Maui Wine Tour & Review

Wayward Wine has wandered out of its natural element the last few posts.  Apologies.  We are in Maui. We have tried pineapple and sugar cane spirits at Hali’imaile Distillery (read here), Ocean Vodka (read here), and just toured O’o Coffee Farm (read here).

We learned that Maui’s sugar cane empire collapsed last year.  The island has yet to find a viable agricultural alternative.  Could wine production save it?  California, Oregon, and Washington have found wine a lucrative shift. Could Maui?

Another thing: leave the resorts if you want to find anything interesting.  All the cool farms, goats, and grapes grow upcountry in the hills starting at around 3,000 feet above sea level.

Itching with caffeine after O’O’s coffee farm tour, we drive deeper into Maui.  Finally, Wayward Wine has found a real, vineyard-bound, winery at Maui Wine in Ulupalakua.

Dad Baby Maui Winery Entrance

We start with the winery tour.  The tasting room and facilities all sit within a renovated ranch.  Various trees soar above and shade us.  The grounds retain a faded, crumbling, gilded age glory.  Since 1845, royal processions, peacock feasts, gambling, sugar production, dances, and cattle ranching have rolled through its plantation buildings.  Even Mark Twain partied here.

But in 1974, Emil Tedeschi from Napa, flew over the site, decided vines like nice views, and worked with C Pardee Edman to plant vinifera grapes.  A strange hybrid called Carnelian from UC Davis won out over 140 varieties. Yet Chardonnay and Zinfandel still range wild throughout the hills.

Now every, and I mean every wine map shows that grapes should not grow this near the equator.

