Everyone who knows me is aware that I’m a wine lover. I love tasting new wines, get excited about visiting wineries and adore dinner and wine dates with my friends. It’s been a few years since I visited the winery in Ulupalakua, but I recently learned two things. First, that they were now offering a new tour of the grounds called the “King’s Tasting.” And second, that they had recently re-branded themselves to MauiWine. Since I had a childhood friend visiting me from San Francisco who’s also a wine freak like me, there was no hesitation in heading Upcountry.
Given that we were raised in an area that’s flooded with wines from Napa Valley, Russian River and Sonoma County, we learned to seek out smaller wine varieties. Alissa and I have similar tastes in wine selections, though she may be more prone to white wine varieties. We’re not wimpy wine lovers–we like some meat and unusual flavors in our selections. Through my own history of learning about wines, I’ve become aware that a wine’s flavor depends a great deal on the soil, weather and fertilization choices a vintner makes.
What we now call MauiWine first began in 1974 as a small private corporation situated within the 20,000-acre Ulupalakua Ranch property. Today, the winery hosts more than 100,000 visitors a year. Their 23-acre vineyard is located about 1,650 feet up the mountain on the makai side of Haleakala Highway. There, they grow a variety of grapes, including Syrah, Malbec, Grenache, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Rose and Gewurztraminer.
“There is a story about Maui in each of our wines,” said Paula Hegele, the president of MauiWine. “Every raindrop, ray of light, wind and temperature change is embedded into each wine grown here. Wine is a reflection of place. The name MauiWine is honest, proud and exhilarating. It creates a deep connection to the land and people that craft our wines, and the significance and beauty of ‘Ulupalakua.”
Paula Hegele has worked at Maui’s only winery for over 25 years (her son Joseph is the winery’s marketing director). You could definitely say that she has been the chief instigator in keeping the winery going and progressing. She believes that MauiWine’s preeminent goal is to present wines that support Maui’s agribusiness culture and the people who live here.
Like many well-known wineries in California and Europe, MauiWine is located on a historic piece of property. Here you’ll find a fascinating agricultural past, gardens, aged structures and rare trees.
“After 40-plus years of business we have had numerous challenges, disappointments and successes,” said Paula Hegele. “We are just starting to get a solid footing in understanding who we are and what we want to be as MauiWine.”
The winery’s history begins in 1856, when the former whaling captain James Makee purchased the land and named it Rose Ranch, after his wife Catherine’s favorite flower variety. For the next 30 years, Makee and his family worked hard building up the ranch. They rehabilitated the sugarcane fields of the Torbert Plantation, raised cattle, brought in dairy cows, planted cotton and grew many other for-profit based crops on the estate. At the time, their dairy was famous for a sweet cream butter that was exported to markets on Oahu.
Not only did Rose Ranch become a bustling headquarters for Upcountry agribusiness, but it was also a popular place to visit. Makee and his family hosted soirees at the ranch every month. Guests included King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani.
“The main entrance to the grounds surrounding the mansion was surmounted with an illumination bearing the words–“Welcome to the King,” in red letters, bordered with sprays of pine-leaves,” the Pacific Commercial Advertiser reported in April 1874. “A neat but roomy cottage was set apart for the use of their Majesties, and here the party remained in the enjoyment of the liveral hospitality of Capt. Makee. In the interim, a large feast in the native style was spread under the shade of the noble trees near the mansion.”
Makee died in 1879 at the age of 67. He was originally buried at the Rose Ranch Mausoleum located behind the sugar mill. But after robbers ransacked the graves of him and his wife, their remains were moved to the Oahu Cemetery.
Many of the buildings and trees found on the MauiWine property today date to Makee’s era. One of the most impressive examples is a huge 200 or so year-old Queensland Kauri (Agathis Robusta). Native to New Zealand and currently endangered, this spectacular tree is silver-barked and has a life expectancy of 1,500 to 2,000 years. In addition, Catherine Makee’s rose plantings are still apparent today–in fact, there’s a spectacular area of pink English tea roses planted outside the old dairy.
In 1886, James Isaac Dowsett purchased the Rose Ranch estate for $84,500. A former captain in the British Navy, he was considered a “pioneer capitalist” and settled in Hawaii after a pearl fishing expedition.
Born in Honolulu, his eldest son James Isaac Dowsett, Jr. is believed to be the first Anglo-Saxon child born in Hawaii not of missionary parentage. A childhood friend of Kamehameha IV, Kamehameha V and Lunalilo, James Dowsett Jr. eventually became the first rancher to import Aberdeen Angus stock to Maui.
