Learning wine from the master

By February 5, 2016 Food

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I know hardly anything about wine.

Except that it’s alcoholic, it comes from grapes, and I like it.

Like most wine novices, I’m stuck in a single category of wine. Right now, it’s anything sparkly. And I can’t seem to get out of it.

So when I found out about a new series of wine classes offered by Hawai‘i’s master sommelier Chuck Furuya at Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar, I quickly signed up for the first class in early January.

Except by the time the class was announced — via the restaurant’s newsletter — it was already filled.

You’ve got to be kidding me!

Luckily for me — and, apparently dozens of others — Furuya opened two more classes in January to accommodate the growing wait list of interested wine-o-philes eager to learn from the master. (Furuya, who co-owns Vino, became only the tenth person in the U.S. to pass the rigorous Master Sommelier exam back in 1988. He created the wine pairings and wrote the wine introduction for the first Hawai‘i regional cuisine cookbook, “The New Cuisine of Hawai‘i.” He’s kind of a big deal.)

The class was entitled, “Wine 101,” a basic primer to wine. (The next class is aptly labeled, “Wine 201,” but it doesn’t mean it’s a progressive series. All of his classes are introductory.)

It was held in one of the upstairs room at Vino’s new location at the Waterfront Plaza, basically across the breezeway of its previous spot. The class is limited to 25 people, each getting to sample eight different wines equally no more than 12 ounces total. (“That responsible,” Furuya said.)

This class was all about chardonnay — yay! — and it started with Furuya explaining the world of wines. I had no idea there are about 10,000 grape varieties, of which less than 1,000 make suitable wine. And I didn’t realize that big-box retailers like Safeway and Costco only buy what sells, not concerned so much about quality or niche demand.

Furuya shared with us his values when it comes to wines: These are wines from families who run their own vineyards and who have invested in this product, he focuses on heirloom or heritage vines, and he likes to work with people who farm sustainability. He likes his wines to evoke a sense of place.

Of course, this all went over my head. I drink wine because it tastes good — and I don’t know much more beyond that.

But that’s what was so interesting about this class. You walk out knowing a little more than you did coming in.

Here’s how it worked: We sampled two wines, side by side. First, he asked us to smell the wine. Does it smell fruity? Does it smell like the ocean? Next, we sipped and identified the body of the wine, the weight of the wine in our mouths. “It’s like comparing skim to whole milk,” Furuya said. Then, we noted the acidity of the wine. This is what allows it to be paired with certain foods. And finally, we tasted it. Was it dry? Was it full-bodied? Was it sweet or salty?

We did this four times, noting the subtle differences between each glass of chardonnay. Some had a more mineral taste, an indicator of where these vines grow. Others were big and bold and showy.

I couldn’t believe how much I had learned in just an hour! I figured out that I liked lighter-bodied, medium-dry chardonnay. Who knew!

***

For anyone interested in signing up for Furuya’s wine classes, get on Vino’s email list at vinohawaii.com or call (808) 524-8466 for reservations. Cost is $25 per person (not including tax or gratuity) and tasting participants who dine at Vino right after the class get 25 percent off regular menu items.

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Learning from the ‘Wild’ Cheryl Strayed

By January 28, 2016 Musings, The Daily Dish

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There’s nothing I enjoy more than writing.

But a close second is learning how to write better — and by a well-respected, New York Times bestselling author. It’s a writer-nerd dream!

I was fortunate enough to make the cut to attend the 10th annual Hanalei Writers Retreat this past weekend on Kaua‘i, a two-day intensive writing workshop led by Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir, “Wild,” topped the New York Times Bestseller list, was named a Best Nonfiction Book of 2012 pick by The Boston Globe and Entertainment Weekly, made the Best Books of the Year list by NPR, and was turned into a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.

It was my first time to this retreat — and, to be honest, any kind of retreat where all you do is write. I know it’s not for everyone, but to me, it was a dream.

The schedule was simple: Show up at 9 a.m. on Saturday with a laptop or notebook — or, in my case, both — and maybe some snacks and get ready to work.

First off, we got to stay here, right on Hanalei Bay. It was a good start!

First off, we got to stay here, right on Hanalei Bay. It was a good start!

Strayed is as talented a teacher as she is a writer.

Strayed is as talented a teacher as she is a writer.

Now, I was an English major and have spent a lot of time in writers’ groups and fiction workshops. And while I was already wowed by the star power of Strayed, she turned out to be a phenomenal teacher, too, very generous and compassionate and instructional. She discussed the mechanics of memoir writing, from where our stories come from to being fearless with the truth.

“You have to transcend the civil, the polite, and write who you really are,” Strayed says. “You want to aspire to credibility, not likeability.”

What a perfect place to sit and write.

What a perfect place to sit and write.

