Bookmark and Share Email this page Email Print this page Print Feed Feed

Anything Goes, Anyone Can Go There

What’s new in wines and spirits.

You can’t buy this vodka retail on the Mainland. Photos: Rae Huo

I'm chilling on my friend's länai way up on St. Louis Heights.

The city lights shimmer below us. The boys are lounging on a beat-up leather couch, talking.

"Dude, pass the prosecco," says my old friend. Yes, he's a doctor, who runs intensive-care units. But he also used to make grilled cheese sandwiches with a blowtorch and play sax in a rock band. Just a few years back, his libations of choice were cheap port and whatever beer was on special.

I was just as guilty of the "buy what's on sale" syndrome. So how in the world did we end up in a place and state of mind where such an incongruous phrase as "pass the prosecco" could seem so normal and even expected? What next?

As it turns out, such an utterance nicely sums up the pitch and tenor of Hawai'i's libation culture. Sure, Hawai'i's hoi polloi still drinks Bud and quaffs cheap wine, while the hoity-toity elites tipple the expensive, brand-name booze and pricey super Tuscans. But the new reality at the bar is: anything goes and anyone can go there.

Restaurants that once emphasized recognizable brand names are now venturing out into wilder regions of the viticultural firmament. You can drink anything from faux ports to weird sparklers to designer vodka you can't even buy in stores on the West Coast, but is for some reason available here.

Here's a quick take on the new drinking trends washing ashore in Hawai'i, the same ones your sommelier or local pourmeister probably knew about six months ago.

Pass the prosecco, dude

The label of a true French champagne from Dom Perignon or Veuve Clicquot has long been a status symbol and synonymous with quality.

New trends include Italian prosecco, like this one from Ruggeri;

Alas, it also meant the bottle was an expensive one. At the same time, sparkling wines have slowly migrated in the drinking public's consciousness from celebratory libations to pre-dinner drinks to standard options on a hot summer afternoon. But the drinking public likes a bargain. So when local wine gurus at Fujioka's, R. Field Wine Co. or the Wine Stop whispered that, for the price, the Italian sparklers offered twice the taste and sophistication as the average overblown French champagne, people listened.

If my boys on the couch up in St. Louis know this, so do the restaurants. With the Italian stallion Mario Batali pouring blood-orange bellinis made with prosecco on the Food Network, it's not exactly top secret. So look for more of the Italian sparklers, such as a lively, apple-flavored Ruggeri ($15 to $18), to grace menus.

Fruit, fruitier and fruitiest

As if passing the prosecco wasn't enough to make a Bud man drop his NASCAR beer cozy, along comes the sweet-wine brigade. Not long ago, sweet wine meant you paid through the nose for a d'Yquem or an ice wine. Only Bonny Doon offered a poor man's substitute, the vin de glacière (wine of the ice box). True, there were always the white zinfandels, but we won't even go that low.

These days, the sweet life has gotten much sweeter and more interesting. For a mere $15 a bottle you can get an increasing array of stupendous dinner enders. Dessert wines occupy over half of the top 10 on Wine.com's list of best values for under $25. Most are from Australia, where winemakers are churning out superior muscats, tokays, and even port-style wines that compete with some of the best affordable fortifieds that Iberia has to offer-all at a fraction of the price.

It's not just the Aussies. Chile is now starting to roll out very nice, high-sugar wines. Lesser known Sauternes from France have likewise come up. Most surprising, high-quality, sparkling fruit wines from the Continent are entering the mainstream as a light dessert drinks or wines paired with fruity appetizers.

Lucky we drink Hawai'i

Australian dessert wines like Buller & Sons Fine Muscat;

There's designer vodka, and then there's designer vodka. Grey Goose, Ketel One, Stolichnaya and a host of other vodkas claim the crown in this popular family of distilled booze. But the standout is a stealthy new arrival, Hangar 1. This is a vodka so cool it isn't even for sale in retail stores on the Mainland. Its advertising is largely word of mouth by bartenders at hot, exclusive clubs in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Clean, crisp and amazingly light on the finish-no gluey, sweet aftertaste-Hangar 1 is what vodka should be.

For some reason, Hawai'i has escaped the Hangar 1 hammerlock. You can buy it here in liquor stores. (Sometimes being isolated has its benefits.) How it arrived, we don't know, but the easy availability of this high-grade liquor is fueling a rapid expansion of Hangar 1 aficionados here in the Islands.

California cabernet returns

What's old is new again. Remember when big, fat cabs from the Golden State ruled the restaurant roost? Then they got pricey and too big for their own britches, crowding food off the plate. Worse, junk vintages in 1999 and 2000 led many to abandon the signature California reds, particularly in the face of a parade of drinkable and affordable reds coming from the Continent.

Well, the meteoric rise of the Euro has pushed the price of European reds significantly skyward, making domestic reds look affordable again. At the same time, California had a solid 2001 harvest-and 2002 looks to be a classic year. What's more, these cabs are a bit more drinkable than in years past. Try a Hess 2001 Select Cabernet ($13) or Reynolds Family Winery Reserve Cab ($89).

Spanish whites continue to rule

and -surprise-California cabernets, back in fashion.

They captured Manhattan and are making inroads in Hawai'i. Now, with everything out of France and Italy getting pretty pricey, the high-quality Spanish whites are on every restaurateur's hot list. The two most recognizable types are the Albariños from Galicia and the Ruedas from central Spain, but 2004 should see some interesting new blends and varietals. Arriba!

Oregon, Oregon, Oregon

We've long known that the Willamette Valley did superior work in Pinot Noirs. Lesser known has been this region's progress in whites, namely, fruity whites with pinot gris, Riesling or Chardonnay varietals. The latter two remain somewhat on the fruity side, albeit improving. The real up and comers are bottles of pinot gris, which are drier and make for versatile wines with Hawai'i food. It's no real surprise that it's the pinot gris that's doing well, as the gris grape is a cousin to the pinot noir, which does so well in Oregon. Cooper Mountain makes some great value pinot gris, as does King Estate ($15 to $20).

Have Feedback? Suggestions? Email us!

,August

Also in this issue: