When I was growing up in the wine industry, the world’s standard for cabernet-based red wines was those from Bordeaux, France.
Over centuries, the Bordelais were able to pinpoint the properties that innately produced the finest wines, and those collectibles captured the imagination and palates of the world’s wine lovers.
This niche was shaken by a small wine tasting conducted by top French aficionados at the 1976 Paris Wine Exhibition, when a few California wines stood out alongside their fine French counterparts. The shot of instant credibility helped usher the then-fledgling California wine scene onto the world stage.
Another ramification that’s rarely discussed is how these results also fostered a growing trend for riper, more supple, more forward styles of wines. Because of this trend, many "cult" cabernets and blends from California, Washington and Australia today receive ratings just as high as bordeaux and command prices comparable to top-echelon bordeaux.
This brings us to a recent visit to the islands by John Kolasa, managing director of two premier Bordelais properties, Chateau Rauzan Segla and Chateau Canon.
Kolasa and his revered chef, Bruno Chevalier, were in Hawaii to hold several wine tastings and a gala dinner at the Halekulani Hotel.
Halekulani Corp. chief operating officer Peter Shaindlin had visited the two chateaux in 2010 and convinced Kolasa to take his wines and chef "on the road." It was a first in Kolasa’s 17-year tenure at the wineries.
Kolasa said he was moved to visit the Halekulani because its world-class standard is not unlike those of the chateaux he oversees, which boast 350 years of tradition, culture and excellence.
On a beautiful afternoon in La Mer restaurant, a small group met with Kolasa to taste his wines and better understand his wine philosophy.
Kolasa doesn’t go after high wine ratings or scores; rather, he wants to produce wines that people can enjoy.
"I like it when a person asks, ‘Can I have another glass, please?’" he said.
This says a lot about Kolasa. Despite all the accolades and acclaim during his previous stint at the iconic Chateau Latour, Kolasa doesn’t rest on his laurels. He is a grounded man on a mission to master all aspects of his job, from vineyards to wine-making, through hard work.
This has been quite an undertaking for him, and expectations are high. After all, Chateau Rauzan Segla was classified in 1855 as one of the 14 "Second Growth" category (a historic honor that ranked the chateau one of the top 19 in Bordeaux) and Chateau Canon in 2006 one of only 12 "Premier Grand Cru Classe" (one of the top 15 chateaux of the Right Bank region of Bordeaux).
Owner Chanel convinced Kolasa to leave Chateau Latour, one of the most prestigious wineries in the world, to spearhead the revitalization of these two historic properties.
At the La Mer gathering, we tasted Kolasa’s 2001 Chateau Rauzan Segla and 2000 Chateau Canon.
After many swirls of the glass, two local wine professionals — Mark Shishido, wine director of Alan Wong’s restaurants, and Halekulani wine cellar-master Kevin Toyama — commented on the Old World feel and strong sense of place both wines displayed.
Shishido described the wines as elegant and timeless, and he and Toyama agreed the wines conveyed a sense of culture, respect and stewardship. Toyama found the wines refined and worldly and said they reflected the history and legacy of the chateaux.
Geologically, the Rauzan Segla soil is a synergistic blend of primarily gravel with clay. In terms of grape variety, the 2001 comprised 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 35 percent merlot and 5 percent petite verdot. The resulting wine displays a highly masculine nature, thanks to a high percentage of cabernet sauvignon coupled with deep bass notes and a stony character attributed to the gravel-dominated soils.
In contrast, the Canon is grown on a plateau of limestone-based soil within the Right Bank region of St. Emilion. The 2000 is a blend of 75 percent merlot and 25 percent cabernet franc. It is ethereal, fresh and lively on the palate, and full of red fruit and minerality.
Neither are forward, opulent, supple or fruit- or oak-driven, a common global trend. In fact, because both wines are so earth-driven, their grape compositions would probably surprise many wine drinkers.
This brings up an ongoing debate among wine aficionados: qualitative differences between Old World and New World wines.
But it’s obvious Kolasa has little interest in that topic. His focus is instead on showcasing what makes his chateaux unique.
"We are looking to present an authentic expression of terroir through our wine, our legacy, history and culture," he said.
I surmise this was Shaindlin’s motivation for hosting the Bordelais, the wine-tastings and the gala dinner. After all, the wines from these 350-year-old wineries remind us of their strong tradition and culture of grape-growing and wine-making — of where we came from, through great attention to detail and commitment.
Few can appreciate that more than the head of an institution like the Halekulani.
"I love the sense of journey," Shaindlin said.
Chuck Furuya is a master sommelier and a partner in the DK Restaurants chain.