Once asked to use a wine term to describe himself, Chuck Furuya said: Still has a ways to go. Often called Hawai‘i’s professor of wine, Furuya is the first master sommelier from an ethnic minority, ever. Easily approachable, down to earth, never intimidating, and known for his terrible jokes, Furuya wants to open people’s minds about wine and turn them on to ones they might never taste. His job, as he sees it, is education.
I talked with Chuck for “What I’m Reading,” and printed a selection of our conversation in the Honolulu Advertiser, which is now only available through the pay archives. So today I’m including our entire conversation here, showcasing the wine teacher at work.
What I’m Reading | Chuck Furuya
Q&A with Christine Thomas
–What are you reading?
The boring thing is what I read is about wine. The book I’m reading now, it’s work-related but in a funny way. It’s about a guy who’s a wine importer and his thoughts and views on wine. It’s more about his travels and thoughts, and then about wine. Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France by Kermit Lynch. It’s a documentation of his travels through the country regions of France. It tells you stories and anecdotes about people and wine. It’s more about the culture of wine as opposed to the wine itself. What that brings to light for me is that we think of wine as being correct or flawed or is it good and that’s all great. Let me tell you a story
For 11 years I was involved in an event called Cuisines of the Sun…the only chef there from Hawai`i was Alan Wong, otherwise it was all these other guys Emeril … all the top chefs. Every year there were four wine makers invited and the themes of the wine would go with the food in most cases. Next year we had three Californias and one from France. Every year we also had sommeliers. Our function was to make sure the glasses were clean and the wines were served at the right temperature and so on … to keep everybody engaged and learning from the event we used to do byob tastings where you bring your own wine. Top chefs bring wine out of their personal cellars or ones they’ve come across, and taste them blind, so we’d have fun alongside the mundane.
One night I brought Tempier Bandol, a red wine from Provence. It smells earthy, humus, dead autumn leaves, gaminess instead of the ripe fruit smells from California—in other words it’s a very controversial wine. All three said it was flawed—one guy even said how dare we serve a wine like that. The French man…finally said I don’t understand you Americans, you worry too much about the scientific side of wine making. This wine has been made by the same family for centuries and centuries. Would I make it, no. But this is part of their culture and heritage—more than just grapes and wine barrels.
The California boom really began in the early ‘70s, but these wines have been made forever. The point is: It’s about a sense of place. The point is, this is family, this is their vineyard, this is how they make their wine.
Wine is more than just being correctly produced or the certain grape that is in fad…at Vino the biggest challenge we have is finding Italian wines that fit with our food…it’s the same discussion. It’s about a sense of place, about the culture, about heritage, about being indigenous, about being typical.
To me this book sheds a little bit of light on the way that this one man used to make his wine and that’s why it stood out from all his neighbors—it’s like an art form, this is what his vineyard wanted to say. I read this once a year because it reminds me that…wine, after all, has been with us for centuries and centuries and centuries. Where did it all start? It’s not about fashion not about trends, not about I got this wine did you?
It doesn’t have a lot of info for the wine geek…it’s the refreshingly honest cultural writings of a man’s travels through Southern part of France, and appreciating and understanding what their culture and heritage is and where it came from.
–Is it about going back to the roots?
He was writing almost like a diary. He wasn’t trying to make a philosophical statement but a personal statement about what he saw and tasted. It changed the way I thought about wines, and still changes it today.
–Why is it still transformative?
Every time I read that book I see something different—something I didn’t notice before. His second book Inspiring Thirst: Vintage Selections from The Kermit Lynch Wine Brochure is not really a book that he single-handedly wrote, but a compilation—he sends out a monthly newsletter to his buyers. They compiled a book of his most profound newsletters. This is a whole nother interesting phenomenon. Essentially my generation for the most part overlaps with Kermit’s generation, even though he’s a little older than me. We both got into wines around the same time…so our wine love life is very similar in terms of time.
I’ve been following Kermit Lynch and tasting his wines for—this is a reminder of some of the things I’ve forgotten or a re-look for some of those things that went over my head at the time. It’s a cool thing because in reality if you look at who Kermit has brought to the United States, it’s truly some of the master wine makers of the world, especially France. As these people pass away and retire, they’re will never be another.
In each case there’s a different reason why. Most of these producers to make the kind of wine they make, it’s very rigorous, unglamorous—like being a farmer in the most adverse conditions. It’s like toil—it ain’t fun! That’s number one, so I don’t think the younger generation is willing to go through that. Two, philosophies have changed, so even in cooking some of the masters of cooking before that used to take this thing and reduce it…a lot of those things are no longer applicable to today’s food, to modern fusion. I think the same is true with wine. Like in Italy, more people are using French oak in their wine making…. It’s also the media. …
–Is it difficult to authentically match culture with food given all these changes, and especially in Hawai`i where our food is fusion and there is limited wine production?
Yes. I think the more important analogy is we look at Hawai`i and we understand the Merrie Monarch Festival celebrates hula and the Hawaiian language. If we don’t appreciate and understand all the regional wines, then pretty soon all the wines of the world are going to taste the same.
–How do you stay educated, and educate others on regional wines?
The biggest impact I’ve had in terms of wine that has come from an outside source is someone Dean Okimoto introduced me to. Father GG is an ex-priest out in Makaha; he has leased a five-acre parcel right by Makaha Elementary School. This land is broken up into sub-parcels and each is farmed by a different school…the thing that was super emotional for me….what father GG teaches is respect the land, and by respecting the land you respect your fellow person. …It’s the base idea for what Dean and I are talking about. What all these people have in common is passion, to make something substantial like that and doing it that way—it’s gotta come from passion, they know that this is right, that it has to be done. That’s another thing about that book. It inspires me all the time.
Photo linked to Sansei Hawaii, a great restaurant (especially at the Kapalua location with my favorite Chef Ivan Pahk). Mahalo!