It’s virtually impossible to step foot on one of the picturesque Hawaiian islands and not crave a Mai Tai. Sunshine and the sea seem to demand it. Last year, 94,225 Royal Mai Tais were consumed at the Mai Tai Bar, attached to the famous pink Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
But wine has its place in paradise, too. Of the first 10 American sommeliers to pass the Master Sommelier examination, five called Hawaii home at some point. They helped create an enduring wine culture across the islands since the 1970s.
“The inspiration starts then,” says Chuck Furuya, owner of Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar. In 1988, he became the 10th person in the United States to earn a Master Sommelier certification. Furuya says that around 1993, there were 16 people in the nation who passed the Advanced Sommelier Certificate. Eight were from Hawaii.
Despite being far removed from what many consider wine country, Hawaii also boasts a handful of homegrown wineries. Spanning Maui to Oahu and the Big Island, Hawaii is unique for its production of fruit wines. However, the islands are also home to a number of traditional vineyards, crafting everything from Viognier to Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Malbec and Grenache.
“Hawaii is well-known, but geographically speaking, is very isolated,” says Matthew Nelson, a sommelier at Pai Honolulu. “Beer, spirits and big-name wines are more familiar to consumers, so it can contribute to guests being somewhat reluctant to move away from what they’ve heard of or tried already and explore new or less-known selections, particularly when you’re asking them to commit to a bottle for the table.”
Hawaii is a food-driven community. Wine is a natural extension of that.
“Both professionals and consumers here are realizing more and more how necessary it is to appreciate and know more about [wine],” says Nelson.
With lush wineries, mind-blowing wine lists and hidden gems, here’s your guide to the wine scene of Hawaii, island by island.
Hawaii may be secluded, but its deep sommelier culture is fully represented on Oahu. Tucked away in downtown’s Harbor Court building, locals flock to Pai Honolulu for chef Kevin Lee’s famous happy hour, served Tuesday to Saturday from 5–6 pm.
Expect dishes like brisket bao buns, buttermilk fried oyster mushrooms and customizable charcuterie boards. Sommelier Matt Nelson will help you find the perfect pairing.
Nelson’s favorite of the moment? Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile.
“Many people will have experienced either that type of wine, or that region, but often not together,” he says. “It has dark fruit and oak, and everything else that a Napa Valley Cab drinker looks for. But those aspects don’t overshadow the other fantastic aspects of the grape.”
However, he stresses the broad appeal of Pai’s wine program. “If you’re not a wine geek, you’re still having a fantastic experience,” says Nelson.
In Honolulu, Furuya offers an eclectic selection at Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar. The wine list is one-part familiar, with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cab Sauv, Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux and so on. However, Furuya takes the rest of his list even further.
“For the other half, we look to feature wines from the Mediterranean basin, celebrating indigenous grapevines and family-owned wineries,” says Furuya. “We try hard to work with families who own and farm the vineyards, use heirloom [and] heritage vines, and that farm sustainably.”
Try the Domaine de Marquiliani Rosé Gris from the island of Corsica, which Furuya describes as having a “light and weightless” profile. Or have a pour of the Catherine & Pierre Breton Grolleau, a rustic red from the Loire Valley. Furuya often wanders from table to table, where he shares wine knowledge and admittedly bad jokes.
At 12th Ave Grill, a neighborhood staple in the Kaimuki neighborhood, Wine and Beverage Director Rick Lilley’s program is a result of extensive travel coupled with a passion for good wine. “His [wine] list is diverse and he also gets lots of the small one-offs that make it to Hawaii,” says Lyle Railsback, a wine merchant for Kermit Lynch and Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 honoree, who provides some of the restaurant’s offerings.
Pop into the Halekulani hotel, where Kevin Toyama directs the wine list, to discover small-production wine finds. A focused, expertly curated list is filled with producers like Domaine de Reuilly, Drew Family Wine and Au Bon Climat Winery, to name a few. Toyama’s aim is to allow diners to indulge in wines they wouldn’t normally encounter.
In Market City Shopping Center, Fujioka’s Wine Times is a well-kept secret amongst locals. Jason Fukeda, the shop’s manager, stocks a variety of well-known and obscure wine labels, offering one of the most standout wine selections across the islands. Saturday wine tastings and seminars occur regularly.
