A few thousand feet up the flanks of an enormous sleeping volcano in Maui, cool mist clings to the smooth rainbow bark of eucalyptus trees. This is "up-country Maui," where paniolos -- Hawaiian cowboys -- have roped cattle for 200 years. At Ulupalakua Ranch, the tradition persists with a twist: cow ponies must steer clear of tipsy, pasty Minnesotans. The ranch has changed: grazing land sits alongside a vineyard, which draws tourists to wine tastings. "When you have a lot of people coming to visit," says ranch president Sumner Erdman, "you have to keep the cow [pies] out of the yard."
DAYS OF WINE AND ROPERS: Sumner Erdman sustains the Hawaiian cowboy tradition with revenues from wine and tourism.
Erdman's dad, Pardee, bought the 20,000-acre spread (pronounced oo-loo-pa-la-KOO-ah) in 1963 for $4 million -- a bargain by today's standards. But cattle ranching is a brutal business, especially in Hawaii. Supplies must be imported from the U.S. mainland and then the output (live cows) shipped back. Many Maui ranches disappeared in the 1970s. To stay afloat, in 1974, Pardee Erdman struck a deal with Napa vintner Emil Tedeschi to grow grapes on the ranch's slopes. Ulupalakua now produces red, white, and sparkling wines. Workers even turn pineapples into a truly palatable blanc. Like most other vineyards, the ranch began offering tours and tastings. It then added skeet shooting and has just opened some trails to all-terrain vehicles.
Even with hundreds of visitors a day, Sumner Erdman, 37, says he's wearing "a very tight belt." Cattle brought in 90% of ranch revenues in the 1960s; now they bring only 50% to 60%. To make up for the drop in beef sales, Erdman leases land to telecommunications companies to build towers. "We wouldn't have survived the drought [from 1998 through 2001] without those other sources of income," Erdman says.
As developers install Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and more luxury hotels on Maui, "it is drastically important to my family to try and maintain as much open space as we can," Erdman explains. He wants his two little girls to grow up as he did, surrounded by prickly pear and Italian cypress and old-time Hawaiian ropers and riders. But, of course, the ranch will never be what it once was. Ulupalakua now employs only 5 paniolos, down from 25. As if to underscore the decline, Ulupalakua recently had to terminate its 100-year-old account with Levi Strauss. The ranch's riders just weren't ordering enough pairs of jeans.
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