Wine: February 2006 Archives

Bygones Be Gone

| | Comments (0) | TrackBacks (0)

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
Check out my regular wine coverage at

It was a dark and rainy late winter night in the Italian city of Siena. We had arrived late to our hotel and the patrona had frowned when we asked about a place to eat. It was low season, she reminded us, so dining might be difficult. She made a few calls and sent us back out into the night. We wound up in a tiny restaurant off some stone steps that seemed to be carved out of the massive stone buildings on either side.

Because it was late, the owner of the restaurant told us he would simply bring us dinner – no selecting from the menu this time. A moment later he returned and put an open bottle down on the table. At first I was taken aback, but then I saw that the small amount of wine missing from the bottle was in a glass in the owner’s own hand. He was giving us the wine he had opened for himself.

That was 20 years ago, and I have never forgotten it.

Start with the name, “Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.” The noble wine of Montepulciano – a noble town in its own right. The grape, he told us, was Prugnolo Gentile (which I later found out was the local name for Sangiovese). The producer’s name, Avignonesi, also had an unmistakable ring of authenticity. This supposition was confirmed when the restaurant owner told us the winery’s cellars were some of the oldest in Tuscany – which meant some of the oldest in Italy and therefore Europe.

The wine itself was the sunlight of Italy in a bottle, with the red cherries and summer heat still shimmering in their warm sweetness. Yet there was also a serious earthiness that bespoke history, tradition, and rocky hillsides trod by simple men and their beasts of burden. I can remember that wine in my mouth like it was yesterday – and I can well understand why the restaurant owner chose it to end his long day.

For years I would make the rounds of the handful of winesellers in the Italian quarter of San Francisco to see if they had the wine, but I was disappointed far more often than satisfied. Or the wine would show up on a restaurant list at an absurd price. Somehow the handful of lire I once spent on a rainy winter night for this wine stuck in my mind as the price I should pay, so I could rarely bring myself to fork over a fistful of dollars.

But now the drought has ended.

Brian Larky has signed Avignonesi to his Dalla Terra Winery Direct business, which cuts the importer out of the mark-up chain that pushes prices relentlessly up as wine moves from foreign producer to U.S. consumer. Avignonesi Vine Nobile di Montepulciano is now available stateside for around twenty bucks, which means when I want to dress up dinner on the weekend, I can relive one of the happiest wine moments of my life without breaking the budget.

Larky’s working the same magic with a number of other Italian producers who used to be priced past the $20 point where consumers are often reluctant to go. He's also bringing in plenty of great wines around $10 - or less. The wineries he selects are small, family-run, and expert at producing heavenly wines without hellishly high alcohol. So ask about Dalla Terra at your local wine shop and give both yourself and Larky a boost.

Now if he could just do something about Napa Cabernet…

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at