Nestled on the southwestern slopes of the Haleakala volcano, just past a stretch of white-knuckle switchbacks, near the community of Ulupalakua, lies an oasis. A wine oasis. Yes, a wine oasis in Paradise!
We had been planning a trip to Hawaii, to include a few days on Oahu, then a week on Maui. Knowing that there are now wineries in all 50 states, we turned to Google to find out where might be the Hawaiian wineries. As luck would have it, right there on Maui, there is MauiWine. We contacted them in advance to arrange a tour and tasting, and General Manager Joe Hegele graciously offered to be our personal tour guide.
MauiWine’s story is rich in history and culture. The winery lies on a property formerly owned by Captain Makee, a whaling captain in the mid-1800’s. The story goes that Captain Makee spotted the land while passing by the south side of Maui on the way to Oahu. He committed to himself that one day he would live there.
Prior to Captain Makee owning the land, however, King Kamehameha III leased it to a rancher, L.L. Torbet, who established a plantation and ranch. Torbet raised potatoes, and during the California Gold Rush, bought a boat to carry his crop to hungry gold miners on the mainland. Unfortunately, his boat sank, and he lost everything.
Meanwhile, Captain Makee was having his own challenges. A crewman aboard ship, upset at being denied leave, snuck into Captain Makee’s cabin at night, and attacked him with a hatchet. The attack failed, the crewman escaped, and Captain Makee decided it was time to retire. After settling in Honolulu, he eventually followed through on his commitment to settle on the land he had seen on Maui. In January 1856, he purchased the Torbetsville plantation, establishing a home and cattle ranch.
Having survived the attempt on his life, Captain Makee came to understand that life is a gift, and devoted his days to celebrating life. He loved the local roses, Lokelani, and dubbed the property Rose Ranch. He soon became known for his hospitality and day’s long parties. Dignitaries, including Hawaiian King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani would visit for hula dancing, poker games, and relaxation.
Even today, the property is considered sacred ground. As you enter, in front of the King’s Cottage, you pass a hula circle, carved from cypress trees planted in the 1870’s for King Kalakaua, known as “the Merrie Monarch”, who would sit and watch hula dancers on that spot. The cypress trees stood for nearly 150 years, until a storm in 2012 brought two of them down. Local artist Tim Garcia, was brought in to carve the remaining trunks into representations of King Kalakaua, hula dancers, and vessels. Joe said that even to this day, ōlapa (hula dancers) from around the world will visit the MauiWine Hula Circle to perform their dances.
Joe has a long-standing connection to Rose Ranch. He was raised here from the age of five. Though he did head to the mainland to attend college and gain some work experience, he returned to Rose Ranch five years ago to manage winery operations.
Once known only for their pineapple wines, under Joe’s direction, MauiWine has undergone renaming, rebranding, and the expansion of their grape wine program. Though they do source juice from the mainland, their 16 acre vineyard is planted to several varieties, including Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, and Chenin Blanc.
Unlike most vineyards, where sun exposure is paramount to encourage ripening, the MauiWine vineyards biggest threat is fruit rot. With the humid climate in Hawaii, the vines and grape clusters here are pruned to encourage air flow. This includes a canopy management program focused on leafing, rather than shade, and fruit drop to open up the clusters. From flower to fruit set, they have about a 40% conversion rate. They have also been experimenting with grape shattering, which further reduces rot risk. All of the vineyards are harvested, then field sorted to ensure only the best fruit comes in. No sorting tables are used in the winery.
At about 2,000 feet elevation, and relatively short sun exposure; just 11 to 12 hours per day, despite to the tropical location, MauiWine is considered a cool climate vineyard, with average temperatures in the mid-70’s. The grape growing season on Maui runs from about January through August. The early season helps to avoid hurricanes, which could – and have – damaged crops.
On August 8, 2014, Hurricane Iselle made landfall on Maui. Harvest had begun, but the entire 6 acre Syrah crop remained in the vine. Winds from the hurricane blew the vines over and there was fear the crop would be lost. However, MauiWine put out a call on Social Media, and volunteers arrived to help. The harvest came in, and production went on as normal. It turned out the the vines were not severely damaged, and they continue to produce today.