Wine Regions

Purple places are happy places



Hawaii is too hot, humid, and constant.  Even over 3,000 feet above sea level, there are no seasons.  Thus vines can’t cycle through their normal winter dormancy into Spring and ripen by a Fall.  Also, Maui’s volcanic soil is too rich to strain vines into quality fruit production. But more on those grapes later.
In 1977, while Tedeschi waited on vines to mature, he experimented with pineapples. People loved the result.
Today, Maui Wine’s pineapple wine keeps the lights on.  They churn out 20,000 cases a year of pineapple wine: 80% of production.  Each month, 30 tons of pineapple get crushed in a fabulous bladder press:
Bladder press MAUI Winery
Even Hali’imaile distillery relies on this press for their pineapple spirit.  Leftover husks feed the ranch’s cows and fertilize the vineyard’s soil.
The winery itself, a former dairy, looks like most old buildings on Maui.
Maui Shed Winery
But peer inside and you will find the expected temperature-controlled stainless tanks, refurbished from dairy equipment:
Tanks Maui Winery
Through the 1980s, Tedeschi fought to perfect Traditional Method, aka Champagne method, sparkling wine with grapes on Maui.  His Brut even ended up at Reagan’s 1985 inauguration.
After ownership shifts, Tedeschi’s methods and legacy led to a surprising success in 1994: a Méthode Champenoise, sparkling Pineapple Brut wine called “Hula O Maui“:
Hula o Maui Sparkling Pineapple Wine
Imagine a Brut Champagne but made with pineapples. It’s APPEARANCE looks a pale gold with medium-sized, rapid rushing bubbles.  AROMAS smell of ripe pineapples, lemon, nuts, and steel. The PALATE feels dry, with crisp, medium plus acidity, a lithe medium minus body, and a crackling, zippy texture. FLAVORS taste of medium intensity, yup, golden pineapple juice, lemon, salt, and sugar crystal that carry a medium plus length.
Now, context is king, we ate a lot of fish and drank many a Mai Tai, but this fizz is very good (4 of 5). We bought three in Maui and never spent over $20.00.
But back to grape wine.
My wife, ever the hero, sat down on the tasting room veranda with our fussy six month old, Alexandria.  I left them with rosé.  Then, I rushed to Maui Wine’s “Old Jail” for a tasting of their estate-only reserve grape wines.
Maui Winery Prison Shed.jpg
150 years ago, this “Old Jail” provided gilded age partiers with a sober tank to throw unruly partiers into.  You know that person.
Today, Maui Wine grows 16 acres of real actual wine grapes (23 acres to play with) on mile marker 21 on king’s stop.  1997 marked replanting of more warm-climate-friendly syrah, malbec, grenache, viognier, gewurztraminer, and chenin blanc.  To trick vines into dormancy, heavy cutting and cropping fake winter.  Harvests also have to happen in June through August.
After a recent renovation, Maui Wine now offers a reserve estate tasting here.  Our guide is Ken.  He spreads Cyprus Grove goat cheese on crackers, pours mixed nuts into ramekins, while guests settle in for their $25 tasting.
Prison Interior Maui Winery
Ken starts with Maui Wine, Chenin, Blanc de Blanc, Methode Champenoise, Brut 2014
Yes, Chenin Blanc, a Loire Valley staple, sweating it out in Maui. Maui planted Chenin in 1998. Because all this defies the laws of physics, sanity, and geography, their Chenin harvest happens in June.  Yes, June.  Otherwise,  increasing heat would kill acidity, overblow ripeness, and thus alcohol.  But how is it?
Sparkling Chenin Maui Winery
The APPEARANCE is a mild gold with a fine pearl of fizz. AROMAS jump out with sulfur…sigh…I advise Ken to decant.  Luckily, after a few swirls honeydew melon, lime, and white blossom take over. The PALATE is off dry, with zipper-like acidity and a lean body. FLAVORS taste clean, correct, and of lime, salt, melon, light yeast, and water cracker. Maui Wine’s Chenin Brut is dry, tight, and a touch wild: very good (4 of 5).
Next, Ken whips out 2014’s still Chenin Blanc.
Again APPEARANCES look bright and lemon-like. AROMAS shed the sulfur matchstick over time to show lime, brine, and lemon. The PALATE is off dry, of medium acidity and body, with notable viscosity.  FLAVORS taste mild and soft with honey dew melon leading.  I respect it (after it breaths) and want to love it. But Maui’s still Chenin Blanc is only Good (3 of 5) $32.00 95 cases.
So, whites work on here the edge of the known world. Onto reds.
Maui Winery Grenache present
Grenache: a Mediterranean grape that could handle the heat makes for a good choice. 72 cases came off Maui’s vines in 2015.
Udlupalakua Vineyards, Grenache, Maui County, 2015
APPEARANCES look promising, with a bright, purple core, ruby rimmed meniscus and noted legs. AROMAS waft intensely with white pepper, forest floor, and raspberry jam but devolve into red bell pepper and fox musk.  I flashback to upstate New York.  The PALATE feels dry, with medium acidity, mild tannins, an even 13.1% alcohol, and medium body. Maui Wine’s 2015 Grenache tastes risk-averse, mellow, vanilla stave-driven but underripe and suffering from native yeasts.  It is good (3 of 5) $45 65 cases.
Grenache Malbec Maui Winery
Udlupalakua Vineyards, Malbec, Maui County 2015 $45 141 cases
APPEARANCE: a clear, deeper purple core, with ruby edge and lux legs. AROMAS smell intense, musky, minty, vanilla iced, over a current of pomegranate. The PALATE feels a bit more muscular than the Grenache, with medium tannins, acids, alcohols, and a fine dust texture. FLAVORS taste of dried purple fruits, plum, musk, bell pepper, white pepper. Maui Wine’s Malbec is very good (4 of 5) but lacks edge.
So, is tasting four wines for $25 in Maui’s Prison tasting worth it?  I would suggest including their full line up and decanting a bit.  But on an academic level, certainly.  They remind me of extreme sites like the Finger Lakes or Ontario.  Also like those cool climates, ripeness and muskiness present problems.
Maui Wine’s regular tasting room offers their Syrah ($38), which is good (3 of 5) but also shows this gaminess. They get around it with their Mele Red ($17) and Lokelani Sparkling Rose ($28) that blend their wild grapes with roughly half Californian fruit.  They also offer still pineapple wines of various sweetness levels.
Maui is trying to make wine far past the edge of plausibility.  This is truly wayward wine.  The concept of terroir is unavoidable.  The Chenin Blanc Brut is tight and impressively clean, while the still Chenin, Grenache, Syrah, and Malbec will reset your previous conceptions.
At the end of a hot day though, Maui Wine’s Hula O Maui Pineapple Brut is the perfect way to wind down with the sunset.
Maui Sunset
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Happy Father’s Day: Wine Recommendation Croad Vineyards Petite Sirah Paso Robles 2012

Happy Father’s Day!

