RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
John Ball, left, and his son Shannon are the owners of Wine The Experience, a shop where customers can bottle their own wine. Here, they are standing in the storage room, where the wine ferments.
The chance to get together with friends is part of the appeal at Wine The Experience
Khan Lau, a regular customer at Wine The Experience, said that the simple social encounters he plans usually evolve once he begins the corking process. "You start pouring wine, and pretty soon everyone is commingling," he said. "It's a great place to meet people who like good food, good wine, good times. You're going to get people who are like-minded."
Lau believes that several factors play a role in the success of the Kapahulu winery. "I think (owner) Shannon Ball has a lot to do with it. He's a natural host. And the layout is such that the room is really open, but it still can be subdivided."
The 2,500-square-foot shop can hold a single group of up to 50, or several smaller assemblies. Past assemblies have included belly dancing, a harpist and a classical string quartet. A tango association even figured out a way to dance in the intimate, cafe-style setting.
Inspired by his work in trendy, chef-owned restaurants on the mainland, Shannon Ball began to learn more about wine, and wanted to share his knowledge in a setting that felt like a winery yet was conducive to convivial gatherings. So he opened the store with his father, John Ball, in 2004.
"It's kind of like Napa -- before it got too popular," said Shannon. Guests can choose from 60 different wines, and may bring in additional ingredients, as Lau did, to fortify a port.
"We pretty much provide everything except your friends and your food," said Shannon. "It's nice to have wine you know you like drinking. You don't want to spend over $20 (per bottle), and you don't want to gamble." And one of the key reasons to embark on this journey, he said, is because the wine "represents you, too." The custom label doesn't hurt either. In other words, "you don't leave with masking tape on your bottle."
The ingredients provided are precisely measured, so it's difficult to make a mistake. The wine ferments in large glass bottles rather than barrels, which omits the oak flavor. Instead, you add your own, ranging from heavy dark French oak to untoasted American oak.
The owners monitor the wine every day in the beginning, then follow it closely through the fermentation process. Because of the absence of sulfites and other preservatives, the wine is extremely pure (fewer headaches!), but its shelf life is more limited than a store purchase would be. For best results, customers plan their events and work backward from there, arranging to make the wine at least eight weeks before. Along the way, the owners keep a close eye on the product, making sure you stay on schedule.
For Shannon, who worked in the biotech world for several years after college, the transition to winemaker has been smooth.
"I didn't do wine, but the steps for it involve biochemistry," he said. "Only now I have a fun product!"