When most people think of wine from Hawaii, they think of pineapple wine. And they’re not necessarily wrong. Pineapple is a year-round crop, which enables MauiWIne to run it’s production year-round as well. More than 84,000 pounds of Maui Gold pineapple is processed at MauiWine each month, and turned into three different styles of wine.
This may come as a surprise, MauiWine pineapple wine is NOT the syrupy sweet wine you may be expecting!We had the opportunity to sample all three pineapple wines offerings:
Hula o Maui – Pineapple Sparkling Wine
A brut sparkling wine made entirely of Maui Gold pineapple. Pale straw color, with vigorous streams of bubbles. Dry and fruity, and quite tasty. Produced in the traditional champagne method, this is a serious bottle of bubbles, that also doubles as a playful mixer for mimosas!
Maui Blanc – Off-dry Still Wine
Here’s a wine sure to please the Mosacto lovers in your party. Semi-dry but with plenty of character and depth. Also produced from 100% Maui Gold pineapple, this wine would pair nicely with spicy foods. This was the first wine produced by MauiWine, back in 1977, while waiting for their grape vineyards to mature. Don’t miss this one of a kind wine!
Maui Splash – Pineapple Wine infused with Passion Fruit
The sweetest of the trio, and perhaps the most popular. It retains the pineapple character, but adds a splash of tropical sweetness on the palate and finish. It’s like a day at the beach, in a glass. Great on it’s own, or add a splash of soda for a refreshing spritzer. In production since 1992.
As good, and intriguing, as the pineapple wines were, the real treat of our visit was the personal tasting of the Rose Ranch Wine and Estate Wine lines. MauiWine is proud of their pineapple wine, and as we learned, there is good reason for that. Still, the vineyard is the passion project, and the one that intrigued us most. Joe hosted us in The Old Jail; an historic building on the property that was once, well, the local jail. MauiWine has updated the space nicely – no dank cells and bread & water here – this is as upscale a tasting venue as we’ve ever visited. While most guests enjoy tastings in the King’s Cottage tasting rooms, club members and others looking for a deeper experience may reserve personalized tastings in the Old Jail. Here, Joe poured us samples of the best that MauiWine has to offer.
No. 001 – Traditional Method Sparkling Wine
From the Estate Collection. A crisp, delicious wine, made from 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. The juice is sourced from California, from a well known Napa producer (but who cannot be named for proprietary reasons.) Vigorous streams of fine bubbles rise in the glass. Flavors of almond, yeast, and fresh-baked bread, with apple and pear, and a nutty finish. If I didn’t know this was a MauiWIne, I’d swear it was from Champagne!
LoKelani – Sparkling Rosé
A Rose Ranch Wine Collection wine. A brut sparkling wine made from Syrah and Pinot Noir. Very pale pink. Honestly, neither of us would have known it was a Rosé if Joe hadn’t said so before pouring. Flavors of strawberry, cranberry, and some citrus notes. Quite a delight!
2017 Ulupalakua Vineyards Viognier
Another from the Estate Wines collection. We are big fans of well-made Viognier. And we’re now big fans of the Ulupalakua Vineyards Viognier! Dry, with floral aromas and flavors of apricot, citrus, and mineral notes, with a spicy finish.
2017 Ulupalakua Vineyards Rosé
Estate Collection. A blend of 90% Syrah and 10% Grenache, and an interesting blend it is. The Syrah from Block 2 is farmed specifically to be vinified into Rosé, in the maceration method; harvested early to preserve acidity, and left on the skins after harvest for a very short time, just to add some color. Meanwhile, the Grenache portion is made in the Saignée method, in which the grapes are pressed for red wine production, and a small portion is bled off (saignée in French) to intensify the color of the red wine. The bled off portion is then made into a Rosé wine, and in this case, added to the Syrah Rosé. The result is a delightful, dry, crisp Rosé wine with flavors of strawberry, cherry, raspberry, and tropical fruit.
2017 Ulupalakua Vineyards Grenache
Estate Collection. You might think of Grenache as a full-throttle, big red. In this case, you couldn’t be more wrong. This Grenache is as elegant and restrained as we have ever had. Pale ruby color; crystal clear (look at that color in the photo!) But don’t let the pale color fool you. This beauty is bursting with flavors of black cherry, plum, licorice, and earthy notes. It is bone dry, with zippy acidity and a spicy finish. Joe recommends serving slightly chilled, and since that is how he served it to us, we absolutely agree!
