Victoria Kulinich first came to understand wine through the prism of the Manhattan somm scene, where "there’s always this idea of what California wine really is," she says. But then she headed west in 2013 for a position at the Restaurant at Meadowood, in the heart of North Coast California wine country. "Since moving here, I’ve gotten really schooled on Napa wine, the history of Napa wine,” says Kulinich, 30. “I’ve learned myself about how it can age, essentially; I didn’t really know that before coming out here." And accordingly, she has helped assemble one of the deepest cellars of Napa wine in the world, especially for old-school Cabernet.
Following forays into architecture and culinary studies, Kulinich found her niche in wine. She built up her chops at programs as diverse as Eleven Madison Park's Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning monument to rare Burgundies and Champagnes and Gotham Bar & Grill's high-powered, high-volume wine-service crucible. In 2016, Kulinich and her intimate wine team earned Meadowood its first Grand Award, with a list of 2,250 selections—and she still works the floor every evening. She spoke with editorial assistant Sara Heegaard about the differences between East and West Coast restaurant wine culture, the unique and surprising facets of Napa wine she has discovered, and pairing Chardonnay with cheese.
Wine Spectator: The wine list at the Restaurant at Meadowood is very unusual in its California wine vintage depth, with many verticals of top Cabernets going back to the 1970s or even earlier. How does this reflect your philosophy in building a Napa wine list?
Victoria Kulinich: With Napa Valley [selections], we are going for notable winemakers—game changers or people who have written the history—and are trying to collect their entire lives’ works.
What I’ve really enjoyed recently was being able to try the 1966 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour. We had one bottle—we have some depth in the ’60s, [wines] that André Tchelistcheff made before he left—and [it was amazing] to taste the wine and see how beautiful it was and how vibrant it still was, and to have learned over the course of the past three years the impact he’s had. I’m Russian and he was as well.
It’s really fascinating to see these older bottles, to be able to open them and to explore and see how different the styles were back then. They were struggling for ripeness, they had frost in the Valley. We don’t have that anymore these days. We’re fighting the sun! So I think just the history of the Valley was something I didn’t expect to impact me and my understanding of wine so much. Every bottle that we open from the ’60s is just fantastic. Some of them find themselves [after] maybe 20, 30 minutes in the glass—at first they’re pretty dull and kind of awkward, and then they find freshness.
WS: Having worked in restaurants on both sides of the country, what’s your take on East vs. West Coast wine culture?
VK: In New York, it’s a European-driven market—you have the best of what’s out there, and you think you know everything or you’ve tried everything or you’ve had just this privilege. And then you come out here and things are a little bit different, and it’s very cool.
WS: Your wine list offers seven pages of small-format bottle options. What is the benefit to choosing a small bottle?
VK: We have a lot of guests who come up from the city, and sometimes they don’t want to drink a whole lot. They want to just have a little bit but they want to have something exceptional. It’s nice to begin with a half-bottle of something refreshing—either a Sauvignon Blanc from the Valley like Eisele Vineyard, or Domaine Huët Vouvray—and then perhaps go into an older half-bottle of Bordeaux or something that is more rich from the Valley.
WS: Do you have a favorite food-and-wine pairing at the moment?
VK: Salinia Saint Marigold 2010 Chardonnay. The fruit comes from Charles Heintz vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. It’s made by Kevin Kelley. It’s a local wine but it is so incredibly unique. It’s got a little bit of cider [flavor], a little bit of nuttiness. It’s slightly creamy, it’s got the edge, the softness, the detail, the depth—and the way it worked with our Crémeux des Cîteaux [cheese dessert] with beeswax and honeycomb, was so fantastic. We tried it with a few different cheeses and it worked well with many.
WS: Have you ever had a life-changing wine moment?
VK: Yes. It was at Eleven Madison. We had a table come in and they brought all these incredible bottles. At the end of the night when I was cleaning up, there was a little bit of wine left in a magnum of 1964 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche. Of course, I wanted to try it. So I get a glass, and I’m there with a friend of mine, and we’re just tasting, geeking out about this wine, like, "Wow, it’s so vibrant, it’s so fresh, all these flavors are still coming out." Then I’m almost done with it, we’re closing down, so I take my glass with a little bit of wine left in it and [step] from the dark service station into the bright kitchen, and I am amazed at the fact at the wine is completely brown. I mean, it looked like Madeira but it tasted everything that I would have imagined a ’64 La Tâche to taste. I just didn’t expect that difference: that a wine could look like this but give you so much pleasure.