As a newly minted member of the dad club, it behoves me to recommend a wine to gift those dads out there. You can break the bank, if desired. But if you want him to actually open it on the day without spiraling into guilt-ville: think solid but not over-extravagant, drinkable now, keep it under $100, and if grilling is in this weekend’s plans, think red.

Heck, think this:


Croad Vineyards, perched high in Paso Robles’ cooler West Side, has an amazing view:

Croad View


The mission style complex made for a killer family member’s wedding a few years back:

Croad Wedding.jpg

The winery make many solid quality wines for reasonable prices. But I would suggest dad would love this:

Croad Vineyards, Petite Sirah, Paso Robles CA 2012 $42

Croad Petite Sirah Paso Robles 2012

APPEARANCE: A clear, medium intense ruby purple core with a shimmering ruby edge, and tinted red tears.

AROMAS: First, a heady black cherry liquor wafts over all aromas, candied orange peel folding into duskier notes of dried rose petals, dried mint leaf, and dried madagascar vanilla .

The PALATE leads off with round ripe fruit, but do not be fooled, this is a dry red, with medium acidity, medium round tannins, cozy sweater alcohol, a plump body, and a viscous lightly dusted texture.

FLAVORS recall black cherry but as syrup, with a light drizzle of molasses, candied orange, finishing with sea salt and that dried mint and floral component.

CONCLUSIONS: Croad’s 2012 Petite Sirah is ready to drink now, but has another five years in it.  It is very good quality (4 of 5) but since single variety Petite Sirah is rare, Croad’s is a treat.  It drinks big but easily without food.  However, it has stuffing to hold up to a range of grilled meats.  Yet the tannins are soft and ripe enough even for the spicy veggie stir fry I threw together.

Croad Petite Sirah Food

So, this Dad’s Day, do something different.

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Buzzing at O’o Coffee Plantation Farm Tour Maui, Hawaii

Our Maui drinks tour continues.  After we tried good distilled downers at Hali’imaile (read here) and Ocean Vodka (read here), today we wake to caffeinated uppers at a coffee plantation.  I could give up wine (probably). But coffee was my first true love (aka addiction).  Now in Maui, we have a chance to tiptoe through the coffee bean tulips.

O’o Farms offers a “Seed to Cup” farm tour and breakfast for $58.  So with baby in toe, we drive up valley into deep, steep, Maui Upcountry.  Situated 3,500 feet above sea level, O’o hides in the cool, damp, cloud line. Nights drop to 35 degrees fahrenheit: ideal for coffee.  At first, it looks like an abandoned hut village in Vietnam:

O O Shack Vietnam

Not your typical plantation

But here, eight employees farm a wee eight acres biodynamically.  In 2000, surfer/restauranteurs, Louis Coulombe and Stephan Bel-Robert bought O’o to supply their fancy hotel restaurant empire in Lahaina, including Pacific’O, The Feast at Lele, and Aina Gourmet Market.  The 1.5 acres vegetable farm looks adorably like home, with a better view:


O O Farm Plants


We walk into their orchards of strange Chinese fruit and hybrid lemons:


O O Lemons

Oo! Stipey!

Then, finally, the coffee bushes emerge in chunky rows, like muppets, rolling down the hill.

O O Coffee Plant Rows

They’re excited to see us.

The plants bloom and fruit year round, peaking production in summer.  O’o’s eight employees harvest twice a week. Five major varieties of bean grow here.

Red Cautai is the most grown, named for its red berries. We eat a few. They feel gummy, taste mildly sweet, like a red apple raspberry juice, with a light peppery note.

