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Napa Sonoma Magazine
Summer / Fall 2006

Larger Than Life

Pat Kuleto Has Made an Art—and a Glamorous Life—Out of Rising to the Occasion

By Thom Elkjer

Pat Kuleto doesn’t wait for adventure to find him. He goes after it. And he makes sure to capture it fully when he comes upon it.

When Kuleto created his winery estate, he chose some of Napa’s loftiest vineyards for his neighbors: Bryant Family, Chappellet, and Colgin. When he announced plans to plant sangiovese—a much-maligned grape in California—friends suggested he limit himself to a few acres; Kuleto planted 34. When he plays poker, the guys at the table include iconic Napa vintners Francis Ford Coppola, Bill Harlan, and Carl Doumani. When he and Doumani both had the idea of mooring a boat in their winery reservoirs, Doumani spent two years looking for one. Kuleto ordered one built from scratch.

“It’s always a case of abbondanza with Pat,” Doumani says with a chuckle. He uses the Italian word for abundance to indicate that where Kuleto’s concerned, a certain passion goes along with the plenty.

Kuleto started pouncing on adventure early in life. He was barely out of his teens, working construction and playing bass in a band in the Sierra Nevada, when an accident severed the tips of two fingers. He promptly plunked down his workers’ compensation money for a ticket to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth II. “That’s when I discovered that  wine was part of life,” he recalls. “At dinner, the waiters walked around with a bottle of wine in each hand. If I didn’t like one, they poured me the other. If I didn’t like either one, they got me something else. It was great!”

Upon returning to the United States, Kuleto became a building contractor and soon spotted another opportunity: He convinced a national steak house chain to let him design restaurants for free in order to get the contract to build them. “I wasn’t a designer, but I had worked as a busboy, a waiter, and a bartender, so I knew what made people happy to work in restaurants,” Kuleto explains, with his usual cut-to-the-chase candor. “I figured if I designed places where the staff was happy, that would make the customers happy.”

This seminal insight made Kuleto a rich builder who could have retired to his sizable winery estate in the California Gold Country to pursue his lifelong love of hunting and fishing. But with more than 100 steak houses on his résumé, Kuleto took the momentous step of designing Fog City Diner, an atmospheric eatery that opened in San Francisco in 1984.

This well-loved culinary landmark launched Kuleto out of the ranks of restaurant builders and into the field of restaurant design—which, it turned out, he had more or less to himself.

As usual, Kuleto did not hesitate. He began designing bigger, grander, and more unusual dining rooms and creating destination restaurants in major cities around the country. Today Kuleto owns pieces of nine of his most successful restaurants, including Boulevard and Farallon in San Francisco and Martini House in St. Helena. He will soon bump that number up to an even dozen with two new venues in San Francisco and his renovation of Nick’s Cove on Tomales Bay near Point Reyes.

Along the way, Kuleto encountered still other opportunities that fired his imagination. When a massive fire destroyed his Sierra foothills property in 1991, he again put an insurance settlement in play. This
time he stitched together five separate parcels of land on a high ridgeabove Sage Canyon in the hills east of Napa Valley to create a 761-acre aerie. Within five years, he was back in the wine business as a vintner. Today
he’s selling third- and fourth-year releases of Kuleto Estate Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Zinfandel.

The wines are made by David Lattin, a veteran vintner whom Kuleto met in 2002. “I came up to the house to get acquainted,” Lattin recalls, “and wound up staying about six hours, eating and drinking.” (Many stories about Kuleto involve hours of eating and drinking.) “We did talk about wine, but mostly we talked about life and culture and the land,” Lattin continues. “Somewhere in the middle of the conversation it became clear that we were going to work together, and we just kept talking.”

They still talk constantly, although Kuleto leaves the winemaking to Lattin. They clearly agree on their goals and are rapidly achieving them both in terms of wine quality and critical recognition. Unlike the wines of his neighbors at Bryant Family and Colgin, Kuleto’s bottlings are generous wines that please immediately without sacrificing body, weight,or gravitas. They’re clearly big-time wines, but you can ignore that and
enjoy them unreservedly.

In other words, they are much like Kuleto himself.

These qualities go a long way toward explaining why the burly, bearded Kuleto was accepted with relative ease into Napa’s inner social circle. When much-loved vintner Justin Meyer died unexpectedly in 2002, Kuleto was afforded one of Napa’s few truly priceless prizes: He took Meyer’s place in the legendary all-male carousing society known as the Gastronomic Order of the Nonsensical and Dissapatory (GONAD). “Making Pat a member was a natural choice,” explains Doumani, a founding GONAD, “and not just because his ability to consume food and drink is second to none.”

Kuleto himself jokes that his home among the vineyards is “a big kitchen and dining room with some bedrooms attached.” In case anyone might think he’s kidding, he calls the place Villa Cucina, which translates as kitchen country house. The house manages to be grandly proportioned yet cozily intimate, and the kitchen indeed is the focus of the entire downstairs. Kuleto, 61, shares the home with his son Daniel, nine, and a constant stream of friends, associates, and other visitors.

While he enjoys cooking and has set up the estate with all the gardens, game, poultry, and range animals he needs to supply his own table, he’s simply too busy to man the kitchen regularly. So he hired chef Janelle Weaver, formerly of the restaurant at Meadowood, to be the Kuleto Estate chef.

Like Lattin, Weaver’s a relaxed professional who doesn’t mind if the bar is set high. “Working for Pat keeps you on your toes, but it doesn’t really feel like work,” she says with a smile. “It’s more like being part of a family business.”

Hanging out with Kuleto is that way, too. The conversation never lags, and it usually doesn’t linger too long on Kuleto, either: He doesn’t need the limelight because his personality is naturally buoyant. When a visitor asks, for example, why the buildings and furnishings at Villa Cucina and Kuleto Estate Winery are all rustic and oversized, Kuleto laughs out loud. A moment later, he has everyone else laughing, too, with his jolly rejoinder: “Because I’m rustic and oversized!”

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