COURTESY VOLCANO WINERY
Volcano's rocky terrain was replaced with topsoil to accomodate the grapes that go into Volcano Winery's wines.
Volcano Winery develops an acquired taste for tea
You might call Alex Wood a magician of sorts. He has helped transform a 3.5-acre parcel of bleak, barren lava in Pele's back yard into a flourishing vineyard of premium Chambourcin, Marchael Foch, Cayuga White, Pinot Noir, Symphony and Syrah grapes.
» Address: 35 Pii Mauna Drive, Volcano, Big Island (at the 30-mile marker of Highway 11)
» Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily
» Phone: 967-7772 on the Big Island or toll-free (877) 967-7772 from the other islands
» E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
» Web site: www.volcanowinery.com
» Notes: Volcano Winery can ship anywhere in Hawaii and to 23 other states (a complete list is posted on the Web site). There is a three-bottle minimum for orders, which are shipped via Federal Express and reach local addresses the next business day and mainland locations within two to three business days. Interisland shipping fees are $15 for three bottles, $20 for six bottles and $30 for 12 bottles. Mainland rates are $30, $40 and $65, respectively.
» Availability: Most of Volcano Winery's wines also are available at retail outlets on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island, including Costco, Longs Drug and ABC stores. The Federal Aviation Administration currently prohibits passengers from carrying wine on planes. The winery provides free three-, six- and 12-bottle boxes that can be checked as luggage.
A longtime wine enthusiast who grew up near the famed wine-producing regions of Northern California, Wood is the vineyard manager of 64-acre Volcano Winery on the Big Island. Much of the terrain in the Volcano area is rocky and uneven, with just a thin veneer of topsoil, as far from the fertile green landscape of Napa and Sonoma as you can imagine.
To prepare the land for planting, Wood and two full-time workers used a backhoe to break up the lava and dig trenches 2 feet wide, 2 feet deep and 30 to several hundred feet long. They then remove the tons of rock that pile up and fill the trenches with topsoil and compost made on site.
The grapes grown were chosen for their ability to thrive 4,000 feet above sea level on the slopes of Mauna Loa. With an average high temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the climate there is similar to the cool Pacific Northwest.
"We don't get a lot of heat, so we like grapes that ripen quickly," said Wood. "When we were selecting varieties, we studied what short-season growing regions like upstate New York and Lake Ontario were doing."
Volcano Winery sits in the temperate transition zone between wet rain forest and the dry Kau Desert.
"In order to bear fruit the next season, grapevines require a dormant period," said Wood. "That is naturally induced by 'chill hours,' an accumulation of temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter."
Because the vineyard is primarily porous basalt, it has good drainage. "That works to our advantage because we get a lot of rainfall here, approximately 70 inches per year," said Wood. "Our young vines need some irrigation during their first year. After that, they only need a little irrigation."
COURTESY VOLCANO WINERY
Volcano Winery staff is expert at packing boxes of wine that go home with travelers.
ESTABLISHED IN the early 1980s, Volcano Winery currently produces six wines, free samples of which are available daily in its tasting room. These include the award-winning Hawaiian Guava, a blend of white grapes and yellow guavas; Macadamia Nut Honey, made with honey extracted from the blossoms of macadamia nut trees; and Volcano Blush, imbued with the tart-sweet flavor of jaboticaba berries.
Volcano Winery will be launching three new tours on Friday:
» Wiki Tour: Free half-hour guided tour provides an overview of the vineyard and tea field. It's offered at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Reservations not necessary.
» Aloha Tour: Includes the Wiki Tour plus a stop at the wine-making facility. It lasts an hour to 90 minutes and includes a private wine-tasting session; a gift pack containing an etched wine glass, a corkscrew and a foil cutter; and a 10 percent discount on all tasting room merchandise. Price is $25 per person and reservations are required. Only those 21 and older will be allowed to sample wine.
» Alii Tour: This two- to 2 1/2-hour tour features everything in the Aloha Tour plus a visit to Tea Hawaii in nearby Volcano village for tea tasting and a look at forest-grown tea. It costs $45 per person and reservations are required. Call the winery to book.
Last September, Wood also began planting several varieties of tea, including Yabukita, Yutaka Midori, Bohea and Darjeeling, on a half-acre adjacent to the vineyard. The first crop will be ready to harvest in 12 to 18 months.
"Volcano is becoming known for its high-quality teas, and that will be another chapter in Volcano Winery's story," said Wood. "We're currently developing a variety of products with tea from other growers that should be ready for sale by early next year. Products made from the tea we're growing should be on the market by late 2009 or early 2010."
In addition, two acres at the winery have been set aside for a reforestation project. Wood is overseeing the removal of invasive alien species and the planting of native forest trees such as koa, mamaki and mamane in their place.
"Our goal is to create a conservation and mixed-use agriculture model that doubles as an education center for visitors," said Wood. "We're excited about the three new tours that we'll be launching in a week" (see sidebar).
During the tours, visitors will see how seemingly unusable acres of lava are being turned into pretty, productive agricultural plots. They'll also learn about Volcano Winery's sustainable agricultural practices, including making compost and mulch from chicken manure, shredded green waste and macadamia nut husks.
It's clear Wood is passionate about his job. "I love being in the vineyard," he said. "I love looking at the unobstructed view of Mauna Loa and listening to the relaxing soundtrack by forest birds. Not a day goes by that I don't feel very lucky to be working in this beautiful setting."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.