By Selene Alice Wayne
I wanted to taste a new wine or two but I didn’t want to get burned. I was in the downtown Hilo neighborhood of Grapes: A Wine Store and decided to stop in. Randy, the visionary behind the store, was in. I told him my dilemma and my budget, and he went to work. The wines he chose for me may not be my new favorites, but the experiences divined from these two wines were well worth the visit, and this was a blind wine adventure I will treat myself to again.
Randy and I have gone to a couple wine tastings together, so I feel like I know him a little bit. At a big tasting with many tables and hundreds of wines, he is very focused. He has the map of tables organized with an order to make sure he tastes the wines he’s singled out as priorities. At the smaller, classroom style tastings, he is pure comic relief mixed in with a passionate drive to get the most out of every wine. He knows his stuff. No wine gets in the door of his store without first passing through his glass. I knew walking into the store that even though I didn’t know what I was looking for, he would find something worth tasting for me.
Grapes: A Wine Store is nestled in the strip of cool little shops on Kilauea Avenue between Ponahawai and Mamo Streets . It’s a small space, but it is positively full of wine cases. In a waterfall, bottles overflow from the walls to the aisles and back up into an island of wine. I went in with my kids and told him I trusted his palate. My only qualifier was that I didn’t want to spend more than $40 total on two bottles of wine. I could see the wheels start turning, and somehow I got excited about tasting them before I even knew what they were. Almost immediately, he picks up a tall bottle of white wine. Reisling, of course- I remember Randy swings toward the sweet side of wine. Upon closer inspection, it’s really a gewurztraminer. Ah, keeping me on my toes. He describes it to me, and I suddenly crave tropical fruit and love living around Hilo. The next bottle takes a little while. He walks around his cascading aisles and, then with a finality, he brings the second bottle forward. By this time, my son has started to destroy Randy’s impeccable desk ornaments yet Randy is calm and animated as he describes a few attributes of this second wine. At $30, I came in under budget, and I walked out of there with two bottles of wine I knew were going to be fabulous. Even having to reign my kids in couldn’t keep the smile off my face.
After the wines were sufficiently chilled and enough of my chores were done, I opened the gewurztraminer: 2009 Weingut Eugen Wehrheim Gewurztraminer Spatlese from Germany. The air filled with scents of fruit and flowers. The first taste was powerful and rich. Sweet and full of viscosity, this wine coated my mouth and lingered well after the sip was gone. It was not syrupy but the gewurtz was so full bodied and full of flavor that the sweetness blanketed like a liquid syrup. When describing this wine, Randy said, “Lychee, like the meat right next to the seed,” and that was spot on. The more I drank, the more I couldn’t get that description out of my head. I wasn’t eating anything with it, but was amazed at how easily I thought of pairing it with a nice Hawaiian fruit salad full of lychee or rambutan, papaya and pineapple. A nice spice would also complement this wine fantastically. The sweetness and richness of this wine would cut the heat of any light, uplifting spicy meal. If you are in the mood for a rich sweet wine, this is it. Days after, I still remember an enveloping sweetness that coats but doesn’t lay on too thick.
After a glass of the sweet liquid gold, I opened up Tess Red and White Blend. After learning that it was produced by a pair of sisters from Peju winery lineage, I was truly excited to try it. A long time ago, I visited the Peju Winery in Napa Valley. Maybe it was because it the last winery we visited, maybe it was the great company of family, but I remember the Peju wines were fantastic. I have to admit, this one, upon first try, did not come up to my expectations. After the full-bodied gewurztraminer, I could not nail down this wine. I could taste the white wine backbone but also the berry filled red wine but it wasn’t pink and it was chilled. Not bland but hinting at great flavors. So I quit. Three days later, it was still in my refrigerator and in my mind. How could this one really have fallen flat? I poured myself a glass of Tess again. It is not sweet in the regular sense of the word, but it has sweeter tones to it. It has bright berry flavors but also stone fruit flavors, like plum and nectarine. Looking on the internet, I found it is made of a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petite verdot, zinfandel, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. That white backbone I spoke of smacked of sauvignon blanc, and the berry was downright addicting on Tuesday. Reading the wine’s composition, I figure the merlot gives it fruitiness, the zin gives it a nice red zip, the cab lends its tannins while the chardonnay gives it a body and the sauv blanc brings the stoniness. The website’s tasting note said strawberry, raspberry and watermelon and, though those flavors are definitely present, there is so much more to this wine than berries. The whites really lift this wine to another level.
When I tried the two wines back to back, the encompassing sweet of the first wine worked against the brightness of the second wine. If I was going to try the two wines in one sitting again, I would reverse the order and drink the Tess first and treat the Wehrherim Gewurztraminer more as a dessert wine rather than an opener. In presenting multiple wines, I lean toward putting the sweet wines in front of the full bodied whites like chardonnay and any reds because the delicate white disappears after a robust red. In this case, the gewurtz is so rich that it can stand up to bolder flavors and is, in fact, the fuller bodied of the two wines. Lesson learned and, boy, am I glad I gave Tess a second chance. In the end, I would buy the gewurztraminer again for a specific occasion, such as a paired meal with this wine in mind or sharing with a friend who loves the sweet and the rich. Tess has more maneuverability with regard to meal or taste profile desired. Randy said these two wines must have been made for Hilo and I think he got that right. Whether the weather is chilly and raining or hot and muggy, one of these wines would provide you with a little added cheer to the table.
A big BIG thanks to Randy- your palate sure knows fantastic! Additional postscript: I’m going back to my roots and adopting the original name I started writing with.
Selene Alice Wayne writes from her home in Puna.