Kevin Toyama of Honolulu’s La Mer on Syrah and cool-climate pinot noir

You list four Champagnes among your top-selling wines. Has Champagne always been strong for you?

It’s a unique situation—because of our location on the beach of Waikiki, we’re a natural place for Champagne. Most often it’s a celebratory thing.

What I’ve recently noticed is that I’ve been selling more Krug—the multi-vintage, the Rosé, different sized formats (the half bottles are moving). And a lot of that seems to be coming from Japan. There’s an overall greater awareness of Champagne in Japan and it’s really gaining worldwide—grower Champagne as well. People will see Margaine on our list and say, “I had that last week for my birthday!” They recognize that. Pierre Peters is an easy sell—people know about it.

Chardonnays from Rombauer and Sonoma-Cutrer both made your top-ten list. What are your guests looking for in a chardonnay, and why do you think those producers do so well?
Our list holds over 450 selections, so I think a lot of it is about not wanting to wade through our list. Some people want to just go with what makes them comfortable. Others want to know why I recommend the Knez Chardonnay, and when they have it they’re jazzed about it.

There is certainly a large number of people in all age groups asking for less oak, and that’s even affected how we put together one of our custom cuvees. We’re asking for less oak, we’re asking them to pick earlier and keep it brighter.

You comment that the biggest new success on your list is the 2009 Knez Demuth Vineyard Pinot Noir. What worked about that wine?
It’s just such an attractive and pretty wine—it’s silky and elegant. Some people might think it’s too light, but I think it really carries the flavors of the grape and has great detail—you get the spices, you get the earth. It’s not overshadowed or overdone.

When we’re young, we look for attention-grabbers. After you do this for a while, you become less centered on bells and whistles.

What other US wines are you excited about these days?
It’s becoming easier to recommend syrah because some people are making it in a softer, more elegant style, rather than with a lot of oak. The 2009 Neyers Old Lakeville Road Syrah is fantastic. It’s the closest that I’ve gotten to classic French syrah grown on American soil. The Anthill Peters Vineyard and the Wind Gap’s Sonoma Coast, their entry-level syrah, are both excellent as well. The other great thing about those producers is that the price points are pretty good. I’ve been stuck with the same high-end syrahs on my list for the last five years— like a couple of good vintages of Sine Qua Non—and they just don’t move.

Last year you said that your half bottles sales were going through the roof. Was that the case again this year?
Half bottles are still going strong, much to my dismay at times. New Year’s this year was a lot of half bottles. I was selling Latour and Margaux in half bottles. The desire for quality is still there. People are still drinking, they’re just not drinking as much.

The most inexpensive wine on your list is the Livon 2010 Collio Pinot Grigio. What are your guests looking for in pinot grigio?
I think for the most part they’re looking for comfort and value when they order it. I’m very intent on keeping Livon, because it’s a cleaner, purer style. People seem to prefer lighter, brighter, purer styles of winemaking these days.

What regions, in your view, are really delivering both quality and value right now?
Côtes du Rhône is becoming interesting, with producers like Maxime Laurent at Domaine Gramenon out of the Kermit Lynch portfolio. They’re softer, fruit-driven, you don’t get the spice, the meatiness, the black olive quality from being over-extracted, just a really elegant example of what grenache and syrah can do there.

Any particularly memorable moments on the floor this year?
There have definitely been some times when people finish your sentences and you’re like: I didn’t know there were people like you out there! They know about the producers, they know about the winemaking. Sometimes when you hit those guests it’s like: “Whoa, what else do I have in the back for you to try?”

Are there any regions that have dropped of the map lately?
People don’t really ask for Australia. The whole jammy fruit thing is coming to a halt. But I’ve been trying to introduce people to the cool climate pinot noir, I’ve been trying to get people into Mac Forbes and Bindi [from Victoria]. For our Christmas menu at Le Mer, I threw in Bindi’s Composition Pinot Noir to go with a braised veal cheek, and a lot of people were really glad to try something that they hadn’t tried before.

How much latitude do you have with wine pairings?
Our executive chef does this thing we call Table One, where he melds classic techniques with his Indian heritage to create a special menu for four to eight people. We’ll pick wines to match the flavor profiles of the dishes, and then play with them. We decant some of the wines at five o’clock—decant them four or five times if we have to—to open them up. We might chill them really cold to bring out the brightness, or warm them up, trying to play with the composition of the dish. We’re using an infrared thermal scanner to read where exactly the spices start to kick in. Doing that in a regular restaurant setting is challenging, but it’s great to do it when we can.

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