Hobo Wine Company

Getting Off the Train

Hobo Wine Company

The son of an immigrant father, Kenny Likitprakong plunged into the American experience early on. “When I was 17, I started traveling around, listening to Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen and the likes, seeing different parts of the country and other countries, writing in journals and taking photos…. An updated Huck Finn, Kenny spent a fair amount of his youth skateboarding, snowboarding, and ocean surfing and visiting places where he could do that, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Lake Tahoe, Mexico and then went on to Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Graceland in Tennessee, and the East Coast. His artistic side drove him to stints in the Theater Arts Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University. But that was then. He was born and grew up in a Sonoma vineyard at Domaine St. George in Healdsburg where his father has been General Manager for 40 years. Ultimately, his dreams took shape around that terrain, growing grapes and making wine. “It’s something I enjoy doing,” Kenny says. “I could do other things, I suppose.”

Despite early wandering, Kenny Likitprakong didn’t miss a beat. He graduated in his early 20s with the most prestigious viticulture and enology degree in the country from the University of California, Davis, and according to the chronology on his website, his travels became more focused on wine country in South America and Eastern and Western Europe, a global hobo, hitchhiking with a credit card and a few dollars in his pocket. Between voyages, he worked at Alderbrook in the Dry Creek Valley, at Winters Winery in Yolo County, Hallcrest in Santa Cruz, and Moshin Vineyards in the Russian River Valley. At the same time, he was developing Hobo Wine Company and making wine for his own labels, which now include Hobo, Banyan, Folk Machine, MakeWork, The Guardian, and the new one Ghost Rider, not to mention Le Clochard, the French Hobo, a non-vintage table wine that Kenny imports from France. Each label represents a different category of wines, most all of them made in very small quantities, some as small as 35 cases.

Some might say that so many labels confuse Hobo Wine Company’s identity. A friend with a public relations firm in San Francisco tells Kenny that he’s not following the rules for branding his business. Kenny’s response is “Oh, I think it’s fun. All the wines are really different, so they deserve their own identities rather than being all lumped together. I try to give them their own little lives, I guess.” And it works for him. His production now ranges between 7,000 to 9,000 cases a year and has a devoted following. But even consumers who might not recognize the company, could easily reach for the quirky labels that they see on a shelf, including fanciful names and illustrations with boats, bones, and bright colors.

Kenny can produce many different wines because he doesn’t own a vineyard and instead purchases grapes from different growers, although he sometimes farms vineyards from which he buys fruit. He has recently taken the next step and now leases three different vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a total of 11.5 acres, whose wines will be bottled with the Ghost Rider label. “I used to farm a Dry Creek Valley Zin vineyard for a couple of years. We still farm another small vineyard in the Russian River Valley, but the primary farming energy we put into Santa Cruz now.” The vineyards are in a cool climate area and produce Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Unlike the ripe Pinot and Chardonnay of warmer Santa Lucia Highlands, Ghost Rider wines will be more restrained, “more similar to Oregon wines,” Kenny says. “They’re still fruit forward, but there is a leanness that’s not typically Russian River or Anderson Valley.”

Kenny remembers working in Santa Cruz in 2000/2001 and being envious of the success that riper Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir was enjoying. He tried to emulate those wines without success until he realized that he envied their success more than he liked the wines. “In the Santa Cruz Mountains, you’re always going to be making wines that are lower in alcohol and higher in acidity. I started to develop a taste for that type of wine. Prior to even going to Davis, I had worked for an import marketing company that was based in San Francisco and at that time almost exclusively drank French wines. That was my introduction to that style of wine. I was a kid, not a whole lot of money, and those French wines were the cheapest wines I could drink. Their food friendliness I took for granted at that time, but when you start to drink California wines that are 15 or 16 percent alcohol, you see the contrast pretty quickly.”

In fact, what distinguishes Kenny’s wines from many others in California is that they seem more “natural,” a label that describes a movement among some younger winemakers toward lower alcohol wines that preserve balance to the extent that winemakers don’t need to add acid, tannin, and other ingredients as is sometimes necessary when fruit is picked at high sugar levels. “We believe in unforced wines,” Kenny says on the website. But he’s reticent to claim membership in the “natural wine” group. “We sort of operate on the fringe of it I think. I don’t know if I consider myself part of the movement. We’ve always made wines from well farmed, sustainably farmed vineyards, not organically farmed necessarily, but we’ve tried to let the wines stand up on their own. I’ve always worried about falling into a niche and having a customer be drinking the wine because of a certain trend or a certain niche. I’d rather build a brand and have people follow it because they like the wine, not because they’re made from native yeast or organic grapes. I think all those things are important and there’s an ethical reason for doing those things, but I’ve always had that stand apart from what we do to build the brand.”

