DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Holly and Judd Finkelstein, left, owners of Judd's Hill winery, visited the KoAloha Ukulele workshop and met company founder Alvin Okami and his son Paul. Judd Finkelstein plays a KoAloha ukulele in his Napa Valley, Calif., band, the Maikai Gents.
A strum heard across the sea
A California winemaker has become fast friends with a local ukulele maker
Though he's never lived in Hawaii, winemaker Judd Finkelstein manages to infuse a bit of the islands into Napa Valley.
Terry Kakazu, owner of HASR wine shop in downtown Honolulu, said she first spotted Finkelstein in unusual attire while she was visiting Northern California. "Nobody in Napa Valley wears shorts and a bright orange aloha shirt," she said. "That caught my eye; it was funny."
Growing up on his father's vineyard, Judd "always felt a connection to Hawaii and Hawaiian culture, just from taking childhood trips," according to his wife and business partner, Holly Finkelstein, who visited Honolulu with her husband late last month.
This affinity blossomed about eight years ago when he decided to throw a luau-style birthday party for himself and hired a ukulele player to perform. But the musician never followed through. So Judd, already a skilled guitar and bass player in a band, decided he would teach himself.
COURTESY JUDD'S HILL WINES
Judd Finkelstein (he had a beard at the time) carves a tiki as his band, the Maikai Gents, performs behind him at his winery. The tiki has since taken up residence in the winery's tasting room.
On a mission, he shopped in Los Angeles, where they lived at the time, and found himself immediately drawn to the KoAloha Ukulele. "I didn't know the brand," he said. "I just knew it was the most beautiful ukulele I'd ever strummed."
He hasn't stopped since. Often attired in an aloha shirt, he'll play and sing for groups tasting at his winery, while Holly dances hula. Last year, his band, the Maikai Gents, released its first CD of vintage "hapa-haole songs," reminiscent of Waikiki in the 1950s.
Even after years of playing the instrument, he had not met the creators -- until an unfortunate incident brought them together. After a performance at the Napa Valley wine auction, Judd set his ukulele on a table, and someone accidentally bumped it to the ground, cracking it. "I was a little upset," Judd said. He e-mailed KoAloha Ukulele to inquire about obtaining repairs on the mainland.
The folks at KoAloha told him to send it to Hawaii and invited him to visit. So Judd flew across the ocean "to meet the craftsmen behind the ukulele that I love."
Their products are different, but the striking similarities between the two family-run businesses ignited a lasting friendship.
Judd's Hill wines attracted Kakazu because they "have a lot of character to them -- especially the estate brand," she said. Now that she knows Finkelstein personally, it makes the wines even more special. "We've been loyal supporters for years."
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Sharing a breakfast of pastries and juice are Paul, left, and Alvin Okami of KoAloha Ukulele shop and Judd and Holly Finkelstein of Judd's Hill Winery in Napa Valley, Calif. Despite the different nature of their businesses, the Okamis and Finkelsteins found common ground when the winemakers visited.
What do ukuleles and wine have in common? Quite a lot -- at least when the companies making them are Judd's Hill Winery in California and KoAloha Ukulele in Hawaii.
The similarities became clear last month in the modest KoAloha Ukulele workshop and showroom in Honolulu, where Napa Valley winemaker Judd Finkelstein and his wife, Holly, opened a box of Coco Puffs from Liliha Bakery like a couple of locals.
The Okami family, which owns KoAloha, gathered next to the Finkelsteins on stools around a wooden table while a staff member carefully sanded the head of an ukulele-in-progress in an adjacent room that smelled of sawdust.
Music and wine bring people together. So it seemed logical to assemble the unusually connected families to share stories about their respective passions. Since the clock had not yet struck noon, the wine stayed in the bottle, but a song on KoAloha's soon-to-be-released "Sceptre: The Vision" ukulele helped the conversation flow.
Both companies are committed to the natural creative process -- one with wood, the other with grapes -- and limiting production numbers to maintain the handcrafted element of every instrument or bottle of wine.
Judd sifts and crushes grapes, sniffs the contents of barrels and tastes the results with his father, Art Finkelstein. Judd's mother, Bunnie, runs the business with Holly. Because their new tasting room began welcoming customers by appointment in January, Judd makes a point of sharing his knowledge about the wine with every group.
"It's very personal to me," he said during the vacation/work trip to Hawaii. "I put a lot of myself into the wine."
Alvin Okami, a former Royal Hawaiian Band oboe player who started KoAloha Ukulele, agreed. "There's so many parallels between our businesses. He uses his nose and mouth; I use my eyes and ears."
Judd added, "Both are very sensory."
Okami quickly followed: "And you need to develop those senses to such a critical degree."
Family comprises the core of both companies.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Benjamin Sacro lightly sands the koa surface to put the finishing touches on a KoAloha ukulele. Judd, left, and Holly Finkelstein and company founder Alvin Okami observe. Judd Finkelstein plays a KoAloha instrument in a band called the Maikai Gents in California.
In 1995 Alvin Okami started the business that his two sons, Paul and Alan, now run. Alvin's wife, Patricia, is the "glue" that holds everything together, he said. "It's truly a family business where everyone's job is absolutely critical."
Paul Okami agreed. "It's a very powerful thing," said the 29-year-old, who began by sweeping the floors when he was little and now creates custom designs for clients. "It goes beyond the notes on the page. ... It touches people. We put all of that love and aloha into the instrument. And if we get too big, the spirit of what we have as an owner is lost."
The Okami family believes that each ukulele design "deserves its own attention." Alvin estimates that he's personally constructed nearly 11,000 ukuleles. The company produces about 250 per month.
Just as KoAloha creates custom ukuleles, Judd's Hill began its MicroCrush operation in 1992 "for wine enthusiasts," said Judd. Clients choose the grape source, the barrel and help design the label. Outside the MicroCrush operation, the boutique winery releases about 3,000 cases per year. Specialties include cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and petite sirah.
For the Finkelsteins, it began with Whitehall Lane Winery in the 1970s, started by Judd's father, who "likes to have his hands dirty," according to Judd. When the winery grew too big, his father sold it and started Judd's Hill.
"Usually people put their last names on the label," said Judd. "But ours is Finkelstein, and that doesn't even fit on a label!" He speculated that his parents named the winery after him to "lure him back into the business" from his work in the Hollywood film industry.
It worked. He gives his official title as "owner, winemaker, barrel sniffer, toilet scrubber. ... It's a small family business. Everybody does everything."
Around the wooden table, heads nodded. "When you have your own business," added Holly, "it's your life."