I was mad at Pat Kuleto before I ever met him.
It wasn’t that he did anything bad to me personally. He didn’t actually do anything bad at all. But he was the guy responsible for taking chef Nancy Oakes out of her quiet, intimate little restaurant out in the avenues in San Francisco and putting her in a big, ostentatiously Parisian bistro downtown.
Oakes’ previous place, L’Avenue, was the kind of place you rave about to your friends, then hope they won’t tell anyone else. Suddenly Oakes was in a big place, on one of The City’s more visible corners, where everybody could find her. Even the name of the new place, Boulevard, was a sting. Boulevards are bigger than avenues, and noisier, and more heavily trafficked.
Years later, when Kuleto opened Martini House restaurant in St. Helena, they had about five different openings for the press and I somehow managed to miss them all. Sure, I noticed that Kuleto had picked yet another chef, Todd Humphries, who cooks the way I like best: full-flavored dishes that stay light on their feet and make wine sing. But I was, you know, busy.
When Kuleto opened a winery in Napa Valley, I somehow never got around to writing about it, either. Just another rich white guy buying his way into the wine business, I told myself. Not important.
The first time I met Kuleto, I told him why I was mad at him. He laughed out loud. “I was mad at me too!” he said. “I loved L’Avenue. I hated to see it go. But Nancy was going under there and I didn’t want to stop eating her food. So we set her up in a big enough place to succeed.”
It was a pretty good response, so I decided to stop being mad at him and taste his wines. They turned out to be pretty tasty. Very tasty, in fact. And they score highly in some other areas that matter to me.
For one, they’re very reasonably priced. (Of course this is relative for Napa, but how many Napa Valley Chardonnays are getting 90+ points and going for $30?). They’re also relatively moderate in alcohol compared to other serious Napa bottlings. Chardonnay under 14%, Zinfandel under 15%, other reds in between. Full-flavored yet light on their feet.
Third, they’re getting better — not just year to year with the new releases, but in the bottle. One of America’s better-known wine magazines should polish its spectacles and revisit its 83 point score for Kuleto’s 2002 Syrah. Lovely wine, great balance, with the hearty earthiness of Syrah’s origins polished to a rich patina rather than painted over with American oak. It was one of the better Syrah debut bottlings of recent years in my notes, and the 2003 should be every bit as good.
So I’m not mad at Kuleto anymore. In fact, he’s okay in my book. Heck, I wonder if Martini House is open tonight…
– Thom Elkjer
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