Kapalua Wine & Food Festival: sunshine, surf and sommeliers
“It’s the sommelier’s secret,” smiled Richard Betts, cellar guru of The Little Nell, as he took a healthy swig of – get this – a lite beer. True, it was a Sam Adams Lighthouse. But still, surrounded by tables laden with wine, one would expect that Betts, a Master Sommelier, would toast the sun – setting in spectacular fashion over the island of Lanai just across the channel from Kapalua – with something made from grapes rather than grain. Ah, but pacing is the most important thing a sommelier can do when faced with three straight days of the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival. And, as an expert, Betts knew the rules.For three perfect days each July, The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, and the Kapalua Bay Hotel on the western shore of the Hawaiian Island of Maui are turned into the ultimate summer camp for foodies. Over the past 23 years (that’s one year longer than the Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen), chefs, winemakers, eaters and imbibers have been flocking to Kapalua to enjoy the best things that life has to offer. The combination of sunshine, a rocky coast, fresh produce, just-caught fish and the finest of wines has made this a must-stop for those who enjoy La Dolce Vita.This summer, the festival lived up to the La Dolce Vita billing as it officially sub-titled the event as “Salute to Italy and the World’s Great Wine Regions.”While the Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen is impressive in its sheer size and star power, the cachet of the Kapalua Wine and Food Festival has much more to do with the intimacy of the event. The accessibility of the chefs and sommeliers allows even the most reserved lover of food and wine to question, talk with, and yes, even go snorkeling with the people who make the presentations. While Aspen is a resort town, Kapalua is simply a resort destination. It almost seems that once you make the turn off the Honoapiilani Highway and enter the lush surroundings of the pineapple plantation turned posh resort, you are on a different planet – one that is self-contained and surrounded by arguably the most prestigious golf courses in a state known as a Mecca for swingers.Visitors need not leave the confines of Kapalua during the course of the Festival. Presentations are made in the ballrooms. Winemaker’s dinners take place in the resort restaurants. Tennis and golf tournaments are a short walk from the two host hotels.The FoodPerhaps the biggest difference between the Aspen and Kapalua events is that, in Kapalua, you get to eat the food. That’s right, the presenting chefs, who this year included Roy Yamaguchi, a local boy made good; Suzette Gresham, who may be the most knowledgeable Italian chef this side of Florence; and Celestino Drago, who serves simple Italian dishes to the complicated palates of Beverly Hills; actually prepare lunch for those in attendance at midday cooking seminars.While chef Yamaguchi’s Pacific Rim-themed dishes highlighted the natural beauty of prime Hawaiian ahi, Kula tomatoes and sweet Maui onions, it was Gresham who earned raves. Gresham is renowned as a stickler for Italian authenticity at her San Francisco restaurant, Acquerello, and her trio of veal, lamb and Muscovy duck carpaccios was a revelation. She also treated the crowd to Piemontese agnolotti pasta that she’d hand-made and hand-carried with her on the flight from San Francisco. The Wine”Are there any empty glasses?” queried Fred Dame as Gresham’s pasta was served. Dame is the president of the Court of Master Sommeliers and was the official host of this year’s festival. He was making sure that everyone had a full pour of the 2001 Pio Cesare Barbera d’ Alba to compliment Suzette’s masterpiece.As host, Dame was responsible for putting together the schedule and insuring that top talent and wines would appear. Mission accomplished. Not only did Dame produce a panel of three of Piedmont’s great winemakers, who brought along copious amounts of their treasured Barolo and Barbaresco, he also delivered nine of the 109 Master Sommeliers in the world. For wine geeks, this was a little like having the 1927 Yankees show up for a pickup gameThe masters hosted four wine-tasting seminars. The first, kicking things off on a high note, was a vertical tasting of Joseph Phelps’ famed Bordeaux-style wine, Insignia. Eight vintages, from 1976 to 2001, were poured and pondered by Phelps winemaker Craig Williams and masters Richard Betts and Fred Dame. It is a rare opportunity to taste these legendary wines. To sit at a table with eight Riedel glasses filled to the shoulder, lined up in chronological order, with a quarter century worth of living history