Ahh, Hawaii. Such a beautiful place with beautiful people.
I seriously can’t think of a place I’ve traveled to where the people just seemed so genuinely happy. I may have to move. And while the state is vast with its many islands, we decided on this most recent trip to limit ourselves to the island of Oahu and truly experience much of what the island had to offer. As we get older in our travels (but I’m still a spring chicken!) we find we value the experience and the culture so much more rather than ticking off boxes on a checklist. Now, The Husband still has to slow me down as I will over-commit and I still have to nudge him along as he’ll sit in the same spot and drink coffee all day, but after years of traveling together, we think we’ve found a great balance.
Of course, all that beauty is appreciated so much more with some good vino and food. And yes, I know about some of the hole-in-the-wall, no frills joints offering up authentic eats – and we certainly visited a few of those too – but for fine wine, you generally end up with fine (somewhat) dining. So with that in mind, here are some great Honolulu wine spots worth checking out if you’re an oenophile. Most of these are in or near Waikiki as that was our home base as we liked the option of walking. But do be sure to see the rest of the island. We visited a number of other areas during our stay including Chinatown, Kaneohe (stunning beauty), the North Shore, Kaimuki, etc.
Located inside the crazy busy Ala Moana Center, the Vintage Cave Café is like a port in a storm. It’s hard to believe that such an elegant, upscale wine café is inside the mall.
But it’s there and is the perfect place to take a load off after you’ve shopped till you dropped. The Vintage Cave is actually a club that consists of two components – a more formal restaurant as well as a sister casual café. Both are located at the Ala Moana Center and open to non-members. Just don’t show up to the formal restaurant wearing your flip flops. But feel free to drop into the café while you’re shopping as excellent wine awaits. The Club gets it fair share of rare and allocated wines (everything from Bordeaux 1st growths to Petrus to Napa royalty such as Screaming Eagle and Harlan) but also has a nice selection of approachable wines. And they are more than happy to bring a bottle from one location over to the other.
We decided to treat ourselves a bit and got an (almost) too young bottle of Dominus along with a cheese plate.The great wine and friendly, attentive staff almost saw us whiling away the rest of the day there.
So when I heard that Barry O was a big fan of Alan Wong’s, I knew we had to put it on the list to see what all the fuss was about. The restaurant touts a selection of about 300 wines which is comprised of about 60% international selections. I was thrilled to sit down with the restaurant’s Wine Director, Mark Shishido, to learn more about the restaurant’s wine program and gain insight into the thought process involved in crafting the list. Given the range of ethnicities which comprise Hawaiian cuisine, its undoubtedly a challenge. The resulting list has a little bit for everyone including a range of prices and styles as well as regions represented. If you want something a bit geeky, you can get that too. A common thread running through the list is that the wines are food friendly – i.e. higher acidity and lower alcohol. And they take their wine program so seriously that they have a line of wines crafted for them.
The restaurant partners with winemakers around the world to craft wines that will pair with its cuisine. Occasionally this is done while creating the dish itself. One of the very first wines from these partnerships was a German Rheinhessen Riesling – a quintessential food wine. Even young chefs in training are educated on wine pairings and take into account potential pairings when creating the restaurant’s menus.
According to Mark, one of the biggest challenges to pair has been the restaurant’s braised short ribs. As I’m always up for a challenge…
And while my focus is on the wine, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how darn delicious the food was. I just loved the fusion of all the different ethnic cuisines. Creatively delicious!
Located in the Halekulani Hotel, La Mer is quite a luxury experience. The 5 star and 5 diamond French restaurant is the ultimate dining experience. While it is quite the splurge, the experience is one that will stay at the forefront of your travel experiences for a long time to come. Sitting down at your table facing out onto the Pacific, you know you are in for a special evening.
And the service is over the top. Seriously. Everyone was so attentive that I kept looking around to see if all of the attention was really meant for us. Even The Husband who’s not always impressed with what he calls pretty, “shi-shi” food very much enjoyed the experience.