James Dowsett Sr. died in 1898, and the Rose Ranch land was endowed to Phoebe Dowsett-Makee, who was married to James Makee’s son Charles (small island!). After Charles died, Phoebe married Dr. James M. Raymond, who purchased the ranch in 1900 and renamed it Raymond Ranch. Raymond built a slaughterhouse, raised thoroughbred Hereford cattle and was the owner of some of the fastest race horses in Hawaii.
In 1922, Frank Baldwin–an owner of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S)–purchased Raymond Ranch and renamed it Ulupalakua Ranch. His sons were also some of the best polo players in the Territory of Hawaii. Frank Baldwin managed the Ulupalakua Ranch until he died in 1956.
Not quite a decade after Frank Baldwin’s death, C. Pardee Erdman purchased the Ulupalakua Ranch. At that time, more than 30 ranch hands and their families lived on the estate. The property had amassed about 6,000 cattle and now encompassed approximately 58,000 acres. He also introduced sheep and elk to the Ulupalakua Ranch. The Erdman family also began to adopt environmentally conscious and sustainable practices for managing their ag lands–pretty groundbreaking, for the time.
Erdman also partnered with Napa Valley winemaker Emil Tedeschi to build Maui’s first winery. After experimenting with over 140 grape varietals, they found satisfaction in planting a hybrid grape called Carnelian in 1975.
My wine choices always vary, based on the time of the day, weather, season, year, availability and what I’m currently exploring. I definitely gravitate more to an herby wine than a sweet wine. I’m not really prone to being a fan of a buttery Chardonnay or a sweet Merlot. I like wines with some richness, and I definitely want to taste the soil. I love the funky tastes of Old World wines, and it’s exciting to taste wines from the smaller and more in-the-know wineries in the world. This is where I see MauiWine fitting into the wine industry.
I’m always infatuated with Cabernet Sauvignons from the Central Coast of California–my absolute favorite being a 2013 from Justin Vineyards in Paso Robles. It’s smooth, aromatic and tastes like a chocolate-tobacco-herbed soil bomb. Other red wine choices that get my blood pumping with excitement would be from small family wineries in the Spanish Canary Islands. Known as tintos in Spanish, there are many interesting flavors that come from this area of the world; black pepper spice, wildflowers and some atypical fermentation tastes that are definitely consistent to an Old World wine flavor. Like MauiWine, wines from the Canary Islands are grown in volcanic rich soil, so there’s a certain depth in the body of the wines that is pretty comparable.
The biggest difference is that most wines from the Canary Islands come from historic vines–MauiWine has only emerged with their newest varietals in the past few years. In regards to red wines, I was definitely impressed with MauiWine’s Malbec. It has a malted flavor, but you can still taste an herby quality. It will be interesting to see what the next harvest brings about.
South African wines are also special. Favorite wines from there would be a Warwick Sauvignon Blanc or a Chenin Blanc from De Morgenzon. It’s a wine type that’s not as popular in the United States as in France or the rest of the world, but one every chef and sommelier will say is a favorite.
MauiWine’s Chenin Blanc is quite impressive. In fact, I think MauiWine’s smaller barrel estate wine varieties like their Chenin Blanc are the wines that would be advantageous for expert and aspiring wine lovers to taste.
Of course, while MauiWine grows fine grapes, for many, the winery is arguably more famous for its pineapple wines. Since planting the first grape vineyard in 1974, the idea of growing grapes in Maui took a lot of patience and experimentation. While waiting for grape varieties to grow and fruit, pineapple wines became a kind of training ground that has since flourished into an extremely popular wine product. In a sense, the pineapple wines have somewhat fed the engine that has transitioned MauiWine into what it is now.
The Maui Gold fruit that’s used for their pineapple wines are hand-picked and tasted before they’re delivered to MauiWine’s production facility. The waste from the pineapples go to cattle feed and fertilizer on the Ulupalakua Ranch property.
It takes 72,000 pounds of pineapple fruit to make about 4,000 gallons of juice. It takes two days to crush the fruit, which then goes into a cold tank. Within five days, the fermentation process begins, and takes four months to complete. The result of all this is 1,600 cases of wine. In a single year, MauiWine can produce 20,000 cases of pineapple wine.
All of MauiWine’s wines are grown and manufactured in Maui. From the growing of the grapes to processing and bottling, MauiWine is one of the few wineries in the U.S. that manages the complete cycle of their business.
