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The Truth About Trends from a Master

THERE HAS BEEN NO OTHER BEVERAGE to stir as much heated banter as wine. Fortunately for enthusiasts here in Hawai’i, we have Chuck Furuya. One of two master sommeliers in the state (the other being our columnist Roberto Viernes), Furuya’s let’s-get-back-to-basics approach to drinking wine has turned novices into veteran swirlers. To boot, he’s also compelled seasoned oenophiles to rethink what they uncork.

Which is why a sit down with Furuya always ends up turning us on our heads. We began asking about California’s response to wine trends. (Is everyone moving toward less oak? Is this what has given rise to the Central Coast/Santa Barbara region? What are the farmers of Oregon and Washington mastering?) We were quickly put in our place.

“If you put that in terms of music,” Furuya starts, “let’s say you want to write about hip-hop today, and you have no exposure to everything that came before it-Frank Sinatra, Mozart, the blues, so on-how can you write about anything not knowing the full spectrum of where it evolved from? You need to have an understanding and appreciation for the classics before you delve into what I call ‘trends.'”

Furuya brings us back to earth (away from hype-driven wine mag reporting and those who live-and-buy according to Robert Parker ratings) with a reminder of the methods and practices behind Italian, European and French mainstays.

“In Europe, the priority of wine is what’s on the table, or what I like to call ‘gulpable’ wines; not what’s in the cellar. It’s meant for pairing with delicious food. And if our food is natural, light and tender, shouldn’t our wines be? We’ve gotten to this thing where everyone is out to beat you over the head with their wine. It’s very American.

“But wine that is un-oaky, un-alcoholic, un-bitter just slides down the palate. It’s a way of life. You enjoy it not only for the prestige, but for the full meal,” he adds, citing an experience he had abroad sipping Moscholfilero (a grape varietal native to Greece). “Before I would have thought it was a totally geekish, abstract and obscure wine. But when you’re there, that’s the thing I want to drink. It’s the best grape for the food.”

Harnessing the conversation back to drinkable wines of the moment, Furuya is hot on Anderson Valley and the Sonoma coastal regions of California, where grape proliferation has exploded in the last three years. Winemakers here are planting up the sides of California’s craggy mountains-new turf for American producers.

“For half a century people have been planting on the valley floors. There, you have brown, fertile soils, intense heat and flat vineyards,” Furuya reminds us. “But now you’ve got some well-researched growers taking advantage of the brittle limestone soils of Anderson. They have half the sunlight as the valley floors. And where the mountains of Napa/Sonoma run north to south and block cold ocean air, the Anderson mountains run east-west and usher in ripping winds and rain. It’s a completely different scheme.”

In layman terms: In 2005 Napa wineries were harvesting Chardonnay grapes in mid-August. Brewer-Clifton of Sweeny Canyon harvested its on Oct. 15. What that equates to for the drinker is more physiological maturity in the grapes, with far less alcohol. More drinkable. Bigger range of flavor.

“That’s why Santa Barbara is totally happening right now,” he nods, alluding to his preference for the older vines in Anderson Valley-as well as answering one of my earlier questions. Cerise Vineyards’ Spring releases (due out this April) are something to watch for, according to Furuya, who tasted its Pinot Noirs out of barrel.

The other off-the-radar spot to watch for is Lodi, Calif. Most known for Petite Syrah and Zinfandel, Furuya has heard rumblings about a Barbera, some Cabernet and Chardonnay that are faring well in that climate.

“The buzz is very similar to that Pasa Robles got a few years back,” he says. “Now look where they are.”

Hawaii-bred restaurateur and wine writer Randy Caparoso adds: “Lodi may be ‘up and coming,’ but it’s also one of California’s oldest wine regions (grapes cultivated here since the 1850s),” Caparoso says of the 75 or so bonded wineries in the area.

With over 40 percent of California’s Zinfandels coming from here, it’s no wonder that Caparoso points to wineries such as Michael-David, Klenker Brick and Gnarly Head as standouts from this AVA. Yet, seemingly without limits, Lodi is also trickling out exciting “alternative” style varietals like Vermentino, Termpranillo and Tannat, just to name a few.

Further driving home the point that in the winemaking world, all rules are out the window.