Kenny has been making his own wine for ten years and working entirely for himself for just two. To have built his production to 9,000 cases testifies to his energy, dedication, and the quality of Hobo wines. He’s currently making his wine at Domaine St. George, but he’s purchasing some of his own equipment. “ I guess we’re trying to become more independent, more in control of our production,” although Kenny adds that he’s not ready to take on the expense or responsibility of owning a winery facility.

Hobo seems to be getting off the train and settling down a bit. Love may be in part responsible. “I have a one year old and a four year old, Edith and Ida Mae Rose. They spend quite a bit of time in the vineyards and in the winery. They’re pretty involved. They’re around a lot. It’s definitely a family business. Their mother is fully involved, does a lot of compliance work and some of the sales stuff, bookkeeping stuff. She’s not spending a lot of time in the cellar, but I value her opinion when it comes to the final product. She’s got a good palate.”

California Wines of the Month


Artisan Series

The Guardian – 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County

Winemaker Kenny Likitprakong’s Notes

The 2008 Guardian Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend of 93% Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Russian River Valley Merlot. The Cab and Merlot were fermented individually, but blended and aged together in stainless steel for five months and in French oak barrels for nine months. Built to be approachable at a young age, but still full bodied, heavy in fruit concentration, and firm in tannins, this wine is ready for steak, pasta, pizza, and most other hearty foods. Enjoy!

Anna Maria’s Notes

Cabernet Sauvignon makes winter bearable. After 14 months aging in tank and barrel and, at this point, a year and a half in bottle, the wine is smooth and deep. Kenny chooses his vineyards well, Cabernet from the Alexander Valley appellation and Merlot from the Russian River Valley. Altogether, the wine is most enjoyable. And by the way, The Guardian is the Ghost in the Vineyard, who handles unseen processes while the farmer manages those that can be seen.

The Guardian – 2009 Chardonnay, Central Coast

Winemaker Kenny Likitprakong’s Notes

The 2009 Central Coast Chardonnay is 85% northern Santa Lucia Highlands and 15% Russian River Valley. This wine is fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel tanks, then left on its lies for eight months until bottling. The pressed juice was not sulfited, allowing native yeast to carry out the primary fermentation. The secondary malolactic fermentation was arrested to retain crisp acidity and fresh fruit character. Made in the “naked” Chardonnay style, the wine has no butter or oak flavors and a very lean, crisp acidity. For a Chardonnay, this bottling has more tropical notes than citrus and will pair well with bistro foods, cheeses, and warm days. Enjoy!

Anna Maria’s Notes

Northern Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County and Russian River Valley in Sonoma County are cooler regions both known for their Chardonnay vineyards. Aging Chardonnay in oak barrels enriches it with toast and vanilla flavors, and subjecting it to a secondary malolactic fermentation that transforms malic acid into softer lactic acid also makes the wine richer. But for this Chardonnay, Kenny has chosen to let the fruit shine through without barrel influence or complete malolactic fermentation. Crisp, unadulterated Chardonnay fruit flavor from premium growing regions is the goal. If you like your Chardonnay straight up, this one is for you. Serve chilled.

Winemaker Series

MakeWork – 2009 Malbec, Alexander Valley

Winemaker Kenny Likitprakong’s Notes

We drink a fair amount of Malbec at home, and when the opportunity to produce some came up, I jumped on it. I didn’t know what to expect, but I’m pretty happy with the results. Malbec seems to lie somewhere in between Cab and Merlot. It’s more approachable than Cab at a young age, but a whole lot sexier than Merlot. There is something sleek and attractive about Malbec besides just the impressive purple color. In 2009, we experimented with rotary puncheon fermentations, and this Malbec was the first must, skins, and all to go in a Saint Martin puncheon on a rolling rack. It was also a true native yeast fermentation because the puncheon was pretty isolated from anything else and brand new, so there wasn’t any chance of any residual yeast. The idea of the puncheon is to soften tannins early on. We feel like it worked pretty well. Post fermentation, we pressed 40% of the wine to new Ana Selection Center of France oak barrels. The secondary malolactic fermentation occurred very slowly in these smaller barrels. We bottled the wine unfiltered and unfined. From the beginning, this has been one of the cooler wines of the vintage. We’re hoping to continue our adventures in Malbec (37.7% alcohol).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Kenny made just 37 cases of this delicious wine. It has the wonderful aromas, flavors, and texture of truly fine wine. The instrument on the label is a caliper, an ancient tool which measures the distance between two sides of an object. Kenny uses the tool to measure small parts on his bottling line. I neglected to ask why he put his caliper on the label. But taking a guess, I’d say that it measures the delicate balance between the components of a this wine, the fruit flavors, acid, and tannin, whose balance defines the difference between an extraordinary wine and a merely competent one. This one is extraordinary.

