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Polishing a Rustic Diamond

At Napa's historic Larkmead, winemaker Dan Petroski is hewing new gems from three distinct terroirs
The Larkmead estate has stood the test of time, and its wines are shining ever brighter.
Photo by: Jimmy Hayes
The Larkmead estate has stood the test of time, and its wines are shining ever brighter.

Posted: Oct 10, 2018 10:00am ET

Senior editor James Molesworth will become Wine Spectator's lead taster for California Cabernet Sauvignon at the end of this year. He recently returned to Napa Valley for more visits with top wineries. And don't miss our Q&A with James on his Napa Cab eureka moments, his scoring philosophy, and what he's up to when he's not tasting wine.

When it comes to Napa Valley's diamonds, most folks are familiar with Diamond Creek, the venerable winery founded by Al Brounstein. Known for its three distinct soil types situated within a few hundred yards of each other, and for the equally distinct wines produced from them, Diamond Creek is a unique case study in Cabernet and terroir. Unique, but not alone.

Down on the valley floor below, situated in the narrow strip between Spring and Howell mountains, sits the 150-acre property of Larkmead. It mirrors Diamond Creek in its uniqueness: Three plots at the heart of the estate, named Dr. Olmo, Solari and The Lark, are situated on three distinct soil types—Cortina dark gravel/loam, Pleasanton clay and sandier Bale gravel, respectively. You can stand at a nexus point of the three, taking just a few steps each direction before touching the different soils. The wines are equally distinct. And eye-opening.

Founded in 1895, Larkmead has taken a winding route. The original Larkmead cellar is now the home of Frank Family, and the estate's 110 acres of vineyards have essentially all been planted twice. Varieties, orientation and rootstock have all been changed along the way.

Dan Petroski, 45, now handles the winemaking. He joined in 2006 as an intern (with no formal winemaking background; Petroski was a journalist before that), working alongside winemaker Andy Smith, who left for DuMol in 2012. During their time together, they started to dial back on toasty oak. And since being elevated to winemaker following Smith's departure, he's tried to dial back a bit more on extraction to manage the rustic tannins the site usually gives its wines.

"This is a hot, dusty, windy site that results in a rustic texture," says Petroski. "And I take that to heart. I want to tame the rougher tannins, and the way to do that is dialing back the alcohol and sugar ripeness."

Lighter extractions and less reliance on toasty oak are playing their role. Petroski says he's seen the shift along the way, but knows there is farther to go. "It's like music. You might love a song and you turn it up. But no matter how good it is, if you dial it up too much, it gets distorted," he says. "So, I'm dialing it back. I may dial it back too much at some points, and make a mistake. But I'll understand from that mistake."

Larkmead's production is small—110 acres of vines produce just a half-dozen reds totaling less than 8,000 cases annually. That's because a good chunk of the estate's fruit is sold off, with wineries such as Darioush, Realm, Rivers-Marie and others partaking. The client list is impressive, and indicative of the quality of fruit the vineyard gives.

That fruit is rustic, in a way, particularly the gravel parcel, with the Larkmead Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Dr. Olmo 2016 showing mouthfilling, gutsy black currant and fig flavors embroiled with tar and smoldering charcoal notes. It has a mountain fruit profile, as if Diamond Creek's Gravelly Meadow vineyard had slid off the mountain down onto the valley floor.

The Solari 2016 shows a deep well of mulled plum and raspberry fruit inlaid deeply with broad tannins—less rustic but no less muscular than the Dr. Olmo. Larkmead's The Lark 2016 is the most refined, relying on fine-grained structure and a light graphite edge that lets supple black cherry and blackberry fruit glide through. It's the longest of the three wines, with a gorgeous perfumy echo at the very end. The 2016s will be released in 2019.

It's an interesting puzzle at Larkmead, but with a new approach from Petroski, the pieces seem to be fitting now, even as they are kept separate. And Petroski seems highly enthused at the prospects of reorienting this historic property that has been family-owned since 1948.

"André Tchelistcheff once said the four greatest estates in Napa are Inglenook, Beringer, BV and Larkmead," he says, a smile growing across his face.

Follow James Molesworth on Instagram at @jmolesworth1, and on Twitter at @jmolesworth1.

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