Did your wine passion begin when you started working in restaurants? Yes, really, I think it did. My true beginning was really way back working as a busboy at Bobby McGee’s, where it was cooler to drink wine than rum and Coke. But my true breakthrough, I think, came with my friend Nunzio (Aliotto) when he opened his restaurant on Makalowa Street. That was really a defining moment for me, wine-wise. I had a passion before that, but Nunzio broadened the horizons, and at that age I could never have afforded to drink the kinds of wines he exposed me to. I was very fortunate.
You guys blazed the trail for sommeliers, but the remarkable thing is – and I don’t think a lot of people know this – of the first 10 American Master Sommeliers, five of you lived in Hawaii. (laughs) Yes, it was Eddie Osterland and Ronn Weigand, who ran the Grape Escape, Richard Dean, who was at The Third Floor, Nunzio and myself. We all used to taste and hang out together. The old joke used to be that if you wanted to make it as a sommelier, you had to live in Hawaii.
What do you attribute that to? It just seemed right. It was all the right guys getting together in the right place at the right time. It was a really exciting time.
Is it that exciting in the Hawaii wine world now? Yes, yes, but what was exciting about those times was that we all worked the floor in restaurants. The Court of Master Sommeliers is routed in service. Being a sommelier is a craft you learn, like being a plumber or an electrician. The exciting thing was working the floor – just as a lot of us still do today.
I can’t imagine you giving that up – not being part of the restaurants, especially Vino. Yes, because, for me, it’s not just the love of wine, it’s the love of service of wine and food all coming together in one evening and in one place.
Do you and wife Cheryl go out to eat often? It’s so funny, because when we do have the chance to go out, we prefer to stay home. Although last night we did go to town … but we couldn’t get in (laughs). We do like this new restaurant called Asuka Nabe in Kaimuki. It’s shabu shabu. And we like Café Laufer and To Thai For and Happy Days, and town, of course. We like to keep it in the neighborhood.
So you’ve just been nominated for a James Beard Award for Outstanding Contribution to Food and Wine. Congratulations. That’s a very big deal. Were you surprised? Absolutely! And I am thrilled for Ed Kenney and Quinton Frye, who also were nominated. It seems so weird to see your name on a list with all of those outstanding people throughout the country – legendary names. I’m just this local guy who wears shorts all the time.