The bar at the end of the metaverse

Dan Petroski founded Massican in 2009, establishing a winery that was unusual for Napa in both its output and culture. Jim Clarke talks to the man who built a brand in the digital sphere and has plans to meet his customers in a virtual world

Words by Jim Clarke

Dan Petroski standing by a vineyard
‘I just say I’m the only white wine winery here in Napa and I don’t compete with anyone else.’ Dan Petroski (Photo: The Cuvee Collective)

‘You can create an image of your brand with a photo,’ says Dan Petroski, founder of Massican Winery, ‘but when that photo is of someone sitting on a winery porch in Napa Valley, a hundred other people have the same vision. I don’t own a winery porch.’ Understanding that difference has led Petroski to make the social media sphere a home for a brand that otherwise wouldn’t have one.

Négociant wineries, which buy fruit via vineyard contracts and make the wine at rented facilities, are not unusual. But carving out a brand identity can be challenging without a tie to a distinct location. Petroski founded Massican in 2009, initially as a side-project to his work as cellar master and, later, winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards. It was there that he earned kudos for honing the estate’s classically styled Cabernet Sauvignons, leading the property into organics, and exploring other grape varieties and approaches intended to prepare Larkmead for the challenges of climate change. With Massican he was doing something entirely different.

The most recent vintage of Massican's Sauvignon Blanc sold out immediately on the strength of a Tik Tok video (Photo: The Cuvee Collective)

‘I just say I’m the only white wine winery here in Napa and I don’t compete with anyone else.’ Massican isn’t just devoted solely to white wines; the focus is on Italian grape varieties in particular. Two wines make up the core of the portfolio: the Gemina represents southern Italy with a Greco and Falanghina blend, while the Annia looks north, working from Tocai Friulano and Ribolla Gialla as a base.

Petroski has family roots in Sicily and prior to coming to California, he had worked at Valle Dell’Acate, on the southeast corner of the island. ‘When I came to Napa, I was like, “this is totally a Mediterranean climate. It feels like southeast Sicily. It’s hot, it’s dry, it’s got a lot of clay loam soil. And why the hell are we drinking Cabernet at 8pm when it’s 80 degrees out? Why aren’t we drinking white wine?” And that’s really how it started.’

That might be enough to make Massican stand out in Napa but it’s Petroski’s background in publishing that put the brand on the global stage. Up until 2006, Petroski had worked for Time Inc. and had been deeply involved in the company’s transition into the world of Web 3.0. That experience led him to conceive of Massican’s online presence not solely as a sales platform but as a magazine. ‘Every winery’s got the same Instagram account,’ he says. ‘You’ve got a bunch of people sitting at the table, cheersing. You’ve got some food. It’s all stylised with the same cues and the same tone, and that’s not Massican.’

Dan Petroski with a box of grapes
Petroski’s background in publishing led him to conceive of Massican's online presence as a digital magazine (Photo: The Cuvee Collective)

Petroski initially embraced Instagram as his primary publishing outlet but Substack newsletters grew as a tool in managing text-heavy content. The pandemic led the content itself away from lifestyle subjects to more serious issues. ‘I think it’s quite unique for a winery to publish an article on their Instagram on voting rights in Texas and on transgender issues, on mental health issues, on homelessness in California. That’s not typical winery content.’ Other articles discussed cryptocurrency and NFTs; the latter have become a piece of bonus content accompanying Massican’s latest releases. The articles were not simply Petroski blogging on these subjects; assuming an editorial role familiar from his publishing days, he commissioned pieces from working journalists.

As the world began to emerge from the pandemic, Petroski decided that this magazine format needed to be reinvented. In July 2022, he launched a new iteration, publishing a cookbook in a monthly serial format; presenting Mediterranean-focused dinner party menus largely themed around the various regions of Italy. He tasked chef Sara Hauman to develop the recipes; she stages virtual dinners and records how-to reels for their Instagram account in her kitchen at home in Portland, Oregon, rather than in some gleaming studio. Jordan Mackay, author of Secrets of the Sommeliers and Franklin Barbecue, provides content and commentary. Petroski will consider a print version only after all 18 chapters have been published virtually.

Why the hell are we drinking Cabernet at 8pm when it’s 80 degrees out?

For those who wonder whether this sort of social media engagement really moves wine, Petroski points to his most recent vintage of Sauvignon Blanc, which sold out immediately on the strength of a Tik Tok video. Looking ahead to next year, he aims to create a virtual home for Massican drinkers in the metaverse, a realm of social media he says is virtually untapped by wine brands but one ideally suited to creating engagement, with its simulated reality encouraging interaction through its video game-like nature.

Rather than a winery porch, his metaverse ‘home’ will be an Italian wine bar, where wine drinkers can engage with the brand, purchase swag for their avatars, and engage with each other and content related to the wines. Petroski’s aim is to meet wine drinkers where they drink wine, whether that means over dinner or at a wine bar, whether real or virtual.