The northwest shore of Maui was the place to be last week if your taste buds crave finely wrought cuisine and wines from around the world served by top chefs and high-profile sommeliers. Though Maui has long been a favorite of foodies thanks to its abundant natural resources and cosmopolitan nature, it’s at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival (held this year from June 11 to 14), where all the stops are pulled out and the island’s best restaurants and chefs come out to socialize, compete, and wow guests. Now in its 28th year, the festival is the most prestigious and longest-running such event in Hawaii.
Wandermelon was lucky enough to be on hand this year to savor the sights, sips, and flavors which reflected both Hawaiian ingredients and traditions, as well as international influences originating everywhere from Asia to New Orleans.
As in years past, this year’s festival was marked by a full slate of activities and epicurean adventures that included panels, tastings and parties, aided and abetted by master sommeliers, celebrity chefs and industry insiders including Emily Wines (real name) of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, Geoff Kruth of the Russian River’s Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant, and Roaring Fork’s James Beard award-winning chef Robert McGrath. All were always accessible and happy to chat about their wines and gastronomic creations, particularly after a few glasses of Pinot.
Taking place on the lush, manicured grounds of The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, for visitors and locals from other parts of the island, staying at the hotel provided easy access to various festival venues–and a safe and sane stroll home after multiple tastings. The kick-off event took place at the soon-to-debut Ritz Carlton Club & Residences, Kapalua, an exclusive collection of private and fractional ownership luxury condominiums that will also include a private members’ destination club. Clifford Nae’ole, a well-known Hawaiian cultural authority, opened the festivities with a traditional chant acknowledging the ancestors who walked this place before us. (Nae’ole later told us carbon dating research at Kapalua indicates Hawaiian settlements here date back to about 650 A.D.).
Other signature events included tennis clinics, golf tournaments, and well-attended pairings, tastings and panels like Psycho Pinots, an overview discussion and tasting of the popular varietal, and An Organic Experience with Chef Scott Giambastiani. A wandermelon favorite, The Organic Experience starred Chef Scott, who, as the executive chef for Google, prepares meals for the top brass as well as designs the daily menu for 10,000 “Googlers.” Cooking demonstrations and inventive pairings included a fruit-filled gazpacho called Berry G-zpacho Demitasse with Goat Cheese Ice Cream, paired with a fragrant-but-restrained Navarro Estate Blend Gewurztraminer, and a “DLT” haute sandwich, featuring duck breast bacon, organic field greens, and tomato marmalade served open over crispy brioche and paired with a lush Maipe Malbec from Argentina.
The true stars and biggest draws of the Kapalua festival, however, are the Friday night Grand Tasting Event, which this year featured a New Orleans “Carnival” theme, and the closing night Kapalua Seafood Festival, held Sunday and a sublime celebration of innovative fare from the ocean. This is where you get to rub shoulders with locals and savor the best flavors Maui has to offer, including selections by top restaurants such as The Ritz-Carlton’s celebrated sushi restaurant Kai, Merriman’s Waimea and Roy’s Restaurant.
A tanned and gregarious group numbering well into the hundreds attended each event, and were treated to dishes such as seafood etouffe with red beans and rice and sweet potato croquettes by the Ritz-Carlton culinary team at Friday’s Carnival event, and at the Seafood Festival, selections such as handmade shrimp ravioli (Capische restaurant) and the award-winning Kona kompachi carpaccio with spicy ponzu sauce (Kai Sushi Bar).
Next year’s mid-June dates will be announced soon. Our advice: plan early and take advantage of special hotel packages that include festival tickets. Your taste buds will say “mahalo.”