August 21, 2013

Wine: Hobo's California wine would have Woody singing praises

By JOE APPEL

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."

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