It seems almost trite to classify Chuck Furuya as a sommelier. After all, he wears so many hats (as wine director and managing partner of the DK Restaurants), and is a driving force for wine in Hawaii. But it also seems fitting, since he takes a simple, digestible approach to wine. “I’m not here to show off to the customers,” he says.
Fortunately, the wine often does most of the bragging. At VINO Italian Tapas & Wine Bar, Furuya and Restaurateur D.K. Kodama have created a simple but effective approach to wine; although the cellar boasts 6,000 to 8,000 bottles, Furuya chooses just 65 selections to pair with the Italian menu at any time. That selectivity earned VINO a “Top 50 Wine Destinations” from Food & Wine magazine, "Top 25 Wine Bars of America" from Travel & Leisure, and plaudits from chefs such as Mario Batali.
With a focus on local ingredients, Furuya works with Chef Keith Endo to select ingredients like squash blossoms, akule, and octopus for their quality and unique character, “but also because we can make more wine-friendly dishes using each [ingredient].” From there, the chef and sommelier examine how to increase complexity in the dish and still keep it wine-friendly through incorporating more local ingredients, such as Small Kine Farms mushrooms, homemade ricotta, or local eggplant-based caponata.
Many of the wines on Furuya’s list are what he refers to "café/bistro" wines, which are almost the opposite of the "trophy" wines featured by many other sommeliers. His inspiration for pouring these wines came from a trip to France, where Furuya was recommended an out-of-the-way café, packed with diners in spite of the deserted street. There was “a whole cross section of people, some in overalls, others in coat and tie with an attaché case,” says Furuya. “Do you know that every single table had wine with their lunch? And they were not holding up and examining the wine in the light,” he recalls. “They simply were eating the food and gulping their wines, just as we gulp fruit punch, iced tea, and soda in America with our lunch. It is a way of life there.” This experience directly influences his menu choices at VINO, and inspires the philosophy behind his wine program.
Furuya’s Four Mantras for Wines by the Glass:
1. First and foremost, the wines are delicious. If we expect our foods to be delicious, then we should expect our wines to be delicious as well, today, not 20 to 30 years from now.
2. If we expect our foods to be lighter and fresher, then our wines (especially by the glass) should also be lighter and fresher.
3. The wines should be food friendly, and in the case of whites, they should have a lemony edge. When one squeezes a lemon over a fish, what does it do? It cuts through the fishiness/oiliness and cleanses the palate between bites.
4. The wine should be “gulpable.” To me this means un-oaky, low-alcohol, and un-bitter, with no hard edges, so it just slides down the gullet.
For the Italian wine program at Vino, Furuya looks for indigenous grape varieties—such as Mataòssu, Mourvedre, and Corvina—and the production method of the wines. He feels better vinos are made with a little tinkering and by incorporating modern techniques when necessary: for example, the use of stainless steel (instead of concrete or enamel) in the making of Mataòssu, using cleaner barrels for Bandol, and incorporating a whole cluster press in the case of the rosé. This makes a better, more tasty, and impactful wine. When done right, he feels this combination more clearly and succinctly showcases the terroir, character, and, hopefully, the “soul” of the wine, and ideally appeals to a wider customer base.
“I am told Punta Crena's vineyard is roughly 1,200 meters from the sea, and I find a salinity character to it, which just accents the ricotta. Furthermore, I can smell the sun-baked rocks, wild shrub, and wild herbs surrounding the vineyard in the wine, all of which meld the rusticity in with the vegetables and mushrooms.
"In addition, we added the basil oil drizzle, to work with wines like this—made from aromatic grape varieties—which just zero in on the basil element to heighten the dish's flavors. Lastly, the wine's crisp, refreshing acidity keeps the palate fresh and alive between bites. This style of wine is delicious, light, and food friendly, even though these are 80-plus-year-old vines.”
Furuya paired the Chiaretto with the two dishes above, which is sometimes necessary for a tasting menu. The inherent challenge in dual pairings is usually finding a common element in both plates and connecting them with the wine. But as always, Furuya is way outside the box, but completely within reason. He explains: “Both of these dishes are surprisingly hard to pair wines with. In each case, a bitterness became evident when sampling the wine and food. Rather than creating synergy, many of the wines we tried created unpleasant [or bitter taste combinations].
"I believe in the arancino [as a beautiful dish], but it is the egg which creates the real challenge in pairing wines. In the case of the akule dish, I believe it is the innate sweetness of [the] caponata component that accentuates the bitterness and makes the mackerel (already quite fishy by itself) taste even more fishy and 'tinny,' quite unpleasant in both cases. We therefore looked to pair a wine which would serve to 'wash' down the food, styles we commonly find in cafés or bistros along the Mediterranean.
“The Corte Gardoni Chiaretto—regional reference for rosé—is undoubtedly one of the most delicious, gulpable pinks we have yet had from Italy! It is really, really hard to find these kinds of rosés in Italy, at least for me. As it turns out, this ‘special order’ wine was an ideal ‘washer down-er’ in both cases. But then again, wine cafés and bistros are not necessarily looking to stimulate the intellect, just serve good food and good regional wines, not Tre Bicchieri winners.”Furuya further explains this pairing:
“Domaine Tempier's Bandol rouge wines are some of the most unique, interesting, soulful red wines of the world,” says Furuya. “It took me a really long time to understand them. First of all, I am not convinced that the Mourvèdre grape variety is a noble one, (although I would say, Tempier's La Tourtine, La Migoua, and Cabassaou bottling are [noble] for the most part). Thankfully Lucien Peyraud at Domaine Tempier had the vision, passion, and determination to help resurrect the Bandol appellation after taking over the domaine in 1936, and applying for AOC status in 1941. At the same time he championed the Mourvèdre grape variety along the way. I cannot imagine the world of wines without theirs.
“I have come to learn and understand their wines, like most Old World wines, are really about the place, not about the grape variety. Their red wines therefore certainly showcase the [terroir] of Provence. While Cabernet and Pinot are aristocratic, Mourvèdre, I find, is like a mountain man with a foul mouth. That is, until it gets some bottle age. The 2002 Cabassaou we paired with the lamb shank is now 11 years old and has had time to round out, integrate, and unveil the many nuances and character once hidden, but still maintain remarkably youthful fruit and vigor in the core. Lamb shank calls for these kinds of wines. We added the root vegetables and parsnip purée to complement the wild rusticity of Tempier, Barolo, and other rustic red wines."For more information about Furuya’s love of Domaine Tempier, watch the video below.