Is California capable of producing the sort of moderately priced, characterful but not overly ambitious, small-scale table wines that Europe excels at? Where is the Californian Dolcetto, Bourgeuil, Douro?
The odds are long, because in California money and ambition rule, in people as in wine. Wine socioeconomics there (expensive land, ego, cult-wine culture, on-site wine tourism, etc.) push a kind of blockbusterism, and anyone making Euro-style refreshing, interesting-but-not-super-complicated wines to complement everyday food has to operate outside the norm, which leads to higher costs. There’s plenty of super-cool wine from California, for $45 a bottle.
What constitutes a “moderate” price for a bottle of wine is relative, of course: In my neck of the woods, it’s $12 to $15, max. Out west, it’s $10 more than that. It can’t be that the average wine buyer in California is 80 percent wealthier than in Maine (though maybe it’s close?); it’s more of a cultural, and psychological, thing.
So, no, there’s barely any $13 wine from California I know of that meets the criteria: tasty; refreshing; balanced; low alcohol and keen acidity for suitability with everyday food; made by a real person on a relatively small scale; light on the additives and technical manipulation introduced in a cellar that functions more like a laboratory.
I didn’t even think there was much such wine at $20, which is one reason this column usually leans so heavily toward Europe. But on that I’ve been summarily schooled because Kenny Likitprakong wines are now available in Maine.
The 38-year-old Likitprakong is a hobo winemaker, a man with no vineyards to call his own. He buys good grapes from other people, farms some vineyards that he doesn’t own. He uses his own skills — honed in vineyards, cellars, and UC Davis’ viticulture and enology program — to craft wines that reflect his personal preferences (which run counter to the prevailing ones).
It’s a model based on the specifics of a person instead of a site. The great European vintners — the self-effacing term “winegrower” is common there, over “winemaker” — are still known largely as caretakers of particularly blessed parcels of land. In the California and elsewhere in the U.S., home of the individual, the guy who produces the wine gets top billing.
“Hobo” is Likitprakong’s word, not mine, and it’s the name of his wine company, which produces Hobo Wines along with other brands such as Camp, Banyan and Folk Machine. A longtime admirer of Woody Guthrie (whose famous “fascist-killing machine,” his guitar, is the inspiration for the Folk Machine line), Likitprakong applies his hero’s iconic free spirit of movement, improvisation, humor, subversion and honesty to an array of wines that do nothing less than remind me why I love this country, “old, weird America” (in Greil Marcus’ memorable phrase) style.
Likitprakong grew up in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, in many ways a classic California snowboard/skateboard kid (he considered going pro at one point). His history with wine begins with toddling around his great uncle’s winery, and proceeds through various internships, revelatory hobo-y trips to Europe, all sorts of detours, the study at UC Davis and on to various winemaking jobs from there. It’s all unsurpassably documented at hobowines.com, in a cheeky but informative timeline that expresses better than I can the freewheeling spirit that informs the man, and the wines.
“Of the two ways to make wine,” Likitprakong writes on his website, “with and without money, the first should probably be the only, but a few of us slip through the cracks and do it on the skinny. No winery, no vineyards, no truck, no warehouse, no employees … There are advantages. Making small lots comes naturally, the flexibility to pick and choose grape type, vineyard, appellation, and winery on an ongoing basis, and a larger circle of people involved which means more ideas and expertise.”
When I first met Likitprakong and tasted with him, I was immediately drawn to his combination of insouciance and precision, his relaxed composure and technical know-how. (He did study at UC Davis, after all, where he geeked out intensely on yeast, and though he rejected that institution’s infamous promotion of intense technological manipulation, he continues to value how it “taught biochemical pathways, things on a cellular level, so that if problems arise you know how to deal with them responsibly.”)
He wears his know-how lightly, though, and the wines themselves, an enticing selection of which are now distributed in Maine by Wicked Wines, are the best source of information.
All of the following are made with what Likitprakong calls “uninoculated” (i.e., native, not cultured) yeasts, therefore undergo slow fermentations, and the high-quality grapes are picked early enough that no ex post facto acidification is necessary. Those two facts alone set these wines apart, and are responsible for much of the lively, supple qualities which serve as thrilling counter-example to the pessimistic consensus that well-priced wine of character is unavailable in California.
The Camp Chardonnay 2012 ($15) and Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ($16), both from Sonoma-sourced fruit, are just ideal everyday wines. Balanced alcohol, judicious use of oak and a commitment to showcasing these go-to grapes mostly unadorned lead to notable clarity and candidness. It’s amazing how many sourced-fruit Chard and Cab wines taste like cocktails; these taste like wine.
Hobo Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2011, $20. Shockingly fresh, buoyant, even playful Zin, clocking in at 13.6 percent alcohol. Medium-bodied and happy, it’s very traditional wine but without any of the clownish fruit of Zinfandel. When I first tasted it, alongside bottles of Pinot Noir, I had to ask whether a Zin had really been poured in my glass because its balance of earth, fruit and acidity is Pinot-like. And the flavors of red-fruit compote are complemented by ground black pepper, rosemary, and even a briny touch. Zin lovers will fall for it, and start dreaming up tuna recipes, but so will the Europhile who went looking for a delicious Dolcetto to drink with salami.
Folk Machine Pinot Noir 2012, $19. One of those wines where everything falls into place. This is real Pinot Noir, in its elegance, light body and harmonious comportment; in its ability to be induce deep contentment; in its pure usefulness both culinarily and emotionally. It’s fun and crowd-pleasing, not over-intellectual Pinot Noir. But to anyone who pays attention, the rewards run long past the aromas of forest rain, the savors of black cherry and cinnamon. Terrific acidity, a three-dimensional texture composed of both prickle and stuffing, a grip that’s simultaneously raspy and sultry; I can’t stop drinking it!
Folk Machine Chenin Blanc 2012, $15. I love Chenin Blanc. I almost-love this wine, which does a lot of interesting things though its resolution is not quite resolved. I want to follow it over time and in future vintages. Voluptuous, mouth-filling and rich, with the varietal’s natural lemon zap and gentian bitters coming at the end. It’s a superbly flexible food wine, which along with its beautiful label (color silhouette of a kid skateboarding!), makes it a natural for a host gift at your next potluck.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market, but not all the wines mentioned in this column are necessarily sold there. His blog is soulofwine.com, and he can be reached at: