Hobo on his own path
Hobo Wine Company
Hobo Wine Company is one of 125 wineries that Jon Bonne includes in his recently published book “The New California Wine.” The subtitle aptly describes the book, “A guide to the producers and wines behind a revolution in taste,” which basically eschews prevailing big alcoholic flavor for finesse and the carefully farmed vineyards that are likely to produce such wines. But Kenny Likitprakong, the owner of Hobo Wine Company, an umbrella that shelters a hand full of labels, like Folk Machine, Make Work, Camp, Banyan, along with Hobo, rejects any definition of himself and his wines that suggests revolution. “There was a point at which I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as conventional or organic farming. There was just farming,” he says simply. And if his winemaking tends toward time honored basics without the additives that science has put at the disposal of winemakers in the last 10 to 15 years, he explains that such materials and interventions are expensive and unnecessary and he would rather put the money that they represent into better grapes and wine. “My style was driven by an economic thing, and then we began to realize that the wines were more interesting that way. We liked them better.” I repeat our conversation with minor editing for clarity.
Does Jon Bonne’s thesis resonate in any personal way for you?
That’s a difficult question, but I feel that we’ve been on our own path. I’ve been making wine for 13 years now, and I don’t feel that anything we’re doing is all that new. What we’ve done has definitely been evolving over the years. In some ways, we’ve always been proponents and advocates of minimal input agriculture and organic farming. That’s been a priority the whole time. For us that’s nothing new. By the time that I was in college, I was well aware of what was going on in agriculture. In those days, it was probably the Fetzers, who brought my attention to it. At the University of California, Davis, I had exposure to a vineyard that was farmed organically by a bunch of professors, who were linked to that movement going back to the 1960s, so I wouldn’t say that organic farming was any sort of revelation.
Do you see your winemaking as breaking away from norms?
When I got out of school, we were making more modern wines at the winery. Using commercial yeast would be a big one and other commercial materials to support the yeast. But we’ve been moving away from that stuff since 2004. It wasn’t so much driven by any rebellion against what I learned at Davis or by any rebellion against Napa wineries. Honestly, for us it was more about economics, and all that material becoming really expensive and knowing that we didn’t need it necessarily. It took us a couple of years to wean off all the yeast and to feel confident that we could still have healthy, clean, good fermentations without it. Now we’re not using any of that stuff anymore, and then we began to realize that the wines were more interesting that way. We liked them better. It started to make sense. But it definitely wasn’t any kind of counter movement. One of my big focuses has always been trying to put value in the bottle and making wines that aren’t crazy expensive. We’re always looking for ways to maintain what we’re doing and reduce our inputs and our costs so that we can continue to put value in the bottle. So cutting out all those yeasts and other stuff became very obvious back then. Right now at our production level, if we were to partially inoculate every wine that I make with commercial yeast, I’m sure I’d be spending $20 to $25 thousand a year on materials like that.
How does using only indigenous yeast affect the flavor of the wine?
I could answer in a lot of different ways, but I think that we’re getting more subtle complexity in the wine that we didn’t have before. I would attribute that largely to the early part of fermentation being carried out by non-saccharomyces wild yeasts, like kloeckera, that are common on the grapes but only able to ferment to very low levels of alcohol. So you might ferment the first couple of points with yeasts like that, which I think gives you really interesting flavors, and after that, saccharomyces is probably going to take over the fermentation. But just that little bit of difference results in a lot of complexity that we’ve noticed in the last eight years since we’ve been avoiding commercial yeasts.
How long does it take to ferment wines without commercial yeasts?
The actual fermentation varies from wine to wine, but overall I wouldn’t say it was significantly shorter or longer than commercial fermentation. The big difference is the lag time leading up to the fermentation. It takes much longer for the fermentation to actually start. So I think interesting things happen during that time. There’s a break down of the skin that contributes some flavor. Sometimes some funky stuff happens that can be interesting. It’s a bit of an inadvertent cold-soak too. We’re not chilling the fermentation down mechanically, but just the fact that the grapes are sitting around increases flavor. We also get a bit of passive carbonic maceration going on because we’re not inoculating. That probably adds to the complexity as well. I would say, too, that although we’ve always leaned toward making lower alcohol wines, knowing that there isn’t a bunch of super yeasts to rely on, we’re really pretty careful about not picking at really high sugars. Even though our alcohols have always been on the low side, they’ve gone lower as a result of knowing that we’re going to be doing un-inoculated fermentations. We need to have sugar levels that the native yeasts can manage because high alcohol can kill the yeast. It’s pretty rare that we pick over 24 brix. Not to say that it never happens, but it’s pretty rare.
