Kamehameha Day: a Toast to Hawaii's Greatest King

In Hawaii, on the eleventh day of June, we celebrate Hawaii’s greatest monarch, King Kamehameha I, with a lei ceremony, hula, Floral Parade, and other cultural events. On the eve of this celebration, I find it appropriate to offer a few musings regarding Hawaii’s history and heritage, paired with a tasty beverage produced by the State’s only large commercial winemaker. 

Wait, Hawaii has a winemaker?!? You bet. A tropical paradise, made even better. I suspect the wine will have some tropical notes of pineapple on the nose and palate…

But first, Kamehameha.

The Reign of Kamehameha the Great (1779-1819)

For hundreds of years, Hawaii was a collection of small fiefdoms controlled by regional chiefs (or aliʻi) in a constant state of struggle and civil war. Chaos was pervasive.

Enter Kamehameha.

A lonely cannon is the final vestige of Kamehameha's compound, located near Aloha Tower.

The future king was a formidable warrior: physically intimidating and a masterful military tactician. He was determined, ruthless, and perceptive.  

To wage his civil wars, Kamehameha gathered fierce warriors bearing traditional weapons embedded with shark teeth. He bolstered this army with a stockpile of western guns, ammunitions, and foreign ships. With these assets, Kamehameha understood the importance of western advisors to implement them effectively. This wasn’t a unique strategy; other chiefs were doing the same. Kamehameha just did it better. And it worked, brilliantly.

Kamehameha was able to conquer the neighboring islands and local fiefdoms, one by one. In so doing, Kamehameha transformed a tribal society into a united kingdom with a strong centralized monarchy and a new sense of national pride. Now, he had to govern it.

Kamehameha prioritized the need to have a stable society. First step, getting cozy on the world stage. Kamehameha was able to effectively leverage his powers as monarch to extract necessary resources and assurances from the major world powers that would ensure the young kingdom’s survival. The Hawaiian flag bears remnants of these early strategic relationships - the British Union Jack and U.S. stripes.

A devoted supporter of traditional Hawaiian mythology, Kamehameha maintained a religious order that had been cultivated for generations. His motivations, however, may not have been entirely religious. Under this order, a “kapu” system of intricate rules and prohibitions was established and strictly enforced as a measure to ensure that the gods were always pleased. Happy gods, happy life.

The kapu system encompassed all elements of daily life - politics, religion, eating, drinking, even recreation.  Violations could carry deadly ramifications. If kapu, forbidden; if violated, very bad day for you. For Kamehameha, the kapu system was an effective power wielded by the King to steady and govern society. Finally at peace under a gallant monarch, the new kingdom thrived.


The King’s Grapes

The earliest grapes came to Hawaii in 1796, during the reign of Kamehameha. The Hawaiian aliʻi enjoyed going aboard the visiting merchant ships because they possessed copious amounts of wine. The chiefs were by no means connoisseurs, nor did they endeavor to become so; they simply liked to indulge in the occasional adult beverage. Other than casual maritime frivolity, however, the Hawaiians didn’t have much knowledge of or appreciation for grapes. In fact, the Hawaiian word for grape, hua waina, is literally translated “wine fruit.” From the wine comes the grape. Logic inverted; intent admirable.

The first recorded individual to plant grapes in Hawaii was a Spaniard, Don Francisco de Paula Marin. Marin’s vineyard, established in the early 1800s, was located on one of Oahu’s oldest streets, Midtown Boulevard, later renamed Vineyard Boulevard in honor of Marin’s vinous enterprise. Marin was a wine enthusiast, but also a calculating businessman. In 1815, after observing that many clusters of grapes in his vineyard were being carried off by passersby and hungry locals, Marin devised a regal solution. Marin approached King Kamehameha with a request to have the theft of grapes from his vineyard be considered kapu. Under royal protection, these quickly became known as The King’s Grapes. With the exception of an occasional atheist wild pig, the scheme was effective. Nobody messes with The King’s Grapes.

Kamehameha is decorated with leis outside Ali‘iolani Hale in Honolulu. The same ceremony occurs in the King's birthplace of North Kohala, on the Big Island.

That is, until the King dies. Kamehameha passed away due to illness on May 8, 1819. Hawaii’s first and greatest monarch was gone. Soon thereafter, the kapu system was overthrown. As the dust settled, it became clear that the welfare of Marin’s grapes was no longer a divine concern. Marin would have to devise more traditional methods to discourage the vexing grape pilferers.

Hawaii’s Temperance Movement

When the New England missionaries first arrived on Hawaii’s shores in 1820, the kapu system was recently overthrown, and there was opportunity for a new religious order.  With similarities to ancient Hawaiian beliefs, Christianity spread quickly amongst the royalty and upper class. Eventually, the newly-adopted religion would also take root in the local communities. Unlike economics, trickle down religion proved an effective strategy.

The Hawaiian Mission Houses, conveniently located adjacent to Kawaiaha'o Church in Honolulu.

At first, the missionaries didn’t raise any objections to the consumption of liquor. In fact, they were known to celebrate with a glass (or two) on occasion. Missionaries: uncorked. This changed, however, with the national rise of the temperance movement in the 1840s and growing concerns over the conduct of visiting sailors and their onshore debauchery. Hawaii’s local temperance paper, Temperance Advocate and Seaman’s Friend, quoted the Total Abstinence Society’s opening address: “It is wine which, in a more pure and unadulterated form than it is found amongst us, covers modern France with the desolation of drunkenness, and fills bright Italy with tears.” Wine-derived tears and desolation? I could conceive of worse.

