Sample, sip & savor

Tickle tastebuds and tantalize senses at the 38th annual Kapalua Wine & Food Festival

A trio of oeniphiles raise their glasses during last year’s Seafood Festival which takes place oceanfront on the Beach House Lawn of the Ritz. -- TONY NOVAK-CLIFFORD photo

Each year as summer dawns, wine enthusiasts, sophisticated foodies and devotees of controlled hedonism from around the world flock to West Maui for the annual Kapalua Wine & Food Festival to discover, experience and luxuriate in the creme de la creme of culinary and viticulture trends.

Established in 1981 by the nonprofit Kapalua Wine Society in an effort to inspire and nurture an appreciation for fine wining and dining, KWFF is the nation’s longest-running festival of its kind and a true forerunner of walkabout tasting events on Maui.

The four-day festival kicks off on Thursday, June 6 with an industry trade show and a VIP welcome reception held at Merriman’s Restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua resort. Bathed in the tropical glow of a Kapalua sunset, invited guests, industry insiders and four-day pass holders christen the festival with glasses raised. Like a reunion of oenophile elite, this prestigious private event draws veteran festival goers tethered together by a collective penchant for exceptional libations and innovative cuisine.

The following Friday, as the midday sun snakes across the sky, this elite consortium swells in size and scope as KWFF opens its figurative doors to the ticket-holding public for three days of interactive wine seminars, celebrity chef cooking demonstrations and signature evening galas.

The festival’s program of events is painstakingly curated to reflect and illuminate hidden gems and distinctive trends in winemaking and the culinary arts.

Photographic impression from last year’s event including a generous pour -- TONY NOVAK-CLIFFORD photo

Festival Director Karin Sagar credits Michael Jordan, master sommelier, Global Brand Ambassador for Jackson Fine Wines and KWFF’s host sommelier, for ferreting out the freshest content from year to year.

“Michael is very passionate about the festival’s vibe,” she says. “He wants to expose people to things they’ve never experienced — get them out of their box — by traveling the globe to find what’s new, different and fun.”

Festival highlights that Sagar is particularly excited about include a cooking demonstration by Celebrity Chef Mark Tarbell of Food Network and Iron Chef fame, the “Night in NOLA” winemakers dinner featuring the culinary team from New Orleans’ Brennan’s restaurant and a benefit VIP winemakers dinner with Chef Stephen Stryjewski of Cochon in New Orleans.

“His food is really incredible,” Sagar says of Cochon’s award-winning James Beard Chef. “Stephen will be doing a Creole/New Orleans-styled menu paired with rare, hard-to-find wines from some of the festival’s most notable winemakers.”

Wine seminars of note are the “La Bella Italia” wine seminar and tasting featuring Giorgio Rivetti of La Spinetta Winery and Roberto Damonte of Malvira Winery, and “Wine World of Sports” wine seminar and tasting presented by former professional athletes-turned-winemakers Vince Ferragamo, Rich Aurilia and Charles Woodson.

Another photographic impression from last year’s event including sweet desserts -- TONY NOVAK-CLIFFORD photo

“All of their wines are said to be fantastic — very high-end, unexpected wines,” Sagar espouses. “They’ll be sharing great stories from on and off the field, so that will be a lot of fun.”

The festival’s signature galas, The Grand Tasting White Party and Maui Mardi Gras Seafood Festival, round out the stellar program by showcasing the culinary prowess of local restaurants.

“For Sunday’s Seafood Festival, we invite 14 of Maui’s top restaurants to each showcase a seafood dish and another specialty in competition for Best of the Fest,” Sagar reveals. “Held on the Beach House Lawn at the Ritz-Carlton, this beautiful oceanfront venue offers the best of Maui restaurants all in one place.”

A new addition to this year’s festival is a limited number of exclusive early-entry passes allowing pass holders to partake in the evening’s selections one hour prior to general admission ticket holders.

Providing a platform for local, national and international vendors to share their products with appreciative connoisseurs is not KWFF’s only purpose; the festival also serves as a vehicle (luxury, of course) to promote the natural beauty of Kapalua and host resorts Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua and Montage Kapalua Bay.

Still another photographic impression from last year’s event including a fine cheese display -- TONY NOVAK-CLIFFORD photo

The tangential bolstering of Maui tourism stems from the event’s enduring popularity and cache in the food-and-wine-fest arena as it masterfully crafts fervent global ambassadors.

“After being introduced to Kapalua and the resorts, attendees often become brand evangelists, not only for the festival but for the island of Maui,” Sagar observes.

In any given year, roughly half of the festival goers are from off island resulting in a flavorful blend of locals and visitors — many of whom are repeat customers.

“We have a deep and beloved following with a lot of friends in the winemaking community who come back year after year,” Sagar says. “And not just because it’s Maui, but because of the festival’s energy and intimacy and how we showcase invited winemakers.”

With only 900 tickets sold for the largest outdoor events, such as the Grand Tasting on Saturday night and the Seafood Festival on Sunday, this mellow fest inspires casual interaction between winemakers and attendees.

Signature evening galas seaside offer a festive experience -- TONY NOVAK-CLIFFORD photo

“Some festivals are really big, and you don’t get that one-on-one contact,” Sagar continues, adding that easy access to winemakers and chefs is one of KWFF’s trademark attractions — an informal vibe that fosters approachability.

“The seminars average about 125 people who often engage the winemakers afterward. And the winemakers are very generous with their time, even stopping to chat when they recognize a guest in the resort lobby. It’s a great opportunity for them to get front and center with the public while spending a weekend in Kapalua — not such a bad thing,” Sagar adds, interjecting a soft laugh.

Building familiarity through accessibility is a foundational pillar of KWFF sculpted from decades of experience and an unwavering commitment to excellence.

Producing an annual event of this caliber requires the seamless execution of many moving parts –sponsors, winemakers, festival stakeholders, media, celebrity chefs, distributors and more.

“There’s a level of perfection we strive for, and we set a very high bar that we attempt to reach year after year,” Sagar says. “We must have all our ducks in a row to deliver on the expectations of our guests, as well as our own expectations.”

Culinary delights paired with exceptional wines -- TONY NOVAK-CLIFFORD photo

Ultimately, Sagar’s expressed festival takeaway for guests and participants is simple: “We hope people want to come back next year because they had such a great time, learned so many new things, met tons of fun people, and were impressed with the high level of wine and culinary experiences they enjoyed at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival.”

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IF YOU GO …

WHEN: The 38th annual Kapalua Wine & Food Festival dazzles from June 6 through 9.

WHERE: The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua and the Montage Kapalua Bay

HIGHLIGHTS: June 6: Industry trade show and VIP welcome reception. June 7: “Taste Like a Master” wine seminar; The Grand Tasting –Kapalua Style. June 8: Cooking demonstration with Celebrity Chef Mark Tarbell; “Grenache with Panache” wine seminar and tasting. June 9: “Champagne Sunday Brunch at Brennan’s” cooking demonstration with celebrity chefs from Brennan’s in New Orleans; California Cabernet Sauvignon vertical wine seminar and tasting; “Wine World of Sports” wine seminar and tasting with professional athletes turned winemakers; Seafood Festival on the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua Beach House Lawn.

TICKETS AND FULL SCHEDULE: Visit www.kapaluawineandfoodfestival.com.

A colorful assortment of wines on ice -- TONY NOVAK-CLIFFORD photo

Guests enjoy generous pours during KWFF’s signature Seafood Festival. -- TONY NOVAK-CLIFFORD photo

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