RED CAUTAI Coffee bean OO

Red Cautai coffee berries


Yellow Cattura berries look plumper and, well, yellow when ripe. They taste more like white-melon and pear.

Yellow Cattura coffee bean

Yellow Cattura coffee beans

Typica coffee bushes are the tallest with big red fruits, which taste like bell pepper and red cherry.  O’o also grows Mokka, and Bourbon varieties. Fun fact: their bee hive increases coffee production by 17%!

Dad Baby Coffee Farm

What child labor?

After pretending to harvest, and getting an odd numbing sensation in our palates, we head to the roasting facility.

O O Coffee Processing

Beans then ferment and shed skin in buckets for days. Floaters get tossed. Next a fancy machine removes those tasty, fruity surroundings in 15 minutes (by hand it takes two hours) .

Soaking Beans

High tech.

The clean beans then go into dry racks in what looks like an old incubator. Once dried they get sorted on mesh racks.

Bean Sorting OO


Ugly or cracked beans get tossed into compost, while the rest get immortalized in the roaster. Inside their fire engine red roaster, they wait for the first and second crack of the beans (like popcorn), watch color, and keep the drum rotating.  At first this place smelled of lemongrass, becoming blanched almond, and finally dark toffee. Once ready, beans get released to cool down:

No crying babies were harmed in the filming of this video, promise!

So, how does all this hard work taste?

We try French press versions of the main varieties.

O O Coffee cup Red Catawa

Red Cautui in a cup

Red Cautui: The color is ruby-cored, amber-edge and hazy. Aromas smell of toffee, toasted nuts, dried cherries. The palate has pretty bright acidity, medium tannins, extra caffein, and a leanness about it. Flavors taste bright, peachy, vinous, even red wine-like. Very good (4 of 5) especially as an espresso!

Yellow Cattura: smells of dried fig, tobacco leaf, black tea and potpourri. It feels soft, round, with low acidity, moderate tannin, average caffeine.  Flavors retain a dried fig fruit leather of medium length. It is very good (4 of 5).

Mokka: has a dark lemon edged color, smells and tastes of black cherry liquor, cocoa powder, tobacco, stout-like. It is dry and intense, with medium plus acidity, extra tannin, and oodles of caffeine. It is outstanding (5 of 5), but a bit much as a daily drinker.

Already itching like heroin addicts on caffein, we get more coffee with a custom breakfast.  We sit at a long table, beneath vines, with three other couples.

Farm Chef Daniel Eskelsen walks us through his coffee pairings with seasonal produce.

Chef OO Breakfast Today, gluten free crepes made with their own eggs, potatoes, and sweet potatoes garnished with fresh greens emerges, paired with Yellow Cattura coffee in drip form:

Breakfast OO

Food pornography

Homemade, wood oven baked honey biscuits made with coffee fruit fill baskets. Arugula, roasted plantains, and some sort of magic hummus form the next course of delights.

Breakfast Second OO

Magic salad

I think there was more. But by now caffeine is re-etching my brain like ants in a sand castle.  Everything spins and twitches.  Foolishly, I remember ordering a cappuccino of Red Cautui and then jittering my way back to the car.

Once my head centers itself, I ponder this quaint farm O’o. Maui imports most of its food.  Can each hotel have a wee farm run by hipsters to support it? Will it, like the distilleries, provide a model to save Maui’s agriculture?  Well, under O’o’s Aina label, you start by paying $26.50 for 16 ounces of beans.  You can buy 16 oz of Folgers Coffee for $10, $13 for Starbucks.  However, O’o makes primo, biodynamic, small lot stuff.  It does taste amazing and you know exactly where it comes from. But are we willing to pay double or triple for our coffee? Can this be coffee’s Champagne to our daily wine?  I hope so.

Next post, we go to balance our buzz with wine, yes wine, grown and made at Maui Winery. Finally, wine!



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Mini Champagne Off

We have a few splits of Champagne left over from my Christmas gift to the wife. We can’t feel as guilty since they’re half bottles, so we open them for a side by side comparison.

