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Kapalua Wine and Food Festival Retrospective

A history of the longest running wine festival in the US...maybe?

Recently, Kapalua Resort on Maui threw its 29th annual Kapalua Wine and Food Festival, of which Master Sommelier and festival host Fred Dame wrote in the festival guide, “I believe that makes us the longest surviving wine and food event in the USA. If not, who cares!” And that sort of sums up the vibe of KWFF.

It’s a festival in which sommeliers and winemakers may break out in spontaneous song and dance in the midst of a panel, only moments before discussing cold soaking and native fermentation. It’s a wine festival with a long history; it started in 1981, when wine festivals numbered few (these days, there are thousands in the US) and was composed of California winemaker panels, when the California “New World” style of wines were only just gaining respect in the wine community. And yet, with all of KWFF’s history-making and years of experience, it’s not snobbish nor pretentious. Sommeliers wear slippers and winemakers are happy to explain technical details such as native fermentation (which involves using wild yeast captured in the air, literally bringing the environs into a wine) as much as they are to answer the  more hedonistic questions: where can I buy this, how much does it cost, what food does it pair with?


In essence, the stunning Kapalua Resort may provide a breathtaking sense of place for the Kapalua Wine and Food Festival, but it’s the aloha spirit—the approachability of panel members, on and off the stage—and casual ambience that truly exudes Hawaii. Still, what at the moment appears almost effortlessly casual is only attained after years of festival experience.

Sommelier Eric Hansen’s Vision and the Festival's History

The late Eric Hansen started the Kapalua wine festival, which in the beginning was known as the Kapalua Wine Symposium. He was sommelier of the Plantation Veranda, Kapalua Bay Hotel’s fine-dining restaurant with Pegge Hopper murals and screened-in lanai. “[Hansen] put together a wine list to celebrate California wines,” says Loren Malenchek, who was director of advertising during the symposium’s beginning years. “We’re talking 1982, and this was relatively unheard of. [California wines] were a brand new pioneering industry.”  Perhaps it was this forward thinking that the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1985, “Hansen reigns easily as America's No. 1 sommelier, a man of professional knowledge, experience and charm to whom many younger sommeliers look as their role model.”


This was the kind of person it took to bring pioneering California winemakers Robert Mondavi, Mike Grgich and David Stare for the early years of the Kapalua Wine Symposium. Of the name, Malenchek says, “It was a symposium. It was truly about education.” The decision to change the name to Kapalua Wine and Food Festival in later years was because “unless you were a wine aficionado, symposium might scare you away,” says Malenchek. “You might not think you knew enough to come to it. Whereas what we were really trying to do was get more people interested in drinking wine and dispel any obstacles and bad reputations or misconceptions...We wanted to bring it to the masses. That was Eric Hansen’s true desire at the time.”

Suit jackets gave way to aloha shirts, and what in the beginning mostly out-of-town guests and local restaurant industry people, broadened in appeal, so that now the anchoring food festivals—The Grand Tasting and Seafood Festival—bring in a local majority and the audience for tasting panels are split between mainland visitors and locals (from Maui and other islands).


The panels diversified as well. “We started to bring in French people,” says Malenchek. “Each year we tried to bring one international panel. One year we had all Italian winemakers, one year we had all Spanish winemakers…One year we brought in only Long Island estate wineries, [which] was just starting to heat up.”

Memorable seminars

Malenchek remembers some of the seminars of the past: “One year we brought in pipettes and did our own mixing. We had all these raw wines, unblended, and we had to take the pipette just like a winemaker does when he’s making his own blend in his own cellar, and we made people pipette with us and create their best blend.”

Another year experienced Le Nez du Vin, or the nose of wine, a sort of scent dictionary as expressed in tiny vials of distinct scents, of the sort perfume makers and some winemakers use. “We played with all of those--how does it compare to the wine in your glass,” Malenchek says.
“One year, we had a retrospective tasting of Bordeaux and we had three Mouton Rothschild wines,” Malenchek remembers. “Three [tastings] from the number one winemaker in the world! It was amazing. 3000 dollars a bottle kind of stuff…I never tasted them before and never tasted them again.”


The 29th Kapalua Wine and Food Festival

This year, memorable moments included the Grand Tasting event, which Fred Dames speculated it would cost one $10,000 to $20,000 to taste all of the wines oneself. And then there was the Cabernet Franc retrospective, one varietal expressing itself differently among nine tastings. Lighter, less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon, and at reasonable price points, one could see this wine having a wider appeal in Hawaii.

There were also the winemaker dinners, which gave attendees the chance to sit with winemakers in a more intimate setting, whether to get answers straight from the growers and alchemists or just to share an excellent meal. And of course, the Seafood Festival to conclude the event, in which the food almost outshone the wine—which at this point, after four days of wine, was actually a welcome respite.

“Every year, no matter what you do, you have to reinvent yourself and make it compelling to the people you’re inviting and to the people you want to sit in the audience,” says Malenchek.


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