was a privilege.Also on the agenda was a tasting of champagnes from France and assorted world-class sparklers from Italy, Spain and California, along with a seminar that compared new and old vintages of some popular California wines. But the standout seminar of the three-day event took place in The Ritz-Carlton at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, a time that finds many Italians in church. But that was not the case for Chiara Boschis, Giorgio Rivetti and Pio Boffa, three of the most accomplished winemakers from Northern Italy’s Barolo region.These three had brought their outstanding nebbiolo-based Barbarescos and Barolos for the tasting pleasure of the audience. The wines were stunning and amazingly different, especially considering the proximity of the vineyards where many of them were born. A delightful conversation evolved between the Italians, the masters and California winemaker Michael Martini. Martini challenged the contention that Barolo tastes like Barolo because it comes from Barolo. “What is it,” Martini asked “that makes these wines so special? Are you suggesting that if nebbiolo grapes were grown elsewhere in similar conditions and the same techniques for making the wine were utilized that a quality wine in the Barolo style would not be the outcome?””That is right,” shrugged Boffa with a wave of his hand. “Barolo is about the soil, and so is the wine.”Still not hearing an answer that fit, Martini inquired further. “So what is so special about the soil? Have you done composition studies?”Here the Italians became, well, Italian. They looked at each other with bemused expressions and Boffa answered: “Of course. We have done many studies over the decades. We cannot find what is so special about the soils we grow our grapes in.” And then he hit Martini with the answer he did not want to hear. “It’s just special,” he shrugged. “That is all.”The eventsEach evening, the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival offered a plethora of activities for attendees and locals alike. Winemaker dinners offered an opportunity to sample some of the resorts top restaurants, with special menus created by local chefs paired with wines from around the world. In the open-air, beach-front Banyan Tree Restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, for example, Australian chef Antony Scholtmeyer prepared a menu highlighted by a peppered venison loin from the nearby island of Lanai, garnished with a plum relish and chocolate sauce. Scholtmeyer, who has been tabbed by Food & Wine Magazine as a chef to watch, poured Kirralaa Wines, a Robert Mondovi Australian label, with his inspired menu.The hot spot for the winemakers and sommeliers, however, was the restaurant Vino (no surprise there), created by Hawaiian Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya and chef D.K. Kodama (see story on page B2). Vino featured a buffet dinner with wines from Pira Boschis, La Spinetta and Pio Cesare. Basically, the room turned into a party and, if it wasn’t for the trade winds blowing on the lanai, you could have sworn you were in a Turin enoteca.As is the case in Aspen, the Grand Tastings are the top draw at Kapalua. Each hotel hosts one of the tented events with wine being the focus of the first evening at the Kapalua Bay Hotel, and seafood taking center stage at The Ritz-Carlton on the final night.The sky was on fire for the Grand Tasting on the lawn at the Kapalua Bay Hotel. Sunset would be enticement enough, but the evening was enhanced by more than 150 world-class wines that were being poured by sommeliers, winemakers and distributors. The offerings included such standouts as Crocker Star, Patz & Hall, Quintessa and the outside-of-Aspen debut of Richard Betts’ Betts and Scholl 2001 Barossa Valley Grenache (see story on page B3). For those who paced themselves, the Seafood extravaganza offered visitors one final chance to taste the riches that the Pacific provides. Sixteen of the state’s finest chefs prepared spectacularly fresh fish entrees as each competed for the best in show. While all were delightful, especially with the final glass of Riesling of the weekend, a vote for best single taste of the event must go to the greens that James McDonald of Maui’s Pacific’O grows on his eight-acre farm in Maui’s upcountry region. Fresh as sunshine, peppery, clean and green, they made a garnish a meal.There is an old cliché: Here today, gone to Maui. If you are a lover of food, wine, surf, sun and the people who build their lives around such things, live the cliché.But be sure to pace yourself.
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It might require a little extra preparation, but there’s no need to be afraid of colder months when going out fishing.