After 40 years of experimentation, MauiWine now has 16 of their 23 acres under vine. In fact, they performed a major overhaul to the vineyard in 2012, pulling out all the old vines that were planted in 1974. They also dug down three feet to prepare the soil for the new plantings.
Growing grapes is a complex process, and many elements can contribute to success or a challenge: daytime temperatures, nighttime temperatures and rain. The volcanic soil beneath the vineyard is one of MauiWine’s best advantages. The volcanic soil contributes to maintaining the acidity for their very balanced cool-climate wines like Rose, Viognier, Grenache, Chenin Blanc and Syrah.
“As far as grape-growing, it’s the unique climate we have that is uncharacteristic for vinifera [grapes],” said MauiWine marketing director Joseph Hegele. “It presents new and unfamiliar challenges in grape growing, things that are unique to us. In many ways, the challenges and difficulties in grape growing are also our strengths and what makes our wine’s distinct and interesting.”
This past May, MauiWine brought on a new vintner. Rachel Joy arrived just in time to prepare for harvest season. She has a chemistry degree from the University of Massachusetts and more than 10 years of experience working in the wine industry for Newton Vineyards, Jamison Ranch, Don Sebastiani & Sons and Delegate Estate Wines.
Upon leaving the Kings Tasting Tour, my friend and I were definitely inspired and in high spirits. Having an opportunity to share the Island of Maui with mainland friends is always exciting, and visiting the MauiWine property was a highlight of her trip. Besides the opportunity to taste MauiWine varieties, it was kind of like an art history class. After the tour, I asked Joseph Hegele which wine region around the world compares to MauiWine’s vineyard type and wine quality output.
“The closest comparison would be to Old World wines of Rhone Valley, France,” he said. It’s quite a boast, but I’m not surprised that Maui’s fertile lands could produce a wine that’s comparable to a world-renowned wine province like the Rhone Valley.
Although MauiWine’s grapes are growing well and abundantly, it’s still a time investment in growing wine varieties. Taken as a whole, MauiWine is still relatively new in the world of winemaking.
Maui has a lot of agri-businesses, but MauiWine is different. Once thought of as merely the place tourists go to for pineapple wine, it’s steadily transforming into something much more sophisticated. But there is still much work yet to be done.
“In the coming weeks our new history room will be completed, with new stories and information regarding the past of Ulupalakua and Rose Ranch will be back on the walls,” said Paula Hegele. “Three walls will be covered with history from 1860 to present. Captain Makee, King Kalakaua, ranching then and now and a little about the winery’s history as well. The grounds look as great as ever–the Jail and King’s Cottage are recently remodeled.”
Joseph Hegele agrees.
“We just want to continue to make interesting wines that represent the place they are grown, nothing more important that,” he said. “As far into the future as I can see, this vineyard will still be about experimentation, discovery and creativity. There will always be unique challenges to face and opportunities to try new things. What these grapes are capable of is not yet defined. We have no restrictions or rules to follow. It’s exciting!”
WHAT TO DO AT MAUIWINE
King’s Cottage Tasting Room: Built for King Kalakaua in 1856, the King’s Cottage is where you can taste complimentary MauiWine varieties. 10am-5:30pm daily.
Historical Tour: MauiWine offers a free historical and cellar tour. 10:30am and 1:30pm daily
King’s Tasting: The King’s Tasting begins and ends in the “Old Jail” located on the MauiWine property. Built in the 1850s and recently restored, this is where you can relax with a small group tasting wine varietals with a handful of perfect small-bite food pairings. The King’s Tasting also provides a guided tour of the grounds, cellar, bottling room and more. Available Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 3:30pm. You must book in advance. $50 per person.
Annual Holiday Tree Lighting: On Dec. 10, MauiWine will present their third annual Tree Lighting at Ulupalakua.The ceremony will include a blessing, tree lighting, holiday movie, live music and entertainment, keiki crafts and activities. Santa Claus will visit and be available for keiki photos in front of the holiday tree. Adults can enjoy a sparkling toast and more tastings of their exclusive estate wine varietals. Food and beverages will also be available for purchase from the Ulupalakua Ranch Store & Grill. Admission is free for all residents and visitors, and attendees are urged to bring a can of non-perishable food for donations to the Maui Food Bank.
For more information about MauiWine or to schedule a private tasting, call 808-878-6058 or visit MauiWine.com.
Cover Design: Darris Hurst
Cover Photo of Paula Hegele: Sean M. Hower