We spent hours talking, learning and, of course, writing. Some worked on their own memoirs, others crafted new material for the class based on writing prompts. While the scenery was a bit distracting, the place was perfect for this — tranquil, picturesque, soul-filling.

For many of us, including Strayed, writing can be incredibly therapeutic. There have been many times when I’ve turned to my journal or laptop to work out complicated issues. There’s something powerful about actually, physically writing something down — and seeing your words (and thoughts and feelings) on paper. It becomes suddenly and alarmingly real.

I love writing for all these reasons. But it can be a very solitary process. We tend to write alone, often in dimly lit rooms or corners of trendy coffee shops. We don’t talk to anyone, we turn off our cell phones, sometimes we even block such time-sucking sites as Facebook and Amazon.

So it’s nice to be around other hermit-like writers, to share and commiserate and cheer each other on. It was a relief to hear I wasn’t alone in my fear of writing something utterly and shamefully crappy. And I loved hear Strayed’s own stories of procrastination and self-deprication.

Oh, and we get to spend a weekend in Hanalei on Kaua‘i? Sign me up!

Hanalei Bay. Right?

Hanalei Bay. Right?

I came back from the retreat refreshed and recharged and eager to start writing. (Lucky for me I write for a living!) And I did come back with this new perspective: It doesn’t really matter how good or talented you are, if you love it, do it. That’s all that matters.

Thanks, Cheryl. :)

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A Day in the Life of a Magazine Writer

By January 20, 2016 #CatTravels, Musings, The Daily Dish

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People often wonder what I do all day.

If you follow me on social media, it may look like all I do is eat, surf, hike with my dogs and bake butter mochi.

That’s partially true.

But since 1997 — and I’ve just realized this is actually a long time ago! — I’ve been working as a writer. My longest stint (10 years) has been with a daily newspaper, my shortest as a government public information officer (9 months). And for the past several years, I’ve been a freelance writer. Meaning, I write for a variety of outlets, from consumer magazines to travel guides to start-up websites. And meaning, I write all sorts of things, from long-form non-fiction to blurbs in brochures that hardly get noticed.

Last November, I was fortunate enough to get a full-time job doing exactly what I love. As food editor at HONOLULU Magazine, I write about new restaurants, prominent chefs, food trends and local agriculture. It’s really a dream job.

(Interestingly enough, I was talking to a friend about how lucky I feel to get paid to write all day, and she winced. “That sounds like my worst nightmare,” she said. To each her own, I guess!)

But sometimes — and this is when life gets really good — I get tossed a writing assignment that takes me away from the day-to-day. I mean, I love eating white truffle risotto like anyone else, but sometimes every food writer needs a break.

My editor wandered over to my cubicle and asked what I was doing on Saturday.

Usually, that’s never a comfortable question to answer. In other workplaces, I’ve desperately scrambled for excuses — Baby shower! Funeral! Unscheduled appendectomy! — to get out of working on the weekend.

But there was something about the way she had asked — aside from very nicely — that made me think this was different.

She wanted to know if I’d be willing and able to fly to the Big Island to tour the observatories atop Mauna Kea, the world’s largest mountain and the absolute best place on Earth to study the stars.

The Maunakea Observatories and the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center partnered to offer free monthly tours of the world-class telescopes atop this sacred mountain after protests erupted last year against the building of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT. (You’ve probably seen the hashtag.)

Called the Kamaʻāina Observatory Experience, this daylong experience allows residents to learn more about what’s going on up there, how science and culture can work hand-in-hand, and what kind of larger impact the research done at these observatories has on the world around us.

My inner geology geek squealed!

“Of course! No problem! I’m so there!”

And so the work begins.

I Googled the tour, which had already been promoted on several news outlets. I made contact with the public relations person in charge of organizing this field trip for me. And I booked my flight — arriving early enough to eat at Ken’s House of Pancakes and with enough time to make the flight home. (I’ve missed many flights in my years of traveling. Sometimes I’m at the airport, waiting, and I still manage to miss my flight. It’s a talent.)

Then it’s time to do research. You never want to walk into an interview — in this case, a daylong tour — without knowing what’s going on. What’s the point of going on this tour? What should I expect? What would readers want to know? These are the important questions I need to answer in my story.

We landed in Hilo at around 7:30 a.m., giving us an hour to eat breakfast before making the hourlong drive to the Maunakea Visitor Information Center at around 9,300 feet above sea level.

I looked over the waivers I had signed the night before. (You have to sign these liability forms at sea level, believe it or not. I found out why soon enough.) I’ll be honest, I just glanced at them. Reading them, though, was a bit eye-opening. I probably shouldn’t have had that glass of wine for dinner — or the eggs, bacon, hash browns, waffles and Diet Coke for breakfast that morning.

