The fruits of their labors make interesting vintages

Tastings are daily events at Volcano Winery, where Kathie Nyberg does the honors and tea plantings dot the slopes of Kilauea. Tastings are daily events at Volcano Winery, where Kathie Nyberg does the honors and tea plantings dot the slopes of Kilauea. (Photos By Claudia Capos/For The Boston Globe)
By Claudia R. Capos
Globe Correspondent / December 20, 2009

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VOLCANO, Hawaii - Wisps of “vog’’ swirl around the vineyard of symphony grapes at Volcano Winery, high atop Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island. The smoggy shroud of volcanic gases spewing from Pele’s lair, deep beneath nearby Halemaumau crater, has obscured all traces of towering Mauna Loa in the distance.

Wine lovers and curiosity seekers seem unperturbed, however. Each year, nearly 50,000 visitors stop at the southernmost winery in the United States to savor nectar fit for a volcano goddess. Unusual blends of California grapes and exotic island berries and fruits yield award-winning wines for the family-run establishment, not far from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Inside Volcano Winery’s cozy tasting room, Vancouver honeymooners Felicia and Rece Bergstrom settle into high seats at a long wooden serving bar. “I’m a wine person, and we’re from British Columbia where there are lots of wineries,’’ says Felicia, a first-time visitor to Hawaii. She discovered Volcano Winery on the Internet, and its unusual location piqued her interest. “It seems odd to us,’’ Rece chimes in, “but we decided to give it a try.’’

After tasting two symphony grape wines, three blended fruit wines, and the winery’s signature honey wine made from the nectar of the island’s macadamia nut tree blossoms, Felicia weighs in on her favorites: She favors the peach-apricot fruitiness of the Symphony Dry, a white dinner wine and bronze medalist at the 2004 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. The rich nutty flavor of the Macadamia Nut Honey, a bronze medalist at the 2003 Riverside International Wine Competition, also wins a thumbs-up.

Kilauea’s rumblings are a boom to business. “Tourists come to see the smoke and molten-lava flows, and then stop at the winery,’’ says Del Bothof, winery owner. Bothof, 64, runs a high-tech media company in Summit, N.J., and travels to Hawaii frequently. He likes to drink wine but knew nothing about running a winery when he purchased Volcano Winery from Alana and Lynn “Doc’’ McKinney, the original owners.

“It’s kind of a surprise that I ended up buying it,’’ Bothof says. “I love Hawaii and was interested in buying a condo on the Big Island. A friend in the media business ran across an ad for the sale of the winery, and as a joke suggested we buy it and retire.’’ Bothof struck a purchase deal with the McKinneys and walked off with the deed to the place in 1999. Under Doc McKinney’s tutelage, Bothof’s son Scott learned the ins and outs of the wine-making business and managed the winery for years.

“The beauty of being on Kilauea is that, at an altitude of 4,000 feet, its climate is very close to that of Napa Valley,’’ Del Bothof says. “It is fairly dry here in the summer but we have freezing temperatures in the winter, so the vines go dormant. This seemed like an ideal place to start a vineyard, which is why Doc picked it.’’

McKinney, a retired veterinarian from Oahu, experimented with plantings of many different varietals to see which grew best. He then tried mixing grape juice with various Hawaiian fruits. Over the past decade, Tim Kenny, the winery’s vintner, has made refinements to the process and created smoother, more flavorful young wines.

In the vat room, Kenny, a biochemist from New Jersey who settled on the island of Hawaii after college, stands by an enormous stainless-steel mixer and a row of 2,000-gallon polypropylene storage tanks. “We have to ship all our equipment and grape concentrates from the mainland, so it’s very expensive,’’ he says, pausing briefly to test the acidity of a batch of Macadamia Nut Honey wine. “But seeing Mauna Loa in the moonlight at 5:30 a.m. when I come to work is beautiful.’’

Currently, Volcano Winery has two fields of symphony grapes and a promising Oregon-Washington pinot variety under cultivation. Imported wine concentrates, including a premium chablis, a merlot-sauvignon-zinfandel mix, and symphony, are purchased from growers in Sonoma and Napa valleys and brought here for processing.

“We use natural fruits from Hawaii in our blended wines because we want ingredients associated with the island,’’ Kenny says. Dark purple jaboticaba berries, native to Brazil but grown in Hawaii, lend a cranberry or black-cherry flavor to the Volcano Red, nicknamed Pele’s Delight, and the white Volcano Blush wines. The two-time award-winning Hawaiian Guava wine, created from fermented yellow-guava puree and white grapes, imparts a layered fruity taste that is pleasant for an aperitif. Volcano Winery’s newest creation, Infusion, blends tea grown at the winery with honey wine.

“My favorite is the Symphony Mele, because it is a classic grape wine and a gold-medal winner at the 2004 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition,’’ Bothof says. All wines are bottled by hand and then shipped to retail stores throughout the Hawaiian Islands or directly to customers in certain mainland states.

The sweeter blended fruit wines tend to be more popular with casual wine drinkers, Bothof says. “Connoisseurs of wine don’t accept the fruit mix.’’ Once the new pinot comes on line, however, he hopes to give even the toughest critics something to talk about.

“We’re not trying to compete with Napa Valley,’’ Bothof says. “We just want to make this a destination where people can have an enjoyable time and try some truly unique wines.’’

Claudia R. Capos can be reached at

If You Go

Volcano Winery
35 Pii Mauna Drive
(At 30-mile marker on Highway 11, northwest of entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park)
Volcano, Hawaii
Free tastings daily 10 a.m.- 5:30 p.m.; no appointments necessary.