2016 Ulupalakua Vineyards Syrah
Estate Collection. This is the big, bold, meaty red you’ve been looking for! Inky purple color. Big flavors of crushed blackberry, chocolate-covered cherry, licorice, and earth. Big, chewy tannins balanced with medium acidity, On the finish there is kirsch and mineral. A stunning wine, indeed!
After we wrapped up our Old Jail tasting, Joe escorted us on a walking tour of the winery production area. MauiWine is a study in contrast; the vintage, plantation-style buildings housing the facility and cellar are juxtaposed with state-of-the-art winemaking equipment. Joe pointed out their new bottling line; a shiny stainless steel workhorse that has the capability to seal bottles with all four major wine closures: traditional cork, screwcap, crown caps (part of the sparkling wine production, for secondary fermentation), and the familiar sparkling wine cork, secured with a wire cage. The facility, view, and surroundings are all very impressive, and well worth a visit! Tours are complimentary, so come on up!
Before delivering us into the capable hands of the tasting room staff, Joe had one more surprise for us. We followed him a couple of miles back up the road to the vineyards. Joe mentioned to us that the vineyard is greatly protected and generally reserved for staff and family. The views here are spectacular, and the photos we took simply cannot do them justice! On the slope of Haleakala, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Kaho’olawe island, and the U-shaped volcanic crater that is Molokini, the views literally took our breath away. Rather than try to describe it, just enjoy the photos.
With Hurricane Lane approaching, we asked Joe if any special precautions were necessary. Not very many vineyards or wineries have to contend with hurricanes! Joe said that all of this years’ harvest is in, so there is no worry about the fruit. The only concern is loss of power from winds and falling trees.
After we returned to the King’s Cottage tasting room, Joe introduced us to Denae and Tamara, two of the friendly and knowledgeable staff members. There, we sampled Pineapple Wines (described above), the rest of the Rose Ranch Collection, and a taste of the 2012 Syrah – the hurricane wine!
Kula – White Blend
An enticing and delicious blend of 44% Sauvignon Blanc, 44% Viognier, and 12% Muscat. Lots of citrus and tropical fruit flavors. Dry, yet fruity with zesty acidity.
Mele – Red Blend
Racy and delicious, this is a blend of 40% Syrah, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, and 10% Sangiovese. Medium body with smooth tannins, flavors of blackberry, raspberry, and cherry, with hints of green bell pepper and black pepper spice.
Sway & Stride Blend
An Aussie style blend with 80% Syrah (or Shiraz, if you prefer!) and 20% Viognier. Nicely balanced and delicious, with blackberry, cherry, and spice.
Ulupalakua Vineyards GSMV
Not your typical GSM! Grenache, Syrah, Malbec, and Viognier. Big and bold, yet elegant, with violet, blackberry, cranberry, and tobacco notes.
2014 Ulupalakua Vineyards Syrah
The hurricane wine! Very few bottles remain, and are available only in the tasting room. This is an amazing wine of deep character and flavor. RIpe blackberry and plum, earth and tobacco. Big, bold tannins, with a long, satisfying finish.
We were honored that Joe hosted us as guests of MauiWine. Relatively small in production, with about 30,000 total cases annually, and their estate wine releases range from about 100 to 400 cases each, they are mighty and impressive. Although available for purchase online, they are well worth a visit if you happen to be in Hawaii.
In conclusion, Robyn would like to share her personal impressions:
As we planned for our trip to Maui and our visit to MauiWine, I envisioned that it would be beautiful and unlike any winery I had experienced thus far. I had no idea how understated my vision was. I may be back on the mainland, but I can assure you that my experience has left a lasting impression.
The rich legacy of culture, the majestic grounds, the sense of value for close relationships with staff and customers, and the passion behind how MauiWine came to be, is a hidden treasure.
When Joe explained how the climate is unlike any other traditional grape growing region and that even all the “experts” truly can’t predict the outcome of a crop, I said, “it’s like a big experiment every year?” To which he replied, “exactly”, with a smile on his face!
Like a biography, Joe described the triumph, heartbreak, and thrill, that is MauiWine. The common thread connecting all of them is passion!
- By Kent Reynolds and Robyn Raphael
- Photo Credits, unless otherwise noted: Kent Reynolds and Robyn Raphael