Lyle Fujioka shares his life story of food, wine and good company

Lyle Fujioka’s career in wine could perhaps be said to have begun when he slipped under the table after consuming one glass of red. It was not an auspicious start. But as history tells us, Fujioka went on to become one of the most influential people in Hawaii’s wine revolution.

As he steps into retirement, wine merchant Fujioka sat down to talk with HILuxury about his career and how Hawaii has transformed from a beer-drinking community into one that easily reaches for a prosecco or a syrah. His one pre-condition for the conversation? It simply must take place at chef Alan Takasaki’s Le Bistro restaurant in Niu Valley.

You see, for Fujioka, the wine has always been about the food and the company around the table.

So, as the meal wound its way through Takasaki’s fragrant escargot, porcini mushrooms with foie gras and meltingly delicate halibut, Fujioka started the story where it all began.

Which was in the sun- and surf-soaked Haleiwa ’60s, when Spam was “good food.” Fujioka loved the stuff. But he also wanted more, which is why he started baking his own whole-wheat bread at age 10. When he went to California to study at Redlands College, he was fully awakened to the food and wine renaissance.

Which brings us to the story about his graceful slide under the table. It was during a meal at the home of his ceramics professor, which he enjoyed with his future wife, Susan. A beer-drinking college student, Fujioka was profoundly impressed by the professor’s good table – but found it took a little getting used to.

“We had this dinner, and by the time I’d had the first full glass of red wine, I actually passed out,” he says, laughing. “I remember them laughing, and I curled up under the table and went to sleep.”

The future wine merchant, it turns out, had a low tolerance for alcohol.

After being a Los Angeles banker for 10 years, Fujioka returned home in 1982 to join the family business, Fujioka’s Super Market in Haleiwa. In his first weeks on the job, the head butcher had a heart attack, the assistant butcher retired and the remaining assistant cut off his finger. Overnight, Fujioka became the head meat cutter. Primed with manuals and advice from his sister (a veterinarian), Fujioka faced his first customer, an elderly Japanese lady who wanted her chicken cut sukiyaki-style. She politely showed Fujioka where the “on” button was for the band saw.

“She didn’t say anything,” he says. “She just knew I didn’t know how to turn it on.”

While he was mastering the meat department, Fujioka turned his attention to the wine aisle. Hawaii was in the middle of the Japanese real estate bubble at that time, and Haleiwa was experiencing a newer, wealthier demographic. There must surely be a market for the kinds of wines that he loved, Fujioka reasoned – the kinds of wines that everyday drinkers could explore and enjoy. As the wine sales reps came to call, he would meet them in the chilly meat room. People said he was crazy, but the store’s growing wine selection became so well-known that people often drove from the other side of the island to shop there.

As Fujioka traveled to wine regions around the world, he fell in love with the European lifestyle, where the table occupies a rich place in daily life. His dream was to open a side-by-side wine shop and Italian-style wine bar. In 2003, he found the location in Market City, off Kapahulu Avenue. It was an old pet store – with the lingering smells to prove it.

He built his business during a turbulent time in his life. Susan had developed Lou Gehrig’s disease and needed 24-7 care. Every day, Fujioka would get her into the car and drive from Haleiwa to Market City. Susan spent the day in her hospital bed in the office, and they made the long trip home again after the wine bar closed at night.

Feeding Susan took one hour. Her water had to be given slowly by a dropper. And Fujioka woke himself throughout the night to turn her so she wouldn’t get bedsores. It was unbelievably consuming, but Fujioka credits Susan with the inspiration to keep him going.

He remembers one time when the challenges of the wine bar were overwhelming and Susan told him one word. Unable to talk, she had to use her eyes to spell out the word on a letter board. She was crying with frustration because it took 45 minutes to get five letters: BELIE … believe.

Fujioka did. His dream became a reality, and today, we pour everything from prosecco to pinot grigio to syrah – wines that people told him would never sell in Hawaii.

As he retires, Fujioka can raise a glass to his role in Hawaii’s wine revolution. Still, there are some things about the business that drive him crazy. He’s frustrated when customers come in looking for a wine with the only caveat that it be expensive. And he hates that wine has become a commodity in prestige.

At this point in the story, Le Bistro’s waiters arrive bearing another offering of white plates, and Fujioka directs the pouring of two reds: one a $12 shiraz-viognier; the other a $100 Napa syrah. The syrah is revered in the wine world (and produced by fellow Punahou grad Daphne Araujo and her husband, Bart). It’s fabulous with the caramelized Kurobuta pork. But it overpowers the roasted Madagascar shrimp. Which is where the shiraz-viognier – all $12 of it – really shines.

And this is Fujioka’s point. It’s not about the price tag or the prestige or the number of points anointed by Wine Spectator. It’s about what feels – and tastes – good.

“Wine is just a beverage for food,” he says. “It shouldn’t be any more complicated than that.”

In 2004, Times Supermarkets bought the Fujioka name, and he became a consultant for the chain. He signed the contract on July 20, Susan’s birthday. She had passed away seven days before.

That was five years ago, and the contract expires in August, giving Fujioka the chance to focus on his new passion: recapturing his health. His years in the decadent hospitality industry and the years caring for Susan took their toll – his cholesterol levels and weight had hit alarming levels.

“Losing Sue was a signpost for me,” he says. “At the end of the day, your health cannot be ignored. (You can be) the wealthiest person in the world – you lose your health, there’s no going back.”

Another blow came just six months after Susan’s death, when Fujioka was in a terrible head-on accident while driving to Haleiwa one night. Fujioka recalls hearing the tow truck driver saying, “Oh, it’s a fatality.”

It was his second near-death experience. The first was in high school, when he got pulled under while surfing at Alii Beach.

“I had the full white light experience, from embryo to where I am in just minutes,” he says. “There is just this surrender, and I remember thinking, ‘Why are people afraid of this?’ ”

But the jaws of life pulled him from the wreck of his RAV 4, and Fujioka survived, with a new focus on life.

Work in the wine business may mean 18-course banquets in Italy, but at home Fujioka says he’s a glorified rabbit, enjoying smoothies, greens, nuts and berries. He also was introduced to shadow yoga by Roberta Chun, the new lady in his life. This man – who describes himself as lazy by nature – practices from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every day.

And what does he do in his afternoons?

“Tai chi!” he says.

Does this mean that wine merchant Fujioka is disappearing into the Haleiwa sunset in a cloud of savasanas? Or is that the hint of another project in his eye?

“I have an idea,” he says. “There is a wine shop concept that I have that is the most fun of all.”

You see, Fujioka is still thinking about ways to bring the wine adventure to Hawaii. He imagines a store where wines are grouped by palate: the heavy reds, the light reds, the sweet wines …

As he sits over dessert at Le Bistro, you can almost see the idea fermenting away in his mind.

Our glasses are ready.

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