You portray yourself as a pragmatic winemaker.
To some extent I would say yes. We’re trying to make honest wines at an honest price. That guides a lot of what we do. Not to say that we don’t make luxury wines, but it’s not our primary focus all the time.
Bonne makes a big point about younger people having to purchase grapes because they can not afford to buy land. He describes the situation as almost an advantage because they have access to some great vineyards.
I would agree with that statement for the most part, but I wouldn’t discredit owning a vineyard and knowing the land. We have vineyards in Santa Cruz that we lease and farm, and being intimate with a piece of property in that way has advantages as well. He’s absolutely correct. It’s pretty impossible for someone like me to own a vineyard. The model of what a bottle of wine will sell for does not equate to what a vineyard will sell for. To own property is a pretty far reaching goal. I also think he’s right that it gives us a lot of flexibility. It’s pretty cool to just be able to go to the vineyards that interest us. Again, I don’t want to discredit having a relationship with a piece of property. There’s something to be said for that too. There are plenty of examples in California and in Europe of people who do multi-generational farming, people who understand their land in a way that is pretty impressive.
You farm vineyards in Santa Cruz?
We started with two but now it’s six. For the most part, they’re all in south county Santa Cruz, in the Watsonville, Aptos, Correlitos area. Some of them are fairly mountainous. One is up at about 1300 feet. Then we’ve got another one at about 40 feet and that’s almost at the ocean. The biggest is 18 acres and the smallest is about a half acre, altogether about 20 acres. It’s all Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. We get Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet all in Alexander Valley in Sonoma County. I see increased interest in these wines. I think there is less interest in huge alcohol Cabernets with lots of oak and some residual sugar, but in general as a variety, I think interest is growing. I think that the market that our wines sell in doesn’t necessarily represent the entire wine market. The particular customer that our wines are appealing to is looking for wines that are more food friendly and belong at the table. That’s the kind of Cabernet that we’re trying to produce. I’m making more and more Cabernet every year and it’s selling out faster and faster. It’s one of those things that we can’t keep in stock.
How would you describe your wine style?
There are a couple of things that we tend to like, lower alcohol. And I like acid, so our wines are probably always a little higher in acid than what is typical in the respective category of whatever wine we’re talking about. I tend to like wine that is pretty versus powerful. I’ve never really been into making powerful wines. I sometimes enjoy drinking them, but they’ve never been a part of the wines that I’m producing.
So what do you think of the Bonne book, The New California Wine?
I think it’s great, interesting and well written. He promotes a lot of wineries whose wines I really enjoy and who deserve recognition. I think it was much needed too. There’s so much more interest in California wine in places that were tough before, New York being the best example of a place where it was really difficult to sell California wine a couple of years ago. The landscape for that has changed a lot, not so much for just his book but because of all his writing in the San Francisco Chronicle that has made people more aware of what’s going on here. European wine has always been really strong in New York just because, in a lot of cases, they can get European wine cheaper than they can get California wine. It’s easier for distributors to bring ships over than to bring trucks across the country. So European wines have always been a huge force there. It’s a tough thing to compete with. But right now, there’s a lot of interest in California, which is fantastic. There’s more style-diversification here now and some personalities that have sparked a lot of interest, which has been great. Jon Bonne has been one of them, but also people like Randall Grahm. He’s not new, but he has a big voice. And I think his voice has gotten a bigger audience in the last couple of years. There are other people on a smaller scale. Pax Mahle at Wind Gap has done a really good job. The guys at Arnot-Roberts have definitely paved a way for California to be accepted. There are lots of other people too, who have gotten attention. The whole thing about points and reviewers is becoming less important and has given more room to anybody writing stuff on the web, so there are a lot more opinions out there, and that helps too.
In other words, Robert Parker is less relevant.
