When Hawaii native Chuck Furuya passed the rigorous Master Sommelier exam in 1989, he was only the tenth American to do so (strangely, he shared the small island state with four fellow sommeliers during the beginning of his career). Since, he’s gone on to become one of the most renowned wine pros from the archipelago, running esteemed restaurant floors in Honolulu and orchestrating wine lists for big clients like Hawaiian Airlines.
Here, we chat with Furuya on everything from catering to travel to a decidedly Hawaiian brand of hospitality. “There is way more talent today than ever,” he says of the wine scene in Hawaii.
1. Are there unique challenges to working in the wine industry in Hawaii? Like access to wines, shipping costs, working with tourists, etc.
Hawaii is a very unique place in the world and we are so very fortunate. Being a warm, tropical climate located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, one of the biggest challenges is making sure wines are shipped, trucked, and stored at correct temperatures.
2. Hawaii seems to have its own brand of warm hospitality. How have you incorporated that into what you’ve done with wine over your career?
Hospitality is a big topic for us here in Hawaii. For instance, I’ve been involved recently in weeks-long training sessions in ‘ho’okipa’ (hospitality) with Hawaiian Airlines staff. We believe it is one of the highlights that separates us from other destinations of the world. It is also a very important part of being a sommelier, in my opinion. I was telling two classes today of the term vigneron, having just come back from a two-and-a-half-week trip through France. If one looks it up in the French dictionary, it says wine grower or winemaker. As Jean-Charles Abbatucci of Corsica once noted to me, it means much more. It’s like being a samurai, which is way more than swordship skills. It’s a belief, a code, an ethic, a way of life, a culture. I believe hospitality is also a culture.
3. Can you talk a bit about your work with Hawaiian Airlines and how wine options aboard a plane have improved over the years?
For the wines served on Hawaiian Airlines first-class service, we took a very different approach. Rather than tasting through a bunch of wines and selecting some, we instead sought to create some to our specifications. We found and now work with a vineyard owned by three ranching families in the remote hills of southern Paso Robles. The vineyard is located at roughly 1,000 feet in elevation. The night temperatures are greatly cooled by the ocean winds cascading over the hills from the sea (some 12 miles away). This vineyard is also greatly cooled by the winds coming up from the Cuesta Grade two to three miles to the south. It has six distinct soil types, including a pushed-up ancient seabed, which features pockets of fossilized oyster shells. With all of this wonderful raw product to work with, we had them work on a blend which showcases some minerality and interesting-ness. One set of wines is for international travelers and a completely different set is blended for domestic flights.
5. What has pairing wines with Hawaiian cuisine taught you over the years?
It vehemently reminds me that different kinds of food seem to need different kinds of wines to work with. Because Hawaii is truly a melting pot of different ethnic cultures and foods, there is an amazing diversity of food ingredients and techniques that are available and used. And each dish therefore needs its own style of pairing.
6. You’ve talked about removing the intimidation factor from the wine tasting experience. Are we getting there or are you still seeing a lot of consumers afraid to try things, ask certain questions, etc.?
I think that is all part of hospitality. I believe we in the industry are here to serve. And we therefore need to be better at understanding what our guests’ needs and expectations are and then provide accordingly — using our expertise. It is a genuine service thing. I recall many, many years ago meeting an O.G. Master Sommelier from England. He was a teacher by trade and on the side, he proudly worked as a butler. I have learned so much from him.
7. What wines or wine regions are you really into at the moment?
Having just come back from Provence, the northern Rhone, and Etna down in Sicily, I was mesmerized with so many wines and even more so about how so many are trying to adjust to changes in climate, weather patterns, and water challenges. This is facing the whole wine world. I am so inspired by the resiliency.
8. Do you miss working the floor now that you’re retired?
Yes, I do miss working the floor. That will always be a part of me. I do, however, now consult on many projects, which includes working the floor four or five nights a month — something I thoroughly relish and cherish. And because it is with several different outlets, I get to work with different staff on each occasion, and different demographics, food menus, and wine programs.
9. What did the pandemic teach you about the importance of travel and connecting around a table?
One of the most remarkable opportunities I learned was Zoom. OMG! I could communicate with someone from some place from around the world, without any delays in video or conversation (shows how outdated I can be). So, while we were all essentially shut down, rather than dwelling on the negative, we took the opportunity to instead proactively create learning opportunities. Every two weeks, I would contact someone from the wine world who I think has something quite profound to share and ‘talk story’ with them for an hour or so. Then, I would invite 50–60 wine pros from around the Hawaiian Islands and maybe 20–30 would tune in. It has been two and a half years and a terrific experience for me. Guests have included Daniel Ravier from Domaine Tempier, Jean-Charles Abbatucci, Cornelius Dönnhoff, Katharina Prüm and Sebastian Fürst from Germany, Hans Setzer from Austria, and Raúl Pérez from Spain, just to name a few.
10. What’s next for the Uncorked project?
Chuck Furuya Uncorked is actually my son Kale’s project. He created it for viewers of his generation. It’s an opportunity to learn and enjoy wine and at the same time do it in a more casual, ‘talk story’ manner — no wine shaming, as he puts it.
We stopped filming two summers ago because he got a new job at the prestigious Halekulani Hotel, where he is now bartender and sommelier. He has subsequently studied for and passed level 2 — all on his own with the guidance of the hotel cellarmaster, Kevin Toyama. The best way I figured I could be of assistance was a recent trip to Europe, to show him the standards of what wine could be. Then he would have benchmarks as a library top drawer moving forward (Gonon and Jean-Claude Marsanne in St. Joseph, Jamet and Lionel Faury in Côte-Rôtie).
Since we were there at the end of harvest, we walked vineyards, tasted some grapes still on the vine, freshly fermenting juice, aging wine, finished wine, and some older library wines, too — the whole gamut, and with the principal. During the first half of the trip, Kale also got quite a bit of drone footage, which I believe he intends to restart the podcast with. I think the trip really got him charged up, so we will see what happens.