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Inaugural vintage for Larkmead's head winemaker

Larkmead Vineyards in Napa Valley releases two 2021 wines under new winemaker Avery Heelan, showcasing the winery's commitment to quality and innovation while maintaining organic certification and adapting to climate change.

Avery Heelan was named head winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards in 2021. The first vintages with Heelan at the helm are being released this year. | Photo by Robb McDonough

The release in February of two 2021 wines marks a new chapter for Calistoga’s Larkmead Vineyards, one of the oldest family-owned wineries in Napa Valley.

The wines – a 2021 Firebelle Estate Red Blend, a classic Bordeaux blend, and 2021 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – are the first wines made by someone other than Dan Petroski, the winery’s former award-winning vintner who left after 15 years to shepherd a personal brand he created, called Massican.

Although Petroski, the 2017 San Francisco Chronicle Winemaker of the Year, left some big shoes to fill, winemaker Avery Heelan has stepped into the role with a firm grasp on Larkmead’s signature style and a desire to continue its ever-evolving vineyard research.

A third wine, a reserve-style Cabernet called Solari, will be released in the fall. Both new reds can be cellared, Heelan said, but, she added, they are “approachable” and ready to drink now.

Heelan joined the Larkmead team in July 2019 after holding positions as cellar master at Screaming Eagle Vineyards in Napa, vintage assistant winemaker at Domaine Yves Boyer Martenot in Meursault, France, and as a vintage enologist at Capel Vale Winery in Western Australia.

At Screaming Eagle, famous for producing limited amounts of the sought-after Cabernet Sauvignon, the former winemaker, Nick Gislason, became Heelan’s mentor. Even then, however, she had her eye on Larkmead.

“I thought Dan Petroski, the former winemaker here, was brilliant, not only at winemaking but also sales,” Heelan said. “I had a strong background in winemaking already, but I wanted to understand sales and marketing and how to grow a business.”

While becoming known for classically styled Cabernet Sauvignons and leading Larkmead into organic farming and preparing for climate change, Petroski developed his Massican label as a white-wine-only brand. He left Larkmead in 2021 to focus on Massican, recently purchased by Gallo.

But Petroski had been looking to the future at Larkmead, knowing that as Napa Valley’s climate changes, with days becoming hotter, nights colder, and more humidity, alternative varietals were worth considering. The winery installed three onsite weather stations to collect data, and a dedicated research block that tests new varietals, including Aglianico, Charbono, Tempranillo and Zinfandel. Petroski also, more than a decade earlier, set the stage for the winery to become a California Certified Organic Farmers operation, a status it secured late last year.

In her new role at Larkmead, Heelan oversees all winemaking and vineyard operations, continuing climate action and research initiatives with the Larkmead research block and working closely alongside viticulturist Kelly Maher and vineyard manager Nabor Camarena to oversee the 150-acre estate.

“Dan Petroski had over a decade of experience at Larkmead and helped expand the winery's success today,” Heelan said. “Working alongside him allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the terroir and potential of our estate vineyard. He was never afraid to push the envelope and try new things in the cellar. I am proud to build upon his vision by crafting wines that capture the heritage of our site with the pursuit of excellence in the cellar.”

She added, “As I embark on our first vintage with our fully certified vineyard, my vision for the quality of our wines is bolstered by the health and biodiversity across our estate, which will only continue to grow each year. I am excited about the journey ahead and the opportunity to craft exceptional wines that reflect the unique terroir and spirit of Larkmead Vineyards.”

Heelan holds a master’s degree in agricultural and environmental chemistry with a specialization in viticulture and enology from UC Davis.

As an undergraduate, she studied chemistry at Northeastern University in Boston with a plan to go into pharmaceuticals. After realizing that wasn’t the right career path for her, Heelan became interested in fermentation and home brewing. But she was always more of a wine than a beer drinker. On a trip to Napa Valley with her parents, someone in a tasting room mentioned that if she was interested in science and wine, she should look at Davis, known for its viticulture and agriculture programs.

“I researched and found an agriculture and environmental chemistry program; it was perfect. I decided to be a winemaker, which was the easiest decision I ever made,” she said.

Established in 1895, the lush Larkmead estate has been owned by the Solari Baker family since 1948. Larkmead’s vineyards were established in the mid-1800s.

Larkmead founder Larry Solari, former national regional sales manager for Italian Swiss Colony – now operated by E & J Gallo Winery – immigrated to the U.S. from Tuscany. He graduated from UC Berkeley and was the first in his family to go to college. He and his wife, Polly, purchased the property in 1948.

“As a sales manager, Larry was often on the road, so Polly was the original ‘mom boss’ of Napa Valley. She ran the business,” said Erinn Maloney, Larkmead marketing and public relations director.

A total of 115 acres of the Larkmead estate is planted to vines, which surround the winery and tasting room, located on Larkmead Lane on the valley floor near Calistoga.

The winery was built as a retreat for San Francisco socialite Lillie “Firebelle” Hitchcock Coit, best known as a patron of the city’s volunteer firefighters and benefactor of the Coit Tower in San Francisco. It was constructed between 1932 and 1933.

After Larkmead founders Larry and Polly Solari died, their daughter, Kate Solari Baker, and her late husband, Cam Baker, dedicated themselves to transforming the historic vineyard into a winery and production space. During their 10 years of ownership, they directed the replanting of the property, tailoring the selection of varieties, clones and rootstocks to suit the characteristics of each block. Solari-Baker’s three children, Cameron, John and Ann, and three grandchildren are often at Larkmead. Recently, all three children joined Larkmead’s board of directors.

The Solari Baker Family has long espoused organic farming in its vineyards.

“Achieving the CCOF status was the last piece of the puzzle,” Kate Solari Baker said. “We are excited to share this news with our colleagues, winery guests, and club members.”