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.
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
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.