As La Mer is a French restaurant, there is a heavy emphasis on French wine but the selection is quite global in its reach.
Wines that are classic and elegant and that pair with the restaurant’s delicate cuisine are front and center. The list is a wine geek’s dream for sure. But not to worry if you’re a novice as sommelier Kevin Toyama or one of the restaurant’s other somms will take great care of you and point you in the right direction.
We enjoyed the tasting menu during our visit and every detail was well thought out and well executed. Sparkling Rose Brut paired with an Anchovy Purée Potato Puff topped with caviar and 23 karat gold leaf was simply exquisite. And it only got better from there.
Click here for more on our dining experience at La Mer.
Located in the Royal Hawaiian Center, IL Lupino is a quaint Italian Trattoria & Wine Bar tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki. Sitting outside on the lanai with views of the Royal Hawaiian’s grounds, you almost forget where you are.
They have multiple wine cellars and I, of course, was happy to take a peek inside of them. I can never resist a good wine cellar! They also feature a nice selection of wines with the a Coravin system (go ahead and have a glass of Sassicaia or Opus One), but I opted for something a little less pricey.
Interestingly enough, they had a “featured wines” section of the menu that consisted of Spanish wines so I went with that. In addition to Italy and Spain, they feature a pretty global selection of wines including a few geek selections from Greece, Lebanon, and Israel. And if you’re indecisive, the restaurant’s entire by the glass selection is available as a flight. They also have a nice selection of large format bottles. As I was just there for vino, I nibbled on a few of the happy hour selections. Perfectly crisp fries – and that sauce!
Vintage 1901, located on the veranda of the historic Moana Surfrider hotel, is a fabulous wine bar/lounge overlooking a magnificent banyan tree and the beautiful beach beyond. It’s like a cool front porch, but with beach views and wine service. The space consists of a lovely wooden deck, open air doors, comfy patio furniture, and a wonderful staff. It’s such a chill spot to relax and people watch.
In addition to a diverse wine selection, they feature their “Signature Sassy Spiked Sangria”, creative cocktails, and nice a collection of artisan beers. They also have a selection of small bites available. Truffled Potato Tots? Yes please!
Wine selections consist of flights as well as some primo selections available through the Coravin system. Given my “treat yo self” vacay attitude, I settled on a glass of the 2012 Antinori Tignanello.
Vintage 1901 also has its own wine created for them – “Beachhouse at the Moana” Cabernet Sauvignon which is made by Ballard wines in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Part of the Waikiki Beach Walk complex amid all the action sits one of the multiple Roy’s locations. This is a great, laid-back spot to people watch and soak up the all the city’s activity. The restaurant is known as a high-end chain serving Hawaiian fusion fare in a contemporary setting and is a Hawaiian institution. Whether you go for the Prix-Fixe (with wine pairings), sushi, seafood, or the popular and ever-present short-ribs, your stomach will thank you. There was nothing that I didn’t like here.
And like the folks at Alan Wong’s, Roy’s has its own line of wines created for the restaurant. I learned that restaurants do this to ensure they have a certain selection of wines available whenever needed. As you can imagine, it’s not easy getting things to an island quickly.
In addition to its own wines, the rest of the wine list was pretty extensive with a wide range of options. Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the list given how casual the place is but was pleasantly surprised.
As one of the finest luxury hotels on the island – and the second oldest – The Royal Hawaiian (aka The Pink Palace of the Pacific) offers a spectacular beachfront location, impeccable service, and a wealth of history.
It’s been everything from a go-to for affluent European travelers when it first opened to THE place to stay for numerous celebrities and world dignitaries to a base for the Navy during World War II.1 As our home base for the trip, we certainly had our fair share of wine here. While the hotel’s Azure Restaurant was a treat, our favorite place to have wine at the hotel had to be from our room’s balcony. No shoes required!