Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, June 23, 1999

Illustration by David Swann

How to speak geek

What do they do, exactly,
when they evaluate
the wines we drink?

By Betty Shimabukuro

When I tell people about my two days on a wine-judging panel they are most impressed by two things: First, that I had to spit in a bucket, in front of other people, and I had to share the bucket.

Second, that "cat pee" is a legitimate descriptive term in the wine lexicon.

If you are a wine geek, stop reading already -- these words are going to be far too elementary for you. Go away. Catch up with the rest of us at Taste of Honolulu this weekend, inside the R. Field Wine Tasting Centre, where you can show us how good you are at spitting into the lovely silver buckets -- and ducking the backsplash.

Under this big tent, geeks and novices alike will be able to sample 200 Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. Normally, a tasting on this scale would be accessible only to the well-heeled wine lover; here you can do it for 15 bucks.

And you will be allowed to swallow, unlike those of us who, in two full days of swooshing and spitting, narrowed the field of 130 whites and 103 reds to choose the 70 medal-winners for the wine-tasting center.

Our marathon took place at Padovani's Bistro and Wine Bar, where the wines were served under ideal conditions -- at the right temperatures, in perfect glasses, with no distracting scents in the room. (Lesson 1: Sampling at the outdoor Taste of Honolulu could yield far different impressions of these same wines, due to the conditions and the food aromas that will be swirling around.)

The judges were high-level professionals organized by master sommelier Chuck Furuya, plus a couple of us invited to represent non-expert, untrained, ordinary folk. (Lesson 2: The opinion of the commoner apparently has value. Judge Randy Ching, cellar master at the Halekulani, says he regularly has a non-wine-drinker sit in on his selection panels for the hotel.)

Working in two groups, we tasted dozens of unidentified wines in flights of six, voting quickly on which were deserving of at least a bronze medal. All those were tasted again by everyone and evaluated for sliver or gold medals.

How this is done: First, sniff. Swirl the wine around to release the scent, get your nose right down in the glass and breathe deep. Then take a big mouthful and hold it, letting it coat the tongue and tastebuds. If you can do it without dribbling, suck in some air to allow the flavors to open up (this creates a gurgling sound that is very disconcerting when it first starts happening all around you). Then you spit, trying not to splash. (Lesson 3: When judging red wines, do not wear white; also, after spitting 100 Cabernets, your teeth turn purple.) Swallow and you will quickly lose focus.

After the voting, the Wine Guys started calling out descriptions of each wine in their secret language: "Herbal, minty ... cherry Lifesaver ... a little green pepper, olive ... a dill-coconut-banana quality ... clovey spice ... herbaciousness in the nose ... shoyu in the nose ... plummy ..." (No one ever calls out, "Grape!")

Non-plant descriptions: "Lean and sinewy, like a piece of meat you don't want to eat ... this one is flat-footed and stepped in something ... this one has a lot of fat hanging over the belt ... STEROIDS!"

The Wine Guys, based on a sniff and a swoosh, distinguish layers of aromas and flavors. They can tell red currant from black currant, woody from oaky, gamey from goaty. They can even tell where the grapes were grown.

Me, I got the concept of "roasty," "toasty" and "smoky," maybe "cranberry." Whenever somebody'd toss out "li hing mui," I'd go back to that glass and try really hard, and 100 percent of the time fail.

To learn the language, Richard Field of R. Field suggests you concentrate on a wine known for certain clear characteristics, learn to recognize those characteristics and then, in tasting other wines, try to distinguish those same flavors. Taste with other people who do know what they're doing. "After a while you start to say, 'That's what you mean by citrus,' or 'That's what you mean by oak,' " Field says.

Terms that definitely sound negative -- "Smells like the inside of a barn," for example -- are actually appropriate to some wines. "You get to the point where you appreciate that grapes from this region are supposed to be like this, and you actually look forward to it," Field says. Barnyard smell and all.

This would be the case with "cat pee," a shrill, acid flavor that is actually appropriate to some Sauvignon Blancs and very dry Reislings. To recognize it, consider the definition given by Randal Caparoso of Roy's Restaurants: "When the finish is on the herbal side and the taste of asparagus gets on the sweet side, then it gets into cat pee." Get it?

If not, just understand the concept of balance. Whether you like wines acidic, sweet, with big booming fruits, or lighter flavors, that's all a matter of opinion. What tends to work for everyone is balance, harmony, smoothness.

