Hawai‘i’s Thriving Wine Culture is Going Beyond the Glass
The wines on offer at local restaurants have never been more diverse, more well-suited for our island cuisine, or just plain fun. Here’s why.
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When Provence-born chef George Mavrothalassitis moved to O‘ahu to run the kitchens at the Halekūlani and La Mer 27 years ago, he found the local wine scene challenging. The concept of food and wine pairing, for example, had yet to catch on. When he instituted a six-course tasting menu with by-the-glass pairings—a format he had worked with in France—he bypassed the high-alcohol cabernets and chardonnays that were popular at the time for more food-friendly selections from France, Italy and Spain.
“People were not too happy about that,” he says. “Chef Mavro is a tyrant—he’s going to tell you what to eat and drink,” he says, paraphrasing one review that he found particularly memorable.
But, fast forward three decades, and Hawai‘i’s wine culture is thriving. While trophy bottles—prestige cabernet and first-growth Bordeaux—may always appeal to some, there is a growing sense that the real excitement now lies in the frontiers of the wine world, where cachet comes from pioneering undiscovered regions or seeking out up-and-coming producers. And the best wine lists in Hawai‘i today—from glossy tomes at fine-dining establishments to well-edited one-page lists at neighborhood restaurants—have undergone a quiet evolution to reflect that sensibility, drawing from outside the traditional canon for more interesting picks better suited to our local cuisine and climate.
At Lahaina Grill, a longtime Maui fine-dining institution and a 2016 Hale ‘Aina gold winner for Best Wine Program, sommelier Richard Olson has found a way to straddle both tradition and innovation. The dining room is packed with tourists looking for a white-tablecloth experience and locals celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, and Olson says the wine list is built to suit, with familiar cabernets from Napa powerhouses Schrader and Colgin.
But Olson says he also stacks his 400-selection list with lesser-known producers who he feels represent good value. “It’s the assistant winemakers who are making [their own] wines that are just as good as those other bottles, but at one-third the price,” he says. The resulting list is an intriguing mix of old guard and new wave, with buzzy “new California” producers, including Lioco, Lieu Dit and Tyler Wines getting prime billing next to more established fare, such as Mollydooker and Marcassin.
Olson credits the trio of master sommeliers who live in Hawai‘i—Chuck Furuya, Roberto Viernes and Patrick Okubo—with inspiring him and advancing wine culture in the Islands. “They’re the guys really looking at everything and telling us what’s really getting hot,” he says. Recent discoveries include wines from the Paso Robles region of California (“It’s exploding”) and Washington State wines (“Just blowing up right now”).
Meet the Sommeliers
Vino Italian Tapas and Wine Bar
Young’s Market Company Hawai‘i
Taormina Sicilian Cuisine
Illustrations: Kesley Ige