Guess which one is so tired it’s dead….yup, the Pommery may end up as our second most expensive cooking wine yet.

The Laurent Perrier and Perrier Jouet both are lovely. LP is crisp, lemony, strawberried, and fun.  PJ is vibrant as well, but a touch sharper, less sweet, frothier, and a bit more biscuity, vanilla laced, and right now more complex and interesting.

Well 2 outta 3 ain’t bad.

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Ocean Vodka: Maui Drinks Part 2

We continue Part Two of our drinking adventure through Maui.  As mentioned in the last distillery review (read here), Maui has a problem.  The sugar cane monopoly collapsed last year. Now endless fields of sugar cane run wild across this Hawaiian island. Can a boutique drinks industry salvage or even transform the island’s economy?

But first, lunch.

Lightly buzzing from our tasting at Haliimaile Distillery, we check out the nearby glass art factory, skip the food truck and far too fancy “deli”. Instead, we search the net for something not awash with tourists. Luckily, master sushi maker, Kojima saves us, green tea cleanses along with some of the best unagi within memory.

Daughter picks out which raw fish she wants.

We pop by Surfing Goat Dairy for a fresh yet varied cheese tasting, risky goat petting, and then we roll deeper uphill to Maui’s other spirit producer: Ocean.

Ocean quickly set sights on one market with one product: organic vodka. I can’t name an organic vodka.  This could work.

Just above a cliff’s edge, on a grassy plateau, stands Ocean’s new red shed.  Once a cattle ranch, cane fields now cover the ground.

Cane Sugar Ocean

Organic thinking lines everything from their single estate cane sugar farm, to solar panels, to water reclamation, to chickens that roam the property, like everywhere on Maui, eating pests and fertilizing the canes.

The canes get dehusked thanks to a fancy mill which looks disturbingly tidy.

The custom continuous still tower pops stories out  the roof, subjecting the cane sugar to twenty passes (most vodka go three or four).  Ocean’s goal is to cut any head or tail that might give their vodka the slightest edge.

Once sugar becomes alcohol, it needs to be watered down to standard 40% alcohol.  But tap water on Maui varies immensely.  So Ocean sources the purest possible water from the Big Island, strangely sent in massive bag in boxes that get reused.

A pot still makes a small bit of their white rum.

Like everything, Ocean’s bottling line looks immaculate to the point of obsessive compulsive. Once filled, their Japanese float-like bottles enter and leave in the same box to avoid waste.

So, what does all this commitment to uber premium vodka taste like?

Making a $12 tour out of one or two products asks a lot of Ocean’s staff.  I feel like I am at a mini Opus One again.  Luckily, our guide could go for days.  He may also be the first person who proudly drinks vodka neat.  It feels a touch ridiculous, but he walks us through a three step tasting: first neat to ground our palates, then again to analyze it, and finally with a water splash to open it and cut the edge.

Admittedly, Ocean vodka is silken, viscous, round, and warm with narry a harsh thing to say about anyone.  If you squint extremely hard, a wee bit of soft water, aniseed, pineapple, and salinity emerge.  It may be the cleanest vodka I have tried (very good 4 of 5) but it is still vodka. $33 dollars will get you a 750ml bottle, but $5 dollars will get you an adorable, pocket-sized 50ml float bottle at most gift shops.

Their white rum seems similarly soft, but glows heavy with mango, coconut, and vanilla syrup flavors. Not my thing but good (3 of 5). I look forward to their rumored gin.

Ocean kills it on the islands. Their blue bobbles stack high in Costco and hang like register candy at ABC stores and groceries.  They have strategically and smartly wedged into the West Coast as well.

So, choose: anodyne, organic vodka pe‏rfection or a style mashup to fit every bar’s needs?  Both Haliimaile and Ocean do local well, just for different ends.  Neither will save Maui’s dying agriculture.  Automation, gentrification, globalization, and land costs have simply rendered sugar as unprofitable.  However, both distilleries point to paths of premium products that may keep people and land working.

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