Positives become negatives when they are overpowering; thus can a collection of normally pleasant fruity tastes turn into a "fruit bomb." Imagine a skinny palm tree supporting a huge, heavy top, Field says. "You have all this fruit making the tree swing in the wind."

None of this, by the way, is to make light of what the Wine Guys do for a living. At the top of their profession, they have a clear passion for wine and want to share that with the rest of us. You have to respect that.

So here's the thing. Even the Wine Guys will tell you to drink what you like and pair it with the food you like, rules be damned. What events like Taste of Honolulu do is allow you to sip into something new, and life gets that much more flavorful.

Field's analogy: "Say you only drove a Volkswagen Beetle and you kept the car for 25 years. This car is totally acceptable, it does everything you want. Then one day you get the chance to ride in a car with air conditioning and leather, plush seats. All of a sudden you go, 'Whoa, where did all this come from?' It doesn't get you any place any more efficiently, but suddenly the ride is much more enjoyable."

Taste of Honolulu

Annual benefit for the Easter Seal Society of Hawaii features foods, wines and beers:

Bullet When: 5-10 p.m. Friday; noon-10 p.m. Saturday; noon-7 p.m. Sunday
Bullet Place: Honolulu Civic Center (Honolulu Hale grounds)
Bullet Cost: $2 admission, plus cost of food
Bullet Call: 678-2783

Guide to a few tasting terms

Bullet Fat: Obvious, upfront fruit taste, without structure and balance.
Bullet Green flavors: Vegetable and herb tastes (as opposed to fruit flavors), more appropriate to white wines. If too strong, it's 'weedy.'
Bullet Leather: A complex scent desirable in heavier wines; inappropriate in most whites.
Bullet Oak: Residual taste of the wine barrels, determined by their age and condition. Bad if overpowering.
Bullet Sinewy: While 'chewy' is a good thing, 'sinewy' usually means stringy and tough to appreciate.
Bullet Smoky, toasty, roasty: From the charring of the oak used to make the wine barrels. Amount of charring is determined by the winemaker.
Bullet Steroids: Big, in-your-face taste. Usually describes more expensive wines.
Bullet Shoyu or li hing mui: Only-in-Hawaii descriptions reflect a fermented, slightly sour taste. Could be good or bad.
Bullet Tropical fruits: Covers a range of exotic flavors; in Hawaii, descriptions will be more specific (mango, lilikoi, etc.)

Medal-winning wines

Pit your tastebuds against the experts' at the R. Field Wine Tasting Centre at Taste of Honolulu. For $15 ($25 for two) you can have your taste of 200 wines; for $5 more you can taste all these medal-winners, plus vote for the People's Choice Award. The basic $15 includes a series of wine classes in the R. Field tent.

These medalists were selected in a blind tasting by Chuck Furuya, master sommelier; Richard Field, owner, R. Field Wine Co.; Randy Ching, cellar master, Halekulani; Randal Caparoso, corporate wine buyer, Roy's Restaurants; Mark Shishido, manager, Alan Wong's; Kevin Toyama and Aaron Achuela, maitres d' and sommeliers, Padovani's Bistro and Wine Bar; Joan Clarke, Honolulu Advertiser; and Betty Shimabukuro, Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

Cabernet Sauvignon



Bullet Santa Alicia 1996 "Reserve"
Bullet CK Mondavi 1997 "California"


Bullet Sutter Home 1997 "California"
Bullet Walnut Crest 1998 "Rapel Valley"
Bullet Heritage 1996 "California"



Bullet Villa Mt. Eden 1996 "California"
Bullet Talus 1996 "California"


Bullet Callaway 1996 "California"


Bullet Beaulieu Vineyard 1996 "Coastal"
Bullet Forest Glen 1996 "Barrel Select"
Bullet Ironstone 1996 "California"



Bullet Gallo of Sonoma 1997 "Sonoma County"
Bullet Meridian 1996 "California"


Bullet Jekel 1996 "Monterey"
Bullet Pedroncelli 1996 "Three Vineyard"
Bullet BR Cohn 1997
Bullet Charles Krug 1996 "Napa Valley"
Bullet J. Lohr 1996 "Seven Oaks"

$13.99 & UP


Bullet Louis Martini 1993 "Monte Rosso"
Bullet Kendall-Jackson 1995 "Grand Reserve"


