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Maui winemakers make a splash with pineapple wines and island-grown grapes

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MAUI — Maui Splash. Sounds like the perfect name for a dream vacation, right?

Well, yes, but with a surprise.

Maui Splash is a zingy pineapple-and-passion-fruit wine produced by Tedeschi Vineyards in less-traveled upcountry Maui, a blissful region of green pastureland towering above the island's fabled beaches, a place where Maui's legendary "paniolo" cowboys herd cattle in a setting reminiscent of Sonoma County.

The winery lies about an hour away from Maui's beaches. It's reached by a two-lane road that passes cattle-and horse-crossing signs, picturesque, tiny towns, and the occasional roadside curiosities — like Grandma's Coffee House — as it winds its way up the side of mighty Haleakala, the largest dormant volcano in the world,

Dark, ominous clouds began to fill the mid-morning sky as we approached Tedeschi Vineyards, but it was only one of those short-lived Maui showers. In a short time, the rain had spent itself, and the sun began to radiate through the last of the clouds. It turned out to be a sunny and warm day, just right for touring and picnicking, a day seemingly made by the Polynesian god Maui, who — legend has it — used his superhuman strength to lasso the sun and slow its progress across the sky so that humans could enjoy more sunshine.

This 2,000-foot elevation offers memorable vistas of neighboring Molokini crater, where boats anchor for snorkeling. Also in the view is Kahoolawe, which for many years was called Hawaii's "Target Isle," because of its previous use as a practice target by Allied military gunners.

Tedeschi Vineyards sits on spacious grounds leased from the 20,000-acre Ulupalakua Cattle Ranch, whose colorful history is worth noting.

In 1856, a retired whaling captain named James Makee purchased an old sugar plantation here with more than 1,000 head of livestock. He named his new home "Rose Ranch" after his wife Catherine's favorite (and now official Maui) flower, the Lokelani Rose.

Makee and his wife transformed Rose Ranch into an island showplace famed for its hospitality. Makee himself delighted in welcoming offshore guests — who required a whole day simply to get up to the high ground from the shoreline.

One of the more colorful guests was Hawaii's "Merrie Monarch," King Kalakaua, who came with his wife Queen Kapi'olani.

During these visits, the king and the captain would spend lazy days in legendary poker games, drinking champagne together in complete abandon.

In 1963, the ranch was re-named "Ulupalakua Ranch," meaning "bread fruit ripened on the back." The winery was established in 1974, a partnership between a Californian, Emil Tedeschi and C. Purdy Erdman of Ulupalakua Ranch.

At the winery

"Ah, you made it up the mountain," said Momi DeMello, a member of Tedeschi's office staff. "Welcome to upcountry Maui. We like it here."

In the 19th century, the winery's tasting room was a jail for unruly cowboys. "Where the cash register stands is the old trap door to the dungeon," DeMello explained.

But on to wine.

Tedeschi Vineyards cultivates 22 acres of Carnelian grapes on the cool, wind-swept slopes of Haleakala, not far from the sunny resort area of Wailea.

Experts from the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology had a hand in developing the winery's grape type.

"UC Davis actually helped us develop a hybrid that's called Carnelian," said DeMello. "We intended to do just Champagne, so the grape that is grown is very high in acid because that's what we wanted for the Champagne."

While waiting for the first harvest to mature, Tedeschi turned inventive and playful, experimenting with pineapple concentrate to develop Maui Blanc pineapple wine — a soft, dry wine with a subtle flavor that is also Tedeschi's most popular product.

"About two or three years later, our winemaker became very creative," DeMello said. "He took our pineapple wine and added some passion fruit to it. It's wonderful."

This vintage called "Maui Splash" is pleasantly fruity, though not overbearingly so. "You serve it nice and cold," DeMello advised. "The colder you can get it, the better."

Two other pineapple products are made here: Pineapple Sparkling Wine, a crisp, fruity drink with a fresh pineapple flavor, and Maui Blush, a pale pink table wine.

The winery also produces two Carnelian wines, Plantation Red, a very full-bodied, dry wine aged in oak, and Ulupalakua Red, a much softer table wine. There is also a Rose Ranch Cuvee, a light, dry vintage named after the Maui rose.

The winery's first grape product, Maui Brut-Blanc de Noirs 1980, was served at Ronald Reagan's inauguration.

The Maui Brut-Blanc de Noirs paired well with a lovely fish dish I tried at Raffles Restaurant in the Renaissance Wailea Resort Hotel. Made with a kind of Maui red snapper, the dish was called Wok Fried Opakapaka and was served with Thai Coconut Curry Sauce.

The drive to the Tedeschi Winery goes through the country town of Kula, where Maui's famous protea flowers are grown. Also on the route is Makawao, known as "the biggest little town in upcountry" where paniolos still ride their horses down the rustic main street.

Tedeschi Vineyards is the diamond in the center of upcountry Maui, a pleasant place full of good cheer, reflecting the wonderful flavors of the island. If you plan a picnic, you can stop at the Ulupalakua Ranch Store for supplies. Mornings and late afternoons tend to be cool at these elevations, so bring a sweater.

For more information about the winery, call 808-878-6058. The mailing address is: Tedeschi Vineyards, P.O. 953, Ulupalakua, Maui, Hawaii 96790. For information about Maui, visit www.gohawaii.com .

Pop the cork on Napa Valley wine!

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