Yeah, I think for certain people, he’s still important, but the customers that I’m dealing with could care less. If I were to get a 95 Parker score today, I don’t think it would change my business at all. Most of our wines are sold out anyway, and the people who are buying don’t really care what he’s saying. Maybe in certain spheres he’s still important. I’m not saying that it can’t help, but I don’t think you need it. It’s not the make-or-break signal that it used to be. If you can find a reviewer that you’re palate-aligned with, then great. Then it might work. But otherwise, the score itself doesn’t mean much. If you like all the wines that Parker likes, then the scores mean something, but if you don’t, they probably don’t mean much. Probably Jon Bonne gives us the most consistent press. But we do pretty well with a lot of regional press too, which helps a lot for wine sales rather than national press to some extent. The Raleigh-Durham paper in North Carolina did an article on us a few weeks ago, and it really helped in that area. A few months ago, we had a write-up in Portland, Maine. We hear from our distributors when these things come out, and we actually see a noticeable bump in sales. In those situations, the readers of those reviews are more closely connected to the person doing the review because it’s a regional thing. So a lot of time, I think it’s more effective than wine specific publications. You’re not reading them unless you’re pretty much into wine anyway. People who read a local newspaper might like wine, but they’re not so interested that they study wine. When they see a review in a local newspaper, they can go down to wherever they buy wine and say, ‘Hey, I saw this in the newspaper. Do you have it?’ That’s hugely powerful because the audience we’re reaching in a lot of cases is a new audience.
You must be very happy with the way your winery has developed.
We feel fortunate. We’ve been successful enough to support our family and keep things going.
California Wines of the Month
Banyan 2013 Gewurztraminer Monterey County
Winemaker Kenny Liditprakong’s Notes
Banyan Wines is a father and son project from Somchai and Kenny Likitprakong, born out of a mutual passion for wine, their Thai heritage, and an idea to combine the two. They produce appellation-specific California white wines that pair with Asian cuisines. The Banyan philosophy is to use only sustainably and/or organically farmed grapes from vineyards in regions with microclimates ideally suited for the particular variety. The 2013 Gewurztraminer was grown at Ventana Vineyards in the Arroyo Seco AVA of Monterey. Typical for that area, wind, fog, and cool temperatures predominate year round. The vineyard is carefully farmed to assure the specific ripeness, a balance of sugar and acidity, that we are looking for. A long growing season and temperatures that rarely rise above 80 degrees F. create an ideal spot for such an intensive aromatic wine. Acid will be more pronounced at cooler temperatures, but the aromatics will be more pronounced when warmer. A great match for anything spicy, especially Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian foods (alcohol 12%, pH 3.45, total acidity 6.30 g/L, residual sugar 0.80%),
Anna Maria’s Notes
“I love this wine,” Kenny says.“I come from a Tai family, and it goes well with Tai food.” True enough, but this full-bodied white wine, famous for its pronounced aromas, mutated from the Traminer grape, indeginous to Northern Italy. It reaches its finest expression in Alsace, France and is also grown in Germany. In other words, it is a European grape variety and will pair well with cheeses, fish, and a host of dishes that you would associate with white wine. So pair the wine with what you would normally serve with a white. Serve chilled.
Compass Rose Wines 2010 Alysa Red
Winemaker Kenny Liditprakong’s Notes
Alysa combines four grape varieties from four different vineyards in two different regions. Alysa starts with a core of 39.2% Madera Syrah and 1.6% Madera Viognier. We added 42% Mendocino Grenache, and toped off with 17.2% old vine Carignane. Bill Crawford is known as an expert with Rhone varieties in Mendocino County. His family has farmed Crawford Ranch in the bench lands east of Hopland for 40 years. He has dedicated a 10-acre block of Grenache to the Alysa project. Casy Hartlip farms mostly Rhone varieties at Eaglepoint Ranch, 1800 feet above the town of Talmage in Mendocino. The organically grown mountain fruit adds a density and complexity to our blend. Greg Lolonis farms 50-year old Carignan vines in the Redwood Valley north of Ukiah in Mendocino. The vines are head-pruned and organically cultivated. They add color and a briary old-vine character to Alysa.
Anna Maria’s Notes
The Alysa tastes like a blend from the Rhone region in France. It’s lean but full of flavor and should be enjoyed with food. The wine changes in the glass, so please decant before serving at cool room temperature. In fact, I tasted it the day after I had opened it, and it was even more delicious.
