Kenny Likitprakong started Hobo Wine Company 15 years ago with two wines. It is now not just a single label but an umbrella for six others (Hobo, Camp, Banyan, Folk Machine, Make Work and Ghost Writer), most which have an emphasis on value. What makes Hobo Wine Company unique is that relatively speaking, he is making small lots. Also, most of his wines are organically farmed and undergo native fermentations. While he is not just a “value” winemaker, he has, perhaps more than any other producer in California, consistently made a range of wines that are natural, tasty and inexpensive. I asked him how he is able to do this.
PSB: In general, California is not a cheap place to do business. How have you been able to make high-quality wines that are inexpensive?
KL: We work our asses off and keep our margins pretty modest. We have a small dedicated crew that is committed to the same goal that we are – to make wines that we are proud of that as many people as possible can afford to enjoy.
PSB: There is a perception that it is more expensive to make natural wines. Do you think this is true and if so, how?
KL: I would argue the opposite. I think it might take more time and you might have to pay more attention, but you actually save a lot of money by not having to buy all of the additives. Organic farming probably costs more money. I used to say that after a few years it evened out with conventional farming, but with the increases in the cost of labor, I think it is probably more fair to say that organic farming is more expensive since it is more labor intensive.
PSB: What are some ways you can cut down on costs without compromising quality?
KL: We spend all of our money on grapes and farming. Beyond that, we keep everything as cheap as possible. We use cheap glass, cheap labels, and we run an efficient cellar. We don’t spend money on unnecessary packaging. We don’t keep our cellar at 55˚. We don’t have consultants. We try to do as much as we can in house.
PSB: How do you decide which wines to make under your different labels…Hobo vs. Camp vs. Banyan vs. Folk Machine vs. Make Work? What is the total production (approximately) for the different labels?
KL: Total production hovers around 30K cases. Each of the labels has its own set of vineyards for the most part. Banyan is just Gewürztraminer. Hobo is all AVA specific Sonoma County. Ghostwriter is all Santa Cruz area fruit. Folk Machine is kind of everything else and a little more fun and experimental at the winery.
PSB: How do you find inexpensive organically farmed fruit sources? To this end, do you farm any vineyards yourself? More people are starting to do this to cut down on costs.
KL: We buy very expensive fruit and try to realize some economy of scale as we make our way to the end product. Our volume also allows us to work on a pretty aggressive margin. This has always been our model, but it took many years to grow into it and we still are to some extent.
We do farm a few vineyards and we also lease some vineyards and work with vineyard management companies on the farming. As of yet, these arrangements don’t save us any money. It’s more about having sustainable sources and being able to ensure they are farmed the way we want them to be.
PSB: How do you market/present your less expensive wines to people so that they know that the wines are at the same time affordable, organically or sustainably farmed and good? These are three qualities that don’t often go together.
KL: To be perfectly honest, we don’t do any marketing at all. I would like to think that having been in business for 15 plus years now, we have built some kind of relationship with our customers but I actually don’t know if this is true. For the most part, I think we are relying on all the middle sales people to tell our story. We have talked about certifying our facility so we would be able to make more organic claims on the labels, but (that’s) still talk at this point.
PSB: Why have you chosen to concentrate on the value oriented segment of the market?
KL: It’s always what made sense to me and what I appreciate as a consumer. It’s a comfortable place for me to be personally and as a producer. That said, we really try to work across a few segments and do more than just produce value wines.
2016 Domaine de la Damase Vins de Pays de Vaucluse ($17)
Rhône Valley, France
Kenny imports this wine, which is made in the same spirit as the Hobo portfolio. I would never have guessed that it has more than 14% alcohol as it is balanced, bright and anything but hot. On the contrary, it has lively acidity with brambly, blueberry fruit.
2016 Folk Machine Parts & Labor Red Wine ($17) CA
This is a kitchen sink blend of Barbera,Carignan, Grenache and Syrah. It is light and easily quaffed, with vibrant cherry-berry fruit.
2016 Folk Machine Film & Camera Valdigue Film & Camera, Lolonis Family Vineyards ($20)
Redwood Valley, CA
Kenny has been making this wine for a few years using 50 –70 year old vines. In 2016, he added some younger fruit, too. Light bodied with pomegranate, a little spice and floral notes.
2016 Folk Machine Avian Science Carignane ($20)
Redwood Valley, CA
This is a lighter style of Carignan with blueberries, rhubarb, red berries and pleasantly rough tannins.
12.1 % alcohol
2016 Camp Merlot ($18)
A California Merlot with European sensibilities, this could be a mistaken for a high-quality Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux. Black olives and plush cherry, plum fruit.
2016 Camp Cabernet ($18) Sauvignon
With sage, cassis, a touch of chocolate and velvety tannins, this is a classic California Cabernet Sauvignon. If I tasted this blind, I’d peg it for at least a $40 wine.