“It is wine which, in a more pure and unadulterated form than it is found amongst us, covers modern France with the desolation of drunkenness, and fills bright Italy with tears.” - Temperance Advocate

Fortunately, the temperance movement in Hawaii wasn’t as effective as its mainland counterpart. Unfortunately, notwithstanding a few entrepreneurial ventures in the 1800s, it didn’t have to be. Hawaii was never primed to be a powerhouse winemaking state. Climate, terroir, and location compels this rather obvious conclusion. But there is one courageous vineyard that struggles against the [Pacific] tide.

ʻUlupalakua Vineyard: Hawaii’s Vinous Holdout

‘Ulupalakua Vineyards and Maui Wine, the only large commercial winemaker in Hawaii, was established in 1974 on the high slopes of the dormant volcano Haleakalā on the island of Maui. The vineyard was originally formed as a partnership between ʻUlupalakua Ranch, a longstanding and well-reputed cattle ranch, and Emil Tedeschi, a Napa Valley native with winemaking ambitions. The Ranch had many historical uses, such as a sugar mill, cattle ranch, and dairy farm, and over time developed a reputation as a place of great Hawaiian hospitality. It’s prestige even garnered royal intrigue, becoming a frequent destination for King Kalākaua, who was known to enjoy card games on the front porch (or lanai). Legend recounts a tale that he wagered the island of Molokini in a particularly competitive poker match at the "King's Cottage," as the building on the ranch is now named. Much to the disappointment of the winner, however, the quick-witted King Kalākaua clarified that he did not say Molokini, but rather ʻōmole kini, meaning a bottle of gin. Although the table stakes may have proffered a conflicting narrative, one principle is universal: never argue with the King.  

Hawaii’s Most Recognizable Fruit Makes its [Unexpected] Wine Debut

With a vision in place, the vineyard was set to work. Unfortunately, Hawaii had no indigenous vines, which can take years to mature. In the interim, Tedeschi procured equipment that would be necessary in the winemaking process and decided to conduct a few tests to ensure that it functioned properly. With grapes still maturing on the vine, Tedeschi turned his sights to a fruit with abundant supply on Maui: pineapple. Although pineapple wine was only intended as a testing method for the equipment, it soon became a favorite with tourists for its sweet characteristics and authentically-Hawaiian appeal. Tedeschi couldn’t ignore the growing demand. Tchelistcheff, a world-class winemaker from Napa Valley, was retained as a consultant to fine-tune the new Hawaiian beverage for broader market appeal and distribution. Maui Blanc, the vineyard’s best seller, has become a unique representation of Maui’s geographical location and agricultural history.

Maui Blanc Tasting Notes

The wine’s first impression is unsurprising, with strong pineapple and tropical citrus aromatics. Otherwise, the bouquet doesn’t demonstrate much complexity. The palate is semi-dry with pleasant, honeyed sweetness, balanced acidity and strong flavors of pineapple with subtle accents of tropical citrus. Overall, a very drinkable and refreshing wine with a lingering, clean finish, but not on par with a Burgundian Chardonnay, Alsatian Riesling, or Italian Verdicchio.

The Grape is Mightier than the Pineapple

Wait, should it? Before commencing harsh judgment and critique, a little perspective is necessary. What follows may contain a modicum of scientific musings, but bear with me for a few sentences. In the end, you will get a fantastic bar conversation fun fact that will make you look brilliant.

Vitis vinifera, the grape species used in the production of wine, is extraordinarily complex on a biochemical level. For thousands of years these vinifera varietals have undergone genetic manipulation and selective breeding. Winemakers excel at identifying and enhancing the chemical compounds and polyphenolics (often concentrated in stems, seeds and skins) that constitute certain desirable flavor profiles. Want grapefruit, bell pepper, or lychee on the nose? There is a phenolic for that. The end result is a complexity and harmony of flavors produced by viniferas varietals that is unparalleled amongst fermented beverages. Viniferas is vinously superior.

From a complexity perspective, can Maui Blanc be placed on the same pedestal with Chardonnay or Riesling? Of course not, nor should it be. Pineapple is vastly inferior to the grape in terms of biochemical complexity and diversity of flavor profiles. Maui Blanc must be enjoyed for what it is: a delightfully refreshing, semi-dry pineapple wine that pairs well with food, a warm summer afternoon, or ideally both.

While pineapples are tasty, the grape is still the fruit king of wine.

‘Ulupalakua Vineyards has plenty more to offer than pineapple wine. It boasts a full lineup of wines produced from classic varietals grown in its high elevation, volcanic vineyards, such as Syrah, Grenache, Viognier and Malbec. Need a vacation? Make Maui a part of the itinerary to experience both tropical and traditional in Maui Wine's full flight of unique offerings from the vineyard. While there, venturously explore the breathtaking slopes of Haleakalā. Inebriated volcanic adventures are inevitable.

So raise a glass to the King. A toast to Kamehameha, Hawaii’s greatest monarch, for bringing the island kingdom together. Cheers!