Hobo 2012 Rockpile Zinfandel
Winemaker Kenny Liditprakong’s Notes
Wine folk are going to talk about the low yields and bad weather of 2011 for a long time. But, as they say, “Necessity if the mother of invention,” and I think 2011 provided a lot of opportunity to think outside the box. It rained at the Branham Rockpile vineyard in 2011, and then it rained some more, and then the sun never really came out. But at 1500 feet, the ground seemed to get warm despite the lack of sun, and the vines, dry farmed and sensitive to the soil, responded and ripened the grapes that were on the vine, albeit a bit slower and with a different quality than most years. But the result is hard to dismiss, and in the end, I personally wouldn’t mind another 2011 at all. We felt like we made about the best Zinfandels that we have ever produced from this cool and challenging vintage. The Rockpile Zinfandel is 85% from the old block of Gary Branham’s vineyard and 7% from the newer planting of Dupratt and Dempel clones, plus 8% Petit Syrah. The Rockpile Zin is never a dead ringer for Zin, but it is full of dark fruit and tannin and has enough of that briary, brambly character to fit the bill. The 2011 seems to be on the savory side, at least early on, but enticing nonetheless. There is structure and balance that makes me think it will age well. I made 222 cases (alcohol 13.2%, pH 3.80, total acidity 6.8 g/L).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This is not your typical candy-land Zinfandel. Instead, you’re going to find a food wine under the cork, which is highly unusual for Zinfandel these days. And by the way, the Hobo Wines are without foil as you may have noticed. Kenny says that the foil has no function and ends up in landfill. He’d rather put the money into the wine. Please decant the wine to experience its full range of aromas and flavors.
Hobo 2012 Grenache
Winemaker Kenny Liditprakong’s Notes
Every wine has a story. I was dropping Ida off at preschool early in 2011. Her teacher asked me if I was interested in grapes that her father couldn’t sell. I asked her what type of grapes they were, but she didn’t know. I assumed Merlot or Syrah since he was having trouble selling them. Figuring I was kind of on the spot to make sure Ida had a good experience at preschool, I told the teacher to give my number to her father. When he finally called, he said he had about four acres of Grenache. That was instantly more interesting. He didn’t tell me that the vineyard was probably the oldest Grenache in Northern Sonoma County and probably one of the oldest in California with vines over 80 years old. He also didn’t tell me it was dry farmed. The rest is in the bottle. We made 151 cases (alcohol 14.1%).
Anna Maria’s Notes
The Hobo 2012 Sceales Vineyard, Alexander Valley, Grenache needs to be decanted to reveal its true character. That’s true of all three reds that we’re shipping. Please decant and get some air into the wine so that you’ll fully experience its fruit flavors and beautiful tannin texture.
Menu of the Month
Celebrating an Illusive Spring
Fennel, orange, and olive salad
Roast leg of lamb, prepared with small scattered incisions, stuffed with garlic slivers,
rosemary, & salt, served with warm potato salad,
dressed with olive oil, parsley, & celery, roasted red onions with vinegar dressing, & asparagus,
roasted with olive oil & finished with a sprinkle of fresh dill
Mixed organic field greens, such as arugula, radicchio, escarole, and watercress,
dressed with olive oil-vinegar-garlic vinaigrette
Strawberries, blueberries, and orange,
dressed with triple sec & mint, served with fresh whipped cream
Recipe of the Month
Roasted Onions with Vinegar Dressing
Lamb is emblematic of spring but hearty as well and will sustain those in parts of the country still dusted with snow. Roasted onions, sprinkled with vinegar, are a fine side dish for meat, fowl, or fish, and especially for lamb. The recipe below is adapted from the cookbook Roma, by Julia della Croce. Enjoy!
6 red onions
Extra virgin olive oil for brushing
Sea salt to taste
White wine vinegar for sprinkling
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the onions in half crosswise. Brush the onion halves all over with olive oil and place them on a baking sheet, cut side up. Sprinkle with salt and roast until thoroughly tender and nicely browned, about 1 hour. Transfer to a serving dish. Sprinkle lightly with vinegar and generously with pepper to serve.