Bullet Bonterra 1995 "Organic"
Bullet Buena Vista 1996 "Carneros"


Bullet Fetzer 1994 Reserve "Napa Valley"
Bullet Geyser Peak 1995 "Reserve"
Bullet Sebastiani 1996 "Sonoma County"




Bullet Sutter Home 1997 "California"
Bullet Lindemans 1998 "Bin 65"


Bullet Santa Alicia 1997 "Reserve"
Bullet Forest Ville 1997 "California"
Bullet Caliterra 1998 "Valle Central"
Bullet Monterey Vineyards 1997
Bullet Santa Rita "120" 1997 "Lontue Valley"
Bullet Heritage 1997 "California"



Bullet Hardy 1998 "Nottage Hill"


Bullet Stone Hedge 1997 "Barrel Fermented"
Bullet Rodney Strong 1997 "Sonoma County"


Bullet Gallerie 1997 "Cave du Minstrel"
Bullet Turning Leaf 1997
Bullet Round Hill 1997 "California"
Bullet Bandiera 1997 "Coastal"
Bullet Jacob's Creek 1998
Bullet Callaway 1997 "Calla-lees"

$10- $12.99


Bullet Chateau Ste. Michelle 1997


Bullet Gallo of Sonoma 1997 "Russian River Valley"
Bullet Belvedere 1997 "Sonoma"


Bullet Taft Street 1997
Bullet St. Supery 1996
Bullet Van Asperen 1997
Bullet Bayliss & Fortune 1997
Bullet J Lohr 1996 "Riverstone"
Bullet Meridian 1997

$13.99 & UP


Bullet Fetzer 1996 "Reserve"
Bullet Anapamu 1996
Bullet Gallo Sonoma 1996 "Stefani Vineyard"
Bullet Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1997


Bullet EOS 1996 "Paso Robles, Astracus Vineyard"
Bullet Beaulieu Vineyard 1997 "Carneros"
Bullet Landmark 1997 "Overlook"
Bullet Baileyana 1997
Bullet Edmeades 1995
Bullet Kendall-Jackson 1997 "Grand Reserve"
Bullet Cuvaison 1997 "Carneros"


Bullet St. Francis 1997 "Sonoma County"
Bullet Daniel Lawrence Vineyard 1995
Bullet Edna Valley 1997
Bullet Kendall-Jackson 1996 "Camelot"
Bullet Cambria 1997 "Katherine's Vineyard"
Bullet Covey Run 1996 "Reserve"
Bullet Atlas Peak 1997
Bullet Wente 1997 "Riva Ranch Reserve"

A little food
with your wine?

Despite all this talk of wine, don't lose track of the fact that Taste of Honolulu is about food. Purchase scrip at the site and spend it at food tents where 26 restaurants will be serving up their signature dishes.

Here are two relatively simple dishes that will be served at the event:


Black and Blue Ahi

Big Island Steak House

3-ounce block sashimi-grade ahi
Blackening spice, available commercially
1 tablespoon Cajun mustard sauce

Preheat cast-iron skillet at least 15 minutes. Dip ahi lightly in oil, then dredge in blackening spice, coating all sides well. Place ahi in pan for 10 seconds on each of four sides.

Remove from pan immediately; place on cutting board. Slice into 1/8-inch slices. Garnish with mustard sauce. Serves 1.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 210 calories, 13 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 200 mg sodium.*


Big Island Style Barbecue
Baby-Back Pork Ribs

Duke's Waikiki

6 racks baby-back pork ribs, about 10 pounds
1/4 cup pickling spice
Bullet Mango sauce:
2 cups ketchup
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 cup mango puree
4 tablespoons sweet Thai chile sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon coriander
3 tablespoons Liquid Smoke

To make sauce: Combine all ingredients, then simmer over medium heat 15 minutes. Cool; refrigerate if not using right away. Makes 3-1/2 cups.

Parboil ribs with pickling spice, 30 minutes. Drain water and rinse off any residue, then brush ribs with thin coat of sauce. Place on sheet pan and bake at 375 degrees, uncovered, 15 minutes per side. Ribs may be precooked to this point, then cooled and stored in refrigerator for a day. To serve, recoat with sauce and charbroil. Serves 12.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 760 calories, 52 g total fat, 19 g saturated fat, 200 mg cholesterol, 830 mg sodium.*

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