Surf, Wine, and Money

Restaurant menus, we’ve all learned, are more than lists of dishes. They are also texts, full of clues. For example: Are they playing the name-every-farmer game? Are they serving tomatoes way out of season? These details tell us more than simply what we might order. They tell us what the chef is up to. Wine lists, of course, behave the same way. I can’t claim to have a mastery of the language, but this past week, while on vacation in Hawaii, a wine list caught my eye like very few ever have. I was staying in West Maui, and my family and I were treated by a friend to a meal at the venerable old Lahaina Grill. I’d heard of the place, but never eaten there, and my friend handed me the wine list and muttered something like, “Just for kicks, have a look at this.”

Page one was all about a “featured winery,” in this case, Grgich Hills. A thoughtful write-up included two Grgich wines by the glass and the bottle, which is a terrific way to add a little learning experience to your meal. Then came the truly interesting part. First, picture the room in which I’m reading this: casual and bustling, old Victorian building and décor, people in shorts and Hawaiian shirts, everybody inside apparently old friends, waiters and managers chatting warmly to everyone, kids walking by with surfboards outside the windows. Got the vibe? OK, now check out the beginning of the wine list proper:

Magnum Selections

California Red

Merlot
Duckhorn, Napa Valley 2005…255

Proprietary Blends
Gemstone, Napa Valley 2003…540
Opus One, Napa Valley 1981…930
Opus One, Napa Valley 1985…1,200
Ridge, “Monte Bello,” Santa Cruz Mountains 1992…800

Cabernet Sauvignon
Anomaly, Napa Valley 2003…375
Anomaly, Napa Valley 2004…378
Blankiet Estate, “Paradise Hills Vineyard,” Napa Valley 2003…885
David Arthur, “Elevation 1147,” Napa Valley 2003…642
Silver Oak, Alexander Valley, Sonoma 2003…265

Champagne & Sparkling Wines

French
Krug, Reims 1995…600
Louis Roederer, “Cristal” 1999…560
Moet Chandon, “White Star,” Epernet, NV…97
Perrier-Jouet, Grand Brut, Epernet, NV…108
Pierre Gimonet & Fils, Millesime De Collection, NV(1.5L)...450
Salon, Blanc De Blancs, Le-Mensil 1998…498
Veuve Cliqout-Ponsardin, “Grande Dame,” Reims 1996…369
Veuve Cliqout-Ponsardin, “Rosé Reserve,” Reims 1999…187
Veuve Cliqout-Ponsardin, Yellow Label, Reims, NV…105

In certain restaurants, I would have found this offensive: Who do they think we are!? What are they trying to say?! But the Lahaina Grill has such a dreamy, casual quality that it seemed to mean something very different. It seemed to mean that Maui is simply the playground of the superrich, and that many of those superrich love the Lahaina Grill for the same reasons everybody else does (immaculate service with a good-humored friendliness about it, sensational food, menu prices no higher than any other fine-dining place in town), and that customers like this simply enjoy seeing, up front, the bottles they’re most likely to order. Scanning the rest of the list deepened this impression: I found one interesting wine after another, all of them reflecting a serious commitment to shaping the restaurant’s own list, and wherever I actually knew the retail price, the markup seemed perfectly fair. Not low, but fair.

I asked the sommelier—who happened to be our waiter—about putting the big bottles up front, and he confirmed my intuition: They just get a lot of requests for that stuff, so they want to be sure people don’t have to go hunting for it. His name was Richard Olson III, and he perfectly embodied a kind of West-Coast-and-Hawaii relationship to fine wine: handsome, well tanned, with a gleaming smile. He lives in Maui for the water, spending off-hours (when not researching wine) surfing and working out hard on his outrigger canoe.

It was like a vision of the afterlife—my own personal version of wine-lover heaven—where Richard Olson III is always my waiter, and the surf is always good, human history has always been benign and tragedy has been banished and we’ll all live and surf and drink forever and I’m always hungry from a long day at the beach, and a well-culled list of glorious wines always awaits, with money no object. But of course it does exist in this life, with the exception of the history/tragedy/immortality bit, and the money-no-object bit. So if you ever find yourself on Maui, don’t even think of missing this place. And even if you’re in the mood for a margarita that night, open the wine list and sink into signifiers from life-as-it-ought-to-be.