MakeWork – 2008 The Plan, Sonoma County

Winemaker Kenny Likitprakong’s Notes

The MakeWork Plan is 75% Russian River Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Russian River Valley Merlot, 5% Alexander Valley Malbec, and 5% Napa Valley Petite Verdot. It is the only wine that we produce in 100% new oak barrels. We made just two barrels of this wine, one in Dargaud & Jaegle Center of France and one Vicard Water Bent Bosge. We micromanaged three rows of West facing hillside Cabernet at the end of Grant Avenue in Healdsburg’s foothills that produced the Cab and Merlot. I personally prune, thin shoots, sucker, pull leaves, and thin grape clusters on every grape vine myself. When it comes to harvest, we bring in a small crew of friends and family to pick. We destem without crushing into a small one-ton open-top fermentor. Native yeasts carry out the fermentation. The free run juice with a light press is put directly into barrel where the malolactic proceeds naturally. The wine is racked three times from barrel to barrel during the aging process to soften tannins, encourage integration, and clarify the wine. At the first racking in February, we make the final blend. The wine ages a total of 22 months before being bottled unfiltered and unfined. The end result is a rich and layered wine with low alcohol (13.3% alcohol).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Like the 2009 Malbec, this 2008 blend is also a beautiful wine for all the same reasons that the Malbec is, particularly its balance. Fruit flavors, acid, and tannins blend into a superb whole. Since the wine combines four different grape varieties, Kenny asked his graphic designer to put an architectural drawing on the label that would correspond to his design for the wine. “He didn’t like my idea, I guess,” Kenny said modestly. Instead, the designer chose the human plan, skeletal drawings from an old book of master sketches. “We didn’t make a lot of this wine, so I don’t have a huge audience to please, but so far it’s been popular. The handful of people who have bought it have been drawn to the label. I’ve probably had some sales just from the label.” Whoever might have been attracted by the bones, sure got lucky with the wine. Kenny made just 48 cases.

Menu of the Month


 

See You at Seven

First Course

Potato and spinach gnocchi, drizzled with olive oil and
sprinkled with Parmigian cheese

Main Course

Grilled lamb chops marinated in olive oil, garlic, & rosemary
Grilled polenta wedges

Salad

White endive & watercress with pears & goat cheese,
and an olive oil & lemon dressing

Dessert

Ladyfingers soaked in coffee liqueur and topped with mascarpone

Recipe of the Month


Potato & spinach gnocchi

These small and tender pillows are a delicious first course and can be prepared earlier in the day so that they’re ready for a brief cooking at meal time. A drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of freshly grated Parmigian cheese provide a fine accent before serving although a light tomato sauce is also a match. The recipe below is adapted from “The Silver Spoon,” Phaidon Press Limited.

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds spinach

1 3/4 pounds peeled potatoes

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting

2 egg yolks, lightly beaten

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 cup warm olive oil or melted butter

2/3 cup Parmigian cheese, freshly grated

Salt

Directions

Pinch off spinach stems and wilt leaves in a pan with just the water that clings after washing. Then drain, squeezing out as much liquid as possible, and chop. Cook potatoes in lightly salted, boiling water until tender, then mash while still hot. Combine the potato, spinach, and flour. Season with salt and nutmeg, beat in the egg yolks, and knead the dough for a few minutes. Shape the dough into several long rolls about 2/3 inch in diameter. Cut into 3/4 inch lengths and press gently against the underside of a grater to create texture. Dust lightly with flour. Bring a large pan of lightly salted water to a boil, add gnocchi a few at a time and remove with a slotted spoon as they rise to the surface. Place in a drainer to remove moisture. Arrange on a warm serving dish, drizzle olive oil or butter over them, and sprinkle with Parmigian cheese. Serves 4.