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.
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.
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:
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.
But peer inside and you will find the expected temperature-controlled stainless tanks, refurbished from dairy equipment:
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“:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.