Like many children of European families, Gordana Kostovski, 43, grew up in a household where good food and wine were ever-present. When her Macedonian parents moved the family out to the New Jersey suburbs, they "basically turned our entire backyard into a farm."
Kostovski has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania there. She worked at several restaurants in and around the city, such as Cutters (which became Twenty21, now closed), Del Frisco’s and Azure at the Revel in Atlantic City, before being approached three years ago by acclaimed chef and restaurateur Jose Garces to take on the wine and beverage program at Volvér; she is also the general manager.
Philadelphia-based Garces owns more than a dozen restaurants, including Restaurant Award winners Amada and Tinto (in Philadelphia) and Rural Society (in Washington, D.C. and Chicago); at Volvér, his Latin-inspired cuisine is presented in eight- and 12-course tasting menus. Kostovski creatively pairs wines for each of these courses. Some of her recent highlights include cauliflower flan with Sémillon, toro tuna with sake, and banh mi with grower Champagne. Kostovski talked with assistant tasting coordinator Emma Balter about her connection to her roots, navigating wine in a state with challenging liquor laws, and how she spends her days off (hint: It involves food).
Wine Spectator: How did you get your start in wine?
Gordana Kostovski: I was always fascinated by the restaurant industry. When we were growing up, both my parents were farmers. My dad grew grapes [in our backyard], and he actually made wine when we were kids, but we hardly ever ate out. My parents were also very strict, so I had a lot of growing up to do once I got to college. I was pre-med at UPenn, and instead of going to medical school I thought I’d get to know myself a little better.
There are beautiful grapes in Macedonia, and it’s part of our culture, but I never really jumped in until I got to the restaurant world.
WS: What was creating the list at Volvér like?
GK: I started from scratch; I opened the restaurant. I was able to build the cellar from start to finish, so that was a wonderful personal achievement for me. Chef [Jose Garces] is very Spanish-influenced in his cuisine, but the food itself is global. So it gave me the opportunity to home in on all wines, rather than just one particular country.
WS: What wines do you like to lead guests to discover?
GK: Currently we’re serving a curry, which is kind of interesting to have on the menu. It can be overpowering. At the moment I’m in Portugal with that specific dish: We have a beautiful Arinto [white] that we’re serving that’s extraordinary and off the beaten path. I bought [the Arinto wines] a while ago, and I said, "I don’t know exactly how I can introduce them to the guest." That’s the beauty of having tasting menus: You can introduce guests to something they would normally not choose, because when we do the wine pairings, they put themselves in our hands.
WS: What has been your experience with Pennsylvania’s challenging liquor laws, which historically discouraged both distributors and restaurants from doing business in the state? (Because of high taxes and restrictions on certain purchasing discounts, Pennsylvania restaurants usually must pay—and thus, charge—much more for wine than establishments in other states do.)
GK: [Guests are] out socially, relaxing, enjoying themselves; they don’t really want to get into a conversation about why our wines are more expensive.
When I started in the business, certain distributors or wineries wouldn’t come into the state because there’s such a high markup. I feel like our cuisine has traveled so far [since then], and there’s no reason that our wine and beverage wouldn’t travel so far as well. Thankfully, I’ve seen in the last five to 10 years a surge of additional distributors. It’s always easiest to source wines from a number of different areas. The fact that more distributors, and as a result more wines, are coming into the state gives us kind of a [more] equal playing ground.
WS: Do you have other hobbies outside of wine?
GK: Eating! My husband laughs at me, because on our days off I’m like, "What are we eating today?" One of the bad sides of the business obviously is when you get caught up in service, you might not eat on a certain day in a regular fashion, so on my days off, I want to eat something really exciting and fun, and explore food in a different way.
WS: Do you cook a lot, or go out to restaurants?
GK: We eat really simply. Since my husband’s a chef, most people say: "Oh wow, you guys must have extraordinary meals at home!" To be honest, we just like to relax.
I’m kind of coming back to my roots in some ways. I try to actually learn a lot of [my mom's] dishes that are really simple but so delicious. As our parents get older, it’s a hard thing to realize they won’t be cooking for you for a long time. I’ve been trying to practice and spend some time with my mom, trying to get some recipes down on paper and just express my appreciation for her and what she has done, and a lot of that is through her food and our culture.