How A Young Winemaker Took Over A Legendary Napa Winery And Succeeded

Historically, change at legacy wineries has been a family affair, with one generation handing over the reins to the next. Until recently it was traditionally the oldest son who inherited the winemaking title and responsibility, and often a son-in-law would have to do in the event of no suitable male heirs. Fortunately, that system has been upended in the New World, where a worthy assistant can assume the winemaking mantle when their predecessor moves on to greener pastures (or vineyards, in this case). When Dan Petroski left Larkmead, one of Napa Valley’s oldest family-owned establishments, to focus on his white-wine-only brand, Massican, in 2021, it seems it was an easy decision for the proprietors to drop the word “associate” from Avery Heelan’s title and promote her to the role of winemaker. It didn’t hurt that she has some serious bona fides with stints at Screaming Eagle, Domaine Yves Boyer-Martenot in Meursault, and the lauded Capel Vale winery in Western Australia filling up her résumé.

While Larkmead’s wines had received multiple 95-plus point scores from critics and developed a large following, Petroski had built a name for himself outside of Larkmead with his white wines, digital Massican magazine, and other initiatives. Heelan stepped into her new role in July 2021, shortly before harvest, and immediately decided to alter the grape selection for Larkmead’s wines, all of which are made from estate-grown grapes in Calistoga. Where winemaking had previously focused on wines sourced from specific vineyard blocks based solely on dominant soil types for the brand’s Solari, Firebelle, and the Lark bottlings, akin to a Burgundy-style monopole, Heelan shifted the style to mimic that of Bordeaux. Her approach for 2021 and subsequent vintages includes expanding grape selection beyond a single vineyard block and soil type, allowing for more flexibility with the flagship Solari and considering the addition of a reserve wine for the Lark in the most exceptional vintages.

Avery Heelan brought a new approach.

Heelan is keenly aware of Petroski’s admirable reputation, which is why she says she felt an “immense sense of responsibility” taking over as winemaker at Larkmead. That didn’t stop her from making some big changes. Surveying the soils, microclimates, vine age, terroir, and more of the estate, she decided to go beyond single-block expressions: “It became clear that expanding our wines to incorporate many parcels for each wine in the portfolio would allow me to harness the full potential of our vineyard,” she says. She accurately described the 2021 Larkmead wines as “more approachable and balanced, with highly aromatic bouquets, layers of flavor with generous fruit and savory characteristics, and delicate gentle tannin structure.”

Winemakers have many people to please, including longtime customers, club members, and the winery owners. Kate Solari Baker, whose parents Larry and Polly Solari purchased the Larkmead estate in 1948, told us she and her late husband, Cam Baker, saw the transition as an opportunity to build on her family’s legacy while also “refining the Larkmead wine style.” She has felt good about the changes so far, pointing out that the 2021 vintage has been greeted with “overwhelming enthusiasm” by longtime customers, who have noted “the heightened aromas, drinkability upon release, and concentrated fruit” of the wines, she says.

A blend of 62 percent Merlot, 21 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 17 percent Cabernet Franc, Larkmead 2021 Firebelle was aged in French oak, two-thirds of it new, for 20 months. It has a gorgeous nose of Luxardo cherry, blackberry preserves, rose water, and gingerbread spice. It lingers somewhere between easy-drinking and full-bodied, offering polished tannins and lavish berry flavors mingling with notes of spice, purple flowers, and hints of paprika and thyme that endure into the smooth finish. “I have been refining the varietal selection for this label and fine-tuning blending techniques to create a wine that showcases the varietal diversity of our estate vineyard,” Heelan says. “Pulling inspiration from the iconic Bordeaux blends, the introduction of Cabernet Franc gives the Firebelle beautiful spiced red fruit notes with harmony and structure.”

Larkmead wines.

Larkmead 2021 Cabernet Sauvignon is produced with 92 percent of that variety and 8 percent Cabernet Franc, which Heelan says she added to give the wine more complexity. “It adds some of those desirable savory and spiced-fruit notes,” she says. “Blending allows us to create the best expression of Larkmead’s vineyards that are approachable, nuanced, and complex wines.” Before moving ahead with these changes, Heelan sat down with Baker Solari and tasted through the prior vintage, at which time Heelan recommended expanding beyond the winery’s single block approach as well as diversifying barrel sources to subtly alter nuances in the finished wine. She received Baker Solari’s full support and pushed forward. Since then, Heelan has had to adapt to the conditions of each subsequent season, focusing on tannin management with the 2022 vintage and emphasizing deeper colors and softer, velvety textures with the 2023 harvest.

Succeeding a winemaker with an outsize reputation left Heelan with some large shoes to fill, and she is proving herself to be more than up to the task. She frequently walks among the vines with vineyard manager Nabor Camarena, and the two discuss attributes such as clone type, age of the vines, soil type, and sun exposure. Heelan likens her work to that of an artist. “All these factors contribute to crafting a well-balanced and beautiful wine, much like a painter’s palette offers the range of colors needed to render a mesmerizing painting,” she says. “Each color, or component from our vineyard, offers just a glimpse. Together, they create the whole painting.” With that in mind, we are looking forward to viewing Heelan’s masterpieces in the years to come.

Larkmead Vineyards

Previously published on Robb Report USA

Photography: Lead image – Hermes Rivera, and Robb McDonough.

Sign up for our Newsletters

Stay up to date with our latest series