I was, however, prepared for the weather.

At the summit, which soars 14,000 feet above sea level, the temperature outside hovered around 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit — and that’s without the wind chill. Luckily for us, the winds were only blowing about 30 miles per hour. It has gotten as crazy as 150 mph, which is just insane.

Inside the telescopes, though, is a different matter. Since the instruments are exposed to the air when the observatories are open, the temperature inside has to be the same as it would be outside at night. So it’s close to freezing inside. Yes, freezing. Layering — and gloves and a beanie and a scarf — were imperative.

So after a very informational — and important — two hours of presentations and safety briefings at Hale Pōhaku, a collection of support facilities for the people who work at the telescopes, we headed to the cafeteria there for lunch.

Teriyaki beef was on the menu!

Teriyaki beef was on the menu!

As food editor, ahem, I felt compelled to, you know, sample the food. All the food. Today’s menu included beef teriyaki, chunks of seared ‘ahi, egg foo young, crinkle-cut fries, salad, rice and four flavors of ice cream.

And to be honest, the food was great. I could eat here every day.

Posted on a bulletin board in the kitchen was the menu for the rest of the month. Pork adobo, shrimp tempura, laulau, kalbi short ribs, fresh corned beef and cabbage, teri chicken, meat jun, TACOS. Sign me up!

After digesting another too-big meal — you want to keep oxygen in your head, not in your stomach — we rode up to the summit in two four-wheel-drive passenger vans. And as we progressed through the alpine region of Mauna Kea lined with māmane trees, we could start to feel the elevation change. I felt like passing out — though I did have a restless sleep earlier that night — and my husband was already feeling lightheaded, a typical symptom of altitude sickness.

I went over the list in my head. Headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite, nauseas, vomiting. So far, so good. Our guides told us that most of us would feel something, though only a few might actually get sick enough to need oxygen or be transported back to the visitor’s center.

Outside the observatories. It was about 45 degrees.

Outside the observatories. It was about 45 degrees.

Kumu hula and our cultural guide Micah Kamohoali‘i, taking a break in the control room at the Gemini Observatory.

Kumu hula and our cultural guide Micah Kamohoali‘i, taking a break in the control room in the Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope.

In the break room in the Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope. Eating chocolate made all of us feel better.

In the break room in the Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope. Eating chocolate made all of us feel better.

When we stepped out of the vans, it was obvious my husband wasn’t feeling well. As soon as we get inside the Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope, our guides checked our oxygen saturation levels. To put this into perspective, normal blood oxygen levels in humans should be at least 90 percent. If it’s below 90 percent, it’s considered low, resulting in hypoxemia. Below 80 percent, and it could compromise organ function.

My husband was at 69 percent.

He was quickly outfitted with an oxygen tank — as were a few others — and immediately felt better. Better enough to spend the next two hours at the summit, touring two telescopes and even asking semi-coherent questions. (But we did rethink our plans to hike to Everest Base Camp this year.)

Lightheadedness? I'll take it with this view!

Lightheadedness? I’ll take it with this view!

I felt a bit lightheaded and disoriented up there, too, I’m not going to lie. But as my first time to the summit, the strange feeling was well worth it. I learned so much about the science that goes on up here. I learned more about the cultural significance of the tallest peak in Oceania. And I learned that there’s no way I could ever get a job at a telescope and have to work at this elevation. Could you imagine my emails?

And that’s what this job is all about. It’s about learning and sharing, and that’s it.

Traveling? Well, that’s gravy.

Read my story on HONOLULU Magazine’s website here.

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Some things (should) never change

By January 15, 2016 Musings, The Daily Dish

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Last night a group of us met up for drinks at AMUSE Wine Bar in the Honolulu Design Center.

It had been a long day, and a glass of rosé sounded incredibly appealing.

And it had been a long time since I had seen this particular group of girlfriends. As it happens, life had pulled many of us in different directions. What had brought us together initially — we were all volunteers in the Cherry Blossom Festival — wasn’t something we all shared anymore. Some of us still helped out, others moved on. So we didn’t have that annual reason — the festival and all of its events — to bring us together.

It’s not that we don’t keep in touch. Thanks to social media and texting, it’s easier than ever to stay in contact with your friends, even ones who don’t live here anymore. I probably text some of them several times a week — sometimes several times a day — but could go weeks without ever seeing them face-to-face.

And therein lies the rub, right? We stay in touch electronically, but we don’t actually see each other anymore. We don’t talk or laugh or hug — and that’s something sorely missing in our lives.

So while we’re mostly caught up on things like births and illnesses and vacations and new jobs and husbands, we don’t really know the details of our lives. And it’s in these details that I think make close friendships so special.

