Kenny Likitprakong, a former skateboarder, might be the Will Oldham of wine. Oldham, the multi-genre, avant-folk musician, records and performs under multiple aliases, including Bonnie Prince Billy and Palace Brothers. Likitprakong makes multigenre wine under six California labels, and each seems to "sound" different while being unmistakably his own.
Like Oldham, Likitprakong echoes tradition and experimentation, making the new and fresh out of the old and neglected. The adjective he chooses for them is "unforced."
"I've often liked to say that we have modeled ourselves after a skateboard company," says Likitprakong, who visits the Triangle next week. "There wasn't a plan. Things just evolved this way and we followed."
Founded in 2002, Likitprakong's Banyan label originally made three wines intended to accompany Asian food (he's half Thai), but "the line has been trimmed down" to just one: a fresh, light gewürztraminer. The aptly named Folk Machine—square-deal, micro-industrial wines—is more "esoteric," in Likitprakong's description. As for the name Hobo, the flagship label of Likitprakong's fleet, that refers to the grapes, which come from Sonoma County, where Likitprakong was raised and lives. He's a wanderer in his own territory. "I have always been intrigued by anything that wanders off the beaten path," he says, and no surprise, since he does, too.
Likitprakong doesn't own any vineyards, so he doesn't have to charge a mortgage-paying fortune for his wine. Many run just $14–$20 a bottle.
Nor does he want to. "Being driven by money, or making decisions based on money just isn't part of it," he says.
Likitprakong works with small farmers around northern California in ways designed to help keep costs down. "We we hang a little more fruit per acre, pick early so we don't have to deal with dehydration and other late harvest issues," he says.
The grapes he buys range from the famous—cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel—to the obscure, like valdiguié and tocai friulano, the latter a fairly scarce relative of sauvignon blanc. One common result, though, under Likitprakong's ministrations, is low alcohol. This is not just a chemical happenstance of picking early; nor is it an "artistic statement." It's a personal, biological choice: "My Asian blood has a low tolerance for alcohol," Likitprakong says. "I like and look for lower alcohol wines."
Alcohol level is only one way Likitprakong's wines reflect their maker. When he says, "I take a lot of pride in delivering an honest bottle of wine at a relatively modest price," he isn't just parroting ad-speak. "I started doing this thing when I was 25, and I wanted to make wines that people at my stage in life (when I was 25) would be into drinking. Price point was a big part of that. We keep our end price in mind from the beginning."
Although he is now nearing 40, Likitprakong still bottles a 25-year-old's spirit: His wines are precocious and adventurous. They make a direct appeal