In Kailua, stop by Oeno Winemaking, which claims to be the only winery on Oahu crafting 100% natural wines. There, visitors can learn how wines are blended, aged and fermented. Guests can also get in on the process, helping create their own wines with Oneo’s staff. After fermentation is complete, they can return to bottle, cork and label their custom creation.
Hawaii (Big Island)
Peter Merriman’s flagship, Merriman’s Waimea, one of Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Restaurants of 2019, remains an icon for Hawaiian cuisine and an extensive, award-winning wine list. Its “wine flight du fortnight,” a rotating flight of four themed wines, is worth the splurge. Expect eclectic offerings like Turley Wine Cellars White Coat and Bruno Giacosa Roero Arneis DOCG. The list also offers a wide variety of white wine options perfect for a warm Hawaiian day.
In Waimea, the unassuming Kamuela Liquor Store, founded in 1946, is led by wine collector Alvin Wakayama. The shop will provide a reasonably priced surprise for visitors who seek a bottle to pair with a sunset. Wine and cheese tastings take place on Fridays and Saturdays.
Adventure and wine await inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. A night at Volcano House, perched on the rim of Kilauea’s Halemaumau crater, gives guests ample time to explore and check out Volcano Winery on the drive back to the coast. There, guests can taste eight wines grown on the 4,000-foot slopes of Mauna Loa. Look for unique bottlings made from the Symphony grape, a crossing of Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris.
Take the eastern route back to Kona and stop at Holuakoa Gardens, in the artsy town of Holualoa. Known for its commitment to the slow-food movement, it offers a seasonal menu alongside affordable wines. Don’t get too attached to favorites though, as the owners bring in new wines on a regular basis.
MauiWine is set amid 60 acres of rolling hills in the lush countryside. In 1974, the winery began as a partnership between C. Pardee Erdman, owner of Ulupalakua Ranch, and Emil Tedeschi, who came from a family of winemakers in Calistoga, California.
Pineapple wine started as a fluke in the mid-1970s, but it quickly turned into an overnight phenom. Maui Blanc, Maui Splash and Hula O Maui, a floral, fruity and zesty sparkling wine, make up the trio of pineapple wines offered here.
The winery also produces everything from Viognier, Syrah and Malbec, to a sparkling rosé made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay called Lokelani. Book a private tasting in the old jail that once served as Capt. James Makee’s office. Try special library releases, unreleased wines and exclusive bottlings not available in the regular tasting room.
Mill House, a farm-driven restaurant set amidst the Maui Tropical Plantation, is known for delicious cocktails, but don’t overlook the wine list.
“Many guests are accustomed to drinking their red wine at a warmer temperature back on the mainland, at least warmer than a sommelier may recommend,” says Amanda Hall, the restaurant’s director of communications, marketing and education. “We are trying to pave the way by introducing guests to cooler reds by offering wines like chilled Schiava or chilled Etna Rosso, by the glass.”
Since an overly sweet, sugary cocktail in the heat is a recipe for a hangover, Hall recommends a cold Bandol rosé or a crisp Alsatian white wine for a perfect island pour.
If you need a break from seafood, Matteo’s Osteria, in Wailea, is a true expression of Italian cuisine. Matteo Mistura, born and raised in Liguria, Italy, offers 60 wines by the glass in this charming, off-the-beaten-path eatery. The daily happy hour highlights interesting Italian wines at a 20% discount, and a mouthwatering $8 menu of stuzzichini, or snacks.
A scenic drive to the North Shore, in Hanalei, leads to a tiny landing of charming restaurants. Bar Acuda makes for an excellent date night. Its wine list, half of which is offered by the glass, features small producers from Italy, France, Spain, Oregon and California. It also places an emphasis on Rhône grape varieties to pair with the restaurant’s Provence-inspired dishes. The menu aims to feature wineries that practice sustainable, organic or biodynamic farming.
On the way to the airport, stop by La Spezia, in Old Koloa Town, for one last meal. The restaurant is notable for its cocktails, but the by-the-glass wine list is the real star. Start with a Sicilian white like Donnafugata Anthìlia alongside the antipasti and Castelvetrano olives. There’s a rotating list of 20-plus offerings by the glass, or a bottle list with more than 100 labels. The waitstaff is also happy help setup an impromptu wine pairing based on your food selection.