bitter herbs. This is built for the long haul yet already showing a glimpse of its potential. (97 points) M

Larkmead Vineyards LMV Salon Red Blend Napa Valley 2015 – The nose was dark with peppery floral tones up front, followed by savory herbs, dark red fruits, and dusty minerals. On the palate, I found soft, enveloping textures with red and blue fruits, inner florals and herbs as brisk acidity added balance and fine tannin settled on the senses. It finished long, spicy and structured with tart cherry and an herbal twang. (92 pointsM

Larkmead Vineyards Solari Red Blend Napa Valley 2014 – The nose was remarkably fresh with dried rosy florals up front, crushed bright cherry, dusty minerals, savory spice and hints of lavender. On the palate, I found creamy textures with crushed raspberry and cherry, lifting inner florals and brisk acidity as fine tannin slowly saturated the senses. The finish was long with bright cherry and inner florals, remaining lifted and almost feminine throughout with lingering minerality and fine tannin. (95 points) M

Credits and Resources

Article, Tasting Notes and Photography by: Eric Guido

Guest photography by: Garret Dostal

View the Larkmead selection at Morrell Wine

Visit the official website of Larkmead Vineyards

Visit the official website of Massican

Visit the official website of Jon Bonne