It’s been about 15 years since I’ve been to the vineyards at ‘Ulupalakua Ranch on the leeward slopes of Haleakalā on Maui.
I was there when it was called Tedeschi Winery.
Yes, that’s how long ago it was.
Today, the winery goes by MauiWine, and it’s still the island’s only winery and the state’s oldest. (It’s been in business for 40 years, if you can believe that.)
Inside the tasting room at the King’s Cottage — it was built for visits of King Kalākaua, the last reigning king of Hawai‘i — where complimentary tastings are offered daily. That 18-foot bar is crafted from a single piece of solid mango wood.
We stopped by the tasting room at the winery, still a popular destination for visitors eager to sample the vineyard’s specialities including the popular pineapple wines.
In fact, that’s really the first wines — the Maui Splash, the Maui Blanc — that comes to mind when I think of ‘Ulupalakua.
And that’s only a small part of the kinds of vints this winery now has to offer.
My husband and I were lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the vineyard and winery this weekend by one of his closest friends, Kele Irvine, who works as the vineyard foreman, and Joe Hegele, the director of sales and marketing for MauiWine.
Our first stop was the vineyard, located about a mile away the winery and its tasting room at a lower elevation of about 1,750 to 1,900 feet above sea level. About 17 acres are currently in production, with views of Kaho‘olawe, Molokini and Lānaʻi.
“Welcome to my office,” Irvine says, smiling, his arms outstretched.
It’s really not a bad place to work.
The vineyard grows six varieties of grapes: Syrah (dark-skinned, for red wine), Malbec (purple grapes, for red wine), Grenache (red wine grapes), Gewürztraminer or Gewürz (aromatic grape, for white wines), Chenin blanc (white wine grape with higher acidity), and Viognier (white wine grape).
There are a lot of challenges in growing grapes in a region that’s not particularly known for cultivating this crop. One is that there’s no winter dormancy in Hawai‘i, which kills pests and rests the vines. So the team, headed by Irvine, has to fake winter for the vines, cutting off their water supply and hoping for no rain.
Oh, and don’t forget hurricanes like Iselle in 2014, which flattened entire rows of Syrah across three acres. Surprisingly, there was no damage to the grapes, but it took Irvine and his crew a month and a half to get the vineyard up and running. (Luckily, the Malbec, Grenache, Viognier, Chenin Blanc and Gewürztraminer were harvested before the storm hit.)
Or the weeds that are growing everywhere, particularly in neighboring plots and unused vineyard land. Irvine brings in 400 to 500 goats — “walking Weed Whackers” — to clear the area twice a year for two weeks at a time. It’s something vineyards in New Zealand do — and so far, it’s worked for the Maui ranch.
“This place has been a 40-year experiment,” Irvine says. “And we’re just figuring out what we can grow here … That’s the thing about growing grapes in Hawai‘i. Every season is different. We can just go down the list of variables.”
Blue Hawaiian Helicopters offers a tour of West Maui and Haleakalā with a stop at a remote landing site at ‘Ulupalakua Ranch, where you can sip the winery’s sparkling wine Lokelani and take in the stunning view from this elevation.
But the company is about to build its own venue site (above), which overlooks the vineyards and offers panoramic views of West Maui and the offshore islands of Molokini, Kaho‘olawe, Lānaʻi and Molokaʻi. This site, which will feature a trellis over this leveled area, should be completed this month. I predict this will be a coveted site for intimate parties, destination weddings and romantic getaways.
We scored an exclusive tasting of some of the winery’s estate wines with Hegele, who’s the son of the president of the company, Paula Hegele. He grew up on the ranch, working in the vineyards in the summer. He later ran a wine distribution company in Willamette Valley in Oregon. He came back to Maui two years ago to handle sales and marketing for the company.
The grounds feature historic buildings that were part of the famously lavish Rose Ranch, where Hawaiian royalty were entertained and a whaling captain spared no expense making this his home more than 150 years ago.
The winery began in 1974 with a partnership between C. Pardee Erdman, owner of ‘Ulupalakua Ranch, and Emil Tedeschi, who came from a family history of winemaking in Calistoga, Calif. They decided on this location — at around 2,000 feet elevation — and turned 23 acres of Maui’s countryside into a vineyard. In the late 1980s, Tedeschi left Maui and returned to California, turning over the operations to Paula Hegele. Over the past year, the company has made the transition from Tedeschi Winery to MauiWine to better reflect the brand.
In fact, the new logo was carved from an 8-by-5-foot slab of Cook Pine from one of the original trees planted on the grounds during the Rose Ranch era and mounted to a 16-by-8-foot lava rock wall just this month.
And last January, the company hired a new winemaker, Brett Miller, and his wife, Heather. Brett, who hails from Oregon, served as a vineyard manager for a premier Oregon vineyard management company, worked in the vineyard and cellar of Felton Road Winery and Central Otago Wine Company in New Zealand, and came back to Oregon to work as an assistant winemaker at Solena Estate before moving to Maui. His wife runs the tasting room.
Sampling the Lokelani, a sparkling wine in the Rose Ranch collection. It’s a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, all grown in California but made here on Maui in the very difficult and tedious méthode champenoise.
We got to sample some of the tasting menu items by Will Munder, the executive chef at ‘Ulupalakua Ranch Store & Grill, which is famous for elk burgers. (We regret we didn’t try them.) We nibbled on grilled Maui Gold pineapple spears dusted in li hing powder, mixed olives, a pimenton-grilled flank steak with salsa verde, an egg salad with black truffle and tobiko, and a housemade hummus and lavosh that was so good I actually took some home.
And then we sampled the wines — the Lokelani, a sparkling wine with nuances of fresh raspberries and orange blossom; the surprisingly delicious Hula O Maui pineapple sparkling wine that’s perfect for hot summer afternoons; and a classic Syrah that my husband couldn’t stop drinking.
We also sampled the first bottling of the winery’s Viognier — “a slutty white wine with big hips, swinging,” Hegele says — and a fresh and perky Rosé that I loved so much, I brought back two bottles just for me.
After a fun lunch, we toured the grounds, checked out the old “jail,” which was really where the ranch shackled unruly people, and walked through the production area.
It’s amazing the scale of production that goes on here. We’ve toured facilities and vineyards in Napa and Sonoma, and MauiWine is definitely on par. Credit folks like Irvine, Hegele and Miller, who have taken this company and its offerings to another level.
I can’t tell you how surprised I was to taste these wines. They’re nothing like I had remembered — not terrible and more novelty than anything else. No, these wines are stellar and can stand up against the vints from established wineries all over the world.
I dare say the Rosé and sparkling wines here are among my all-time favorites — and they’re locally produced and affordable. How can you beat that?
MauiWine at ‘Ulupalakua Ranch, 14815 Pi‘ilani Highway, Kula, Maui. Complimentary tastings are offered from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, with guided tours of the historic estate, production area and wine cellar three times a day. Phone: (808) 878-6058.