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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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Expanding search parameters has also proved to be an effective strategy for smaller neighborhood-style restaurants, such as Chinatown’s Livestock Tavern. The year-old restaurant, which was a finalist in the Hale ‘Ainas for Best Wine Program, sees plenty of regular guests who come in two or three times a week for its accessible menu of seasonal comfort food. “They’re not going to spend $100 on a wine every time,” says beverage director Mike Nishikawa, “so if we can find that $12 glass of wine that still has value and quality, that’s our goal.”


When creating a concise two-page list, he says the good choices tend not to be the obvious ones. 


For example, there is no pinot grigio or California cabernet sauvignon by the glass. Instead, Nishikawa offers wines with a similar taste profile but less name recognition, which means the list might need some translation at the table. “It’s not so much teaching as sharing,” Nishikawa says.


His excitement about offbeat wines is contagious. “It’s fun to put an Assyrtiko on the list and let [customers] experience that,” he says. Other solid picks include Andrea Occhipinti “Alter Ego” Aleatico from Lazio, Italy ($40) and Stolpman Syrah from Santa Ynez Valley, California ($60). “[The emphasis on wine lists] definitely has changed from your Opus One and things like that to these cool wines that people may not have heard of.”


One challenge Nishikawa faces: Because of Livestock’s casual setting, his customers often are not concerned with specific wine pairings. “I try to find wines that have balance and acidity that match well with food, so if one person is having fish and another is having meat, the wine won’t overpower anything,” he says. “Acidity is the key to that.”


In contrast, at Chef Mavro on King Street, wine pairing is essential to the experience. The restaurant’s wine program, which was a finalist in the Hale ‘Aina Best Wine Program category and has only by-the-glass pairings for its set menu—read: no physical wine list—may be unconventional, but allows Mavrothalassitis to highlight wines that might be overlooked. He doesn’t want less obvious picks to lose out: “If I put a bottle of beautiful wine from Oregon [on a list], [I wouldn’t be able to] serve it because everyone is going to drink something else.” 


His selling point for naysayers: The pairings have been relentlessly test driven. Each pairing pick is determined by vote from the food and wine committee, made up of 25 to 30 members of his staff, who blind taste each dish with a succession of five different wines chosen by his sommelier.


Mavrothalassitis says the trial format helps him keep an open mind when it comes to finding the perfect match for his intensely seasonally driven menu, whether it be pinot noir with a lobster dish, daigingo sake for raw hamachi or, as he recently found, a classic French red blend for an Indian-style curry on his early fall menu this year. 


Mavrothalassitis cares so much about food/wine pairings, he’s even willing to modify some of his dishes, toning down the trickier elements to bring out the best in a wine. When crafting a curry dish, for example, instead of the spicy heat that is commonly associated with Indian curries, Mavro chose vadouvan, which has a milder flavor from French influences in colonial Pondicherry. After a first iteration of the dish didn’t yield a perfect wine match, Mavro added almond milk to finish the sauce. “It made the [texture] like velvet, very soft,” he says. “And suddenly the best pairing was a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so you can’t say wine doesn’t work with Asian food.”


Overall, Mavrothalassitis is much more positive about the wine culture in Hawai‘i now than when he arrived in the 1980s. “More and more I see menus with wine lists,” he says. “People are starting to see the light—everything is going in the right direction.”



Pro Tips: How to Find the Best Bottles

Know the style of wine you like 

With the foundations of the wine world shifting so quickly, getting attached to one grape, one region or one producer can limit your options. A better bet: Know the style of wine you like and ask the sommelier if there’s anything similar. At Livestock Tavern, for instance, beverage director Mike Nishikawa doesn’t have a California cabernet by the glass, but he does have a Grenache-Syrah blend that might impress you. “If you’re looking for that [California cabernet] style of wine, you’ll probably like this wine,” he says. (And if you have trouble remembering names or notes about what you like, consider storing pictures of labels or notes on a wine on your smartphone for reference.)


Talk to your sommelier

Sommeliers and wine directors know their lists inside and out, so if you have a question about a grape or producer you’ve never heard of on the wine list, don’t be afraid to speak up. One quick way to start a dialogue: Ask your sommelier what he or she is most excited about on the list right now. With inventory changing so quickly, there’s a good chance you’ll uncover a new gem. 


Try by the glass

The conventional wisdom about ordering wine by the glass says it’s a waste—the bottle might not be fresh, the price point might be inflated. But savvy restaurateurs are putting real effort into by-the-glass programs, which means more options for diners. At Lahaina Grill, for example, sommelier Richard Olson uses the Coravin preservation system, which means he can extract wine without actually uncorking the bottle, which helps preserve the wine. “It allows us to pour rare and expensive wine by 2-ounce, 4-ounce and 6-ounce pours,” says Olson. On the list now: a 1999 Sassicaia and a 2009 Marcassin chardonnay.


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