“In pursuit of balance” with winemaker Rajat Parr

Whenever I see master sommelier Chuck Furuya, he imparts a little tidbit (or two, or three) of wine knowledge so that I can better appreciate the glass I’m drinking. He describes the hills that the grapes are grown on, the wind conditions, the soil, the style of the winemaker. For the moment that I’m drinking a glass of wine with him, I can actually smell the essence of the countryside and taste the different messages each wine is supposed to send.

Look back to a couple of years ago, my manga blogger friend Deb Aoki sent me the first few copies of “The Drops of God,” a Japanese comic book series that makes the wine industry a little easier to understand. It’s the series that got 12th Avenue Grill’s Rick Lilley interested in managing their wine program, because it’s such a different approach to help people learn or discover the interesting world of wine. Every time I stick my nose into a glass now, I am surprised at what I can detect.

Then fast forward to my recent trip to Beaune, France, where my niece Ahnya and I had an epiphany about “Old World” wines — those that are produced in areas with a long history of production, like Europe — where they name their wines after the areas they come from, not after the grapes. Our wine class at Sensation Vin took our little bit of knowledge to a whole new level, so we now can read wine labels properly and easily discern between tannic and acidic. I’m sure you oenophiles out there think this is totally elementary, but for average consumers like us, this little turning point in tasting and properly understanding wine was a huge step forward.

Sommelier-turned-winemaker Rajat Parr with master sommelier Chuck Furuya.

This overly-long ramble was to share with you my personal journey in wine appreciation, which has now led me to a series of wine events — starting with last night’s dinner at Sansei in Waikiki. California superstar sommelier-turned-winemaker Rajat Parr is known for four exceptional wines: Sandhi, Domaine de la Cote, Maison L’orée, and Evening Land Vineyards; last night he presented Domaine de la Cote and Evening Land Vineyards with master sommelier Chuck Furuya.

Rajat is not just well-known in the wine industry; he’s considered a game-changer. On one hand, he has vineyards growing in extreme conditions, which are cooler and windier than others, for starters. (For more on his vineyard and philosophy, click here.) His grapes are already fermenting in barrels before his neighbors have picked a single one of theirs. And his wine, despite being grown in the New World, are done in Old World style.

Many U.S. winemakers are into making wines with high alcohol content, with flavors that “punch you in the face” and are as forward as American businessmen. Rajat is less about the alcohol content and more about the balance of flavors, which is why he and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards founded In Pursuit of Balance to encourage more of their peers to get back to their roots in winemaking. It sounds so simple, but it’s actually quite a controversial topic in their industry.

At last night’s dinner, Chef Jason Miyasaki created dishes to enhance Rajat’s wines. Here’s what we had:

To start: Shinsato Farm rabbit croquette.

The hottest amuse bouches in Hawaii restaurants now use Shinsato Farm’s rabbit. This rabbit croquette was nicely light and savory, perfect for getting us ready for more.

House made duck pastrami at Sansei.

Our first course was Sansei’s house made duck pastrami with Nalo Farms arugula, Big Island hearts of palm, Di Stefano bur rata, jalapeño aioli, and red wine vinaigrette. I’m a big fan of savory dishes with subtle flavors and textures, like the slightly bitter arugula against the creamy burrata.

From left: 2012 Seven Springs Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills; and 2012 Domaine de la Cote Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills.

In true Burgundian fashion, we started with reds first. At first, the 2012 Seven Springs (at 13.5 percent alcohol) pinot was my favorite, as it was delicate and simple. The Domaine de la Cote (at 12.5 percent alcohol) was a little bolder, but both were great on their own. Once we ate the duck pastrami, though, the Domaine was better. Interestingly enough, I could smell a little bit of leather and coffee in these, maybe some flowers. But I didn’t get the more usual “stewed fruit” or plummy aromas that you expect from American wines.

Marlin ceviche at Sansei.

Also to pair with the pinots: marlin ceviche with Maui onions, Ho Farms cherry tomatoes, jalapeño, Nalo Farms Thai basil, calamansi, and coconut milk. Reds with fish? Usually this would clash, right? It went nicely together with each, and again the wines changed characteristics with the pairing.

Butter poached king crab on porcini linguini at Sansei.

My absolute favorite dish of the night was the butter poached king crab on porcini linguini with Hamakua ali’i mushrooms, baby spinach jalapeño, truffle butter cream (!!!), and Nalo Farms Thai basil. The the best little ingredient here was the pickled cabbage, which was an amazing little surprise that enhanced everything in the dish. Keith Endo from Vino taught the crew at Sansei how to make the pasta, which was silky soft but not mushy.

From left, 2012 Seven Springs Chardonnay Summum, and 2007 Seven Springs Chardonnay Summum (which has been sold out since 2009).

When we tried Rajat’s white wines, I realized just how very special this presentation was. The label said chardonnay, but remember, he makes his in Old World style. They did warn us that the aroma was very light, and it was — almost difficult to detect in the 2012 glass, in fact. I do like chardonnays but I braced myself for the flood of apple, oak, and maybe buttery flavors. Instead, these were lightly citrusy and floral, with hints of the clay in the soil in which the vines are grown. The taste transported me back to Chateau de Meursault with Ahnya, as we sipped our wine on that amazingly sunny day in France.

Torched sweet Japan scallop carpaccio at Sansei.

When my friend Laurie Oue took a bite of this scallop dish, she closed her eyes in happiness and frustration. These were so sweet and tender and full of freshness, that they made her wish she were in Japan eating them instead of in Waikiki. Sorry, Laurie! Ha.

Sous vide king’s natural filet mignon at Sansei.

I think if you sous vide anything, it will be good. This filet mignon looked like a regular slab of meat, but it was moist and tender without being fatty. It almost didn’t need the butter, except butter makes everything better. The chive gnocchi, caramelized shallot and red wine jus and roasted Hamakua hon shimeji mushrooms made everything richer.

From left: 2012 Seven Springs Pinot Noir “La Source,” Eola-Amity Hills; and 2012 Domaine de la Cote Pinot Noir “Blooms Field,” Santa Rita Hills.

Of course, with meat you have to have something a little bolder. These two are considered Rajat’s “premier cru” wines, which means the grapes were grown in the most ideal soil and conditions. Only a small batch can fit in the area designated the best (small compared to the rest of the vineyards), so they are rarer and usually better than the rest of the grapes that year. Usually. These did not disappoint. You can see the color and translucency make them look fairly young, but the flavors were full and a little more layered, lingering a little longer in my mouth than the others.

Warm Granny Smith apple tart at Sansei.

A simple, comforting dessert like an apple tart is probably the only thing you can do to end such an amazing meal.

This weekend, Olena Heu and I will be attending the 34th annual Kapalua Wine and Food Festival on Maui. You can follow our posts on Instagram and Twitter and the hashtag #KapaluaWine as we meet chefs, sommeliers and winemakers from around the country (and maybe the world), learning more about the industry and, of course, just enjoying really great wine. Chuck and Rajat will be there, too! I’ll be catching their panel on Saturday, June 13 on West Coast “game changers” and may try to livestream it if I can get a signal. Hope to see you there or online, learning about wines with us.