Anything Goes, Anyone Can Go There

What’s new in wines and spirits.

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’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.

trends include Italian prosecco, like this one from Ruggeri;

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

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’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.

we drink Hawai’i

dessert wines like Buller & Sons Fine Muscat;

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.

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).

whites continue to rule

-surprise-California cabernets, back in fashion

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

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).