When we set off for Hawaii a couple weeks ago, the last thing we expected was to be visiting a winery. I had a business meeting in Honolulu and we tagged on a few vacation days to go to the Big Island of Hawai’i.
At the Kona airport I noticed a winery brochure and tossed it into our car. We were staying at a couple vacation rentals and I later glanced at the brochure and noticed that Volcano Winery was very close to our lodging. That’s how we came to visit America’s southernmost winery.
The history of the winery go back to 1986 when “Doc” McKinney, a retired Oahu veterinarian selected the site in the town of Volcano for its unusual climate. It is located above 4,000 feet and is just a few miles from the dormant Kilauea volcano and Volcano National Park. He planted Symphony grapes, a white hybrid from California of which I happen to be a fan.
Doors to the winery opened in 1993. Six years later the winery was purchased by Del and Marie Bothof, who planned to retire to Hawaii and love wine. Two years ago they fully retired and moved to Hawai'i to oversee the operation.
I was excited to see rows of grapes outside the tasting room as we pulled up. Shortly after we were inside the tasting room preparing to quench our thirst.
The first wine we tried was Symphony Dry. Symphony is not a common wine and it is one of my favorite “offbeat” whites. This is their driest wine and features nice peach and apricot flavors with a nice acidic bite. This is best chilled.
Next up was another surprise – the 2010 Estate Pinot Noir. Estate Pinot in Hawai'i, you ask? Yes, it is a variety that thrives in the winery’s environment, which has a high elevation, wide temperature swings and much cooler weather than you might expect in Hawai’i. Only 399 bottles were produced and this had a lovely cherry flavor with oak accents.
Symphony Mele is another 100% Symphony wine, but is finished sweeter. We followed this with Volcano Blush, which pairs imported Pinot Grigio grapes with jaboticaba. This is a crazy version of a blush wine, but it works. It features the aroma and taste of coffee but is also list, sweet and refreshing.
Also on our tasting menu was Hawaiian Guava-Grape, which pairs Symphony with whole fruit guava and goes well with Hawai’ian food. Another unique wine is the Macadamia Nut Honey, made with 100% pure Hawai’ian macadamia nut honey. We tried this mead two ways, warm (to make it more like sake) and chilled.
The most unusual wine was Infusion, which is a combination of estate grown tea infused with the macadamia nut honey mead. The resulting taste is of sweet iced tea.
Following our tasting and a brief chat with Marie, Del led me on a tour of the vineyard. In addition to the Symphony and Pinot Noir grapes, he showed me the tea plants and Koa trees, which are revered by Hawai’ians.
One of the most surprising comments was that he was beginning to plant Cayuga White, a variety popular in our home state of Ohio, especially around Lake Erie. I couldn’t understand how a wine flourishing in the climate of Ohio could flourish in Hawai’i.
Del explained that the high altitude results in some cool temperatures and the soil is very thin – it cools off quickly. Cayuga has proved to be an unusual, but very suitable grape for his vineyard. If winemakers think they have it hard, consider Del’s situation. In order to plant more vines, they have to break through solidified lava in order to plant!
On the upside, Del’s vineyard features an open lava tube. He plans to have it checked by an engineer and potentially convert it into a wine cave for cellaring wine and doing special tastings. Now that would be a mountaintop experience. This is part of their plan to fully develop the operation into a destination winery.
On the Big Island we discovered volcanoes, lava galore, rugged coastlines and the very first official winery in Hawai’i. As the southernmost winery in America and one that is in the middle of an old lava field – this should be on the bucket list for wine lovers.
It offers an unparalleled setting, fine wines and friendly people.