Getting to know a master sommelier

Chuck Furuya jokes with staff at Vino Italian Tapas and Wine Bar in Honolulu – Courtesy of Storm Cruz

I think he went to go put his pants on,” a member of the wait staff says.

Shorts and slippers are the norm for Chuck Furuya, part owner of Vino Italian Tapas and Wine bar in downtown Honolulu. That is, until it’s time for dress shoes and pants. The uniform switch signals that it’s time to get to work. But if you love what you do, is it really work?

Furuya is a master sommelier, a wine professional with an extensive background in all things food and beverage. His interest in wine began in the 1970s.

“I’m the type of person whenever I do anything, I need to know everything there is to know about anything,” says Furuya, who has a close to picture perfect memory and a mind that is always racing. “So when it came to wine, I just started studying. And after awhile, I figured that’s what I was meant to do.”

In 1986, he was one of sixteen Americans invited to take the Master Sommelier exam the first time it was held in the United States. Failing that first year, he helped to manage and open high end restaurants like Bagwell’s and the Maile Restaurant. The next year, he retook the exam and became the tenth American to pass.

Wine, he says, is something a person can never fully understand. He attributes his success to having mentors and teachers who shared not only their knowledge with him but rare and expensive wines. He also says he was lucky to be there at the start of the growing food and wine movement.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” he says.

While wine knowledge is necessary, Furuya says hospitality and creating connections with guests are more important.

He wears aloha shirts, drenched with water after running racks of dishes, to show that he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. His eyes squint behind his glasses as he smiles. When he talks to guests, he tends to lead with food-related jokes to break the ice.

“Do you know why Chef added mushrooms to that dish?” he asks. “Cause he’s a fungi!”

Sometimes he takes on a rascally demeanor, telling pun-laden, dad jokes or tapping people on the shoulder and looking away as he walks by.

“We always kind of roll our eyes at each other when we hear him crack his jokes, but we know he’s just trying to break down any awkward barriers the guests might have about eating out,” says general manager Ann Taketa.

“I just had to find ways to get into a table or bar seats,” Furuya says. “I need to get inside there so I could feel what they’re feeling. It’s my way of getting inside without interfering with the server’s flow and rapport with the table.”

He informs people without talking down to them. He tries to share the reasons why Vino does what it does, such as serving organically-farmed and biodynamically-made wines or using local produce and meats.

“We have to champion these guys or they ain’t gonna make it,” he says.

He is also always asking himself what the right thing to do is and simply wants to be viewed as a worker in the restaurant.

“I came up through the ranks the hard way–bussing tables, clearing ashtrays,” he says. “I was brought up in a world where you were seen but not heard.”

He’ll never boast about his title as a master sommelier, and he’ll rarely even say his name is Chuck unless someone asks. He often jokingly tells people his name is Alan, so they don’t get the “Wong” idea, a playful nod to culinary colleague Alan Wong.

“With service in a restaurant, it’s ever-changing,” he said. “Every night being different, it keeps you mentally stimulated. I just want to be part of the flow.”

His connection with the staff is noticeable as well, mentoring them in his own way. He wants everyone to become strong and self-sustaining as they grow and learn for themselves.

Once the chair of education for the court of master sommeliers, he isn’t shy about putting staff on the spot with tough questions about the vast world of wine.

Four of his current staff members have passed the beginner levels of the sommelier certification exams. And while wine theory is important, he makes sure to remind them of the importance of service.

“When you listen to Chuck speak about the type of service we should give to the guests, you can tell that he’s for real,” says head bartender Brent Kawano.


by Storm Cruz, Special to Ka ‘Ohana