I got to the wine bar a bit late, frantically scrambling to get home before heading back into town. (I forgot how bad Downtown Honolulu traffic at pau hana can be!) Most of my friends were there already, some with half-filled glasses of wine. We fell easily into catch-up conversations about everything from a son who’s trying out for the football team at school to my recent experience with a Chinese healer. (Long story, maybe a blog later.)

This group, several years ago, was a very different bunch. Most of us were single without kids (and fewer dogs). Some were starting new jobs or careers, others were trying to get of them. Some of us were dating and knocking back shots and planning girls’ trips to Vegas. It was a carefree, stressful, exuberant time.

And then we got married, had kids, adopted more dogs (then chickens), bought homes, changed careers, became full-fledged, mortgage-paying adults with beneficiaries. It all happened so fast!

I feel like I’m late to this adult game, having one unsuccessful marriage and no luck in the child department. But as it turns out, it doesn’t matter. It never mattered. We weren’t friends because we had a ton in common. We were friends because, as luck had it, our meandering paths in life had intersected. And we liked each other. I mean, truly liked each other. It’s a real, genuine appreciation for the other person, and that’s what makes this group so special.

I love that one of them is a master of spreadsheets. I love that another has a photographic memory and always calls my dad, “Andy.” I love that one has every single Apple product that has ever existed — and is totally unashamed about it.

I couldn’t be more different from these women and, yet, we all get along. We laugh with our eyes closed — being Asian helps — and know when to pull someone in for a warm hug. We have all been there for each other through divorces, promotions, births, miscarriages, marriages, every heartache and every celebration.

We may not celebrate birthdays or hang out every weekend or even meet up for coffee once a month. But we text, we keep up on Facebook and we know that if we ever need a friend, we always have each other.

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Saying goodbye to my Murano

By January 12, 2016 Musings, The Daily Dish

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I never thought I’d get so attached to a car I never wanted.

Back in 2011, I totaled my 2000 Honda Civic on Kalaniana‘ole Highway. I had had that car for 11 years — and suddenly, it was gone.

I didn’t occur to me then how attached I was to my Civic. I had reluctantly bought the car — used — and had even tried to sell it a couple of times to no avail. It was a coupe, too small, too low to the ground, I complained. But I could fit my longboard inside of it, no problem. And I moved several times with the help of that little car. It was a trooper, and I had grown to love it.

I almost cried when it got hauled away, wishing I could drive it one last time.

My then-boyfriend was driving a 2003 Nissan Murano, a mid-size crossover SUV that he had long admired. I wasn’t much of a fan. Compared to my Civic, this was a tank, hard to drive and maneuver, almost impossible to parallel park. He liked it because it was safe, well-built and aesthetically pleasing. And since he was getting his Ph.D. in Wisconsin, the all-wheel-drive feature on the Murano was particularly useful should he ever decide to ship his car to the Mainland.

But he didn’t. It stayed here. And it worked out just perfectly since I now didn’t have a car of my own.

Fast-foward a couple of years — we got married and divorced — and he graciously let me keep the Murano while he stayed in Wisconsin. I was incredibly grateful, though I secretly fantasized about replacing it with something smaller and easier to park.

But over the years, something happened. I got attached.

The Murano is almost the exact opposite of my old Civic. It’s bulky, heavy and imposing. It’s huge and tall and not easy to get into.

But on the flip side, I always felt safe in it. I knew other cars could actually see me. I could lug just about the entire contents of my rental in it. And whenever I pulled up to a fast-food drive-through window, I was eye-to-eye with the cashier. It felt good.

It reliably carried three dogs and me to Makapu‘u most mornings. It securely housed my longboard. And it safely got me from place to place, providing a comfortable ride and always with ice-cold air-conditioning.

But like with most older cars, the Murano was seeing its final days. And it was time to move on.

I resisted. My husband had long wanted me to get a newer car. It would be safer, more reliable. It would give me — meaning, him — peace of mind.

The idea of buying a new car — and I’ve never had a new car in my life — had been unthinkable. A car depreciates in value as soon as you drive it off the lot, and I figured it would be more worthwhile financially to maintain my old Murano instead of ditch it altogether and get a new one.

But despite my argument to keep it, the reasons for letting it go won out.

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Last night, I drove to the Honda dealership in Kāneʻohe and traded it in for a new Honda Fit.

As ridiculous as this sounds, I actually teared up.

Who gets attached to cars like this? It’s crazy! But there I was, running my hand over the contours of the car one last time. I thought about how the dogs would sleep in the backseat after a long, hot hike. I thought about the Christmas trees, bicycles, surfboards, fishing gear and groceries it had carried. I thought about how much this car has been part of my life for the past six years. I snapped one last photo, took a deep breath and let it go.

I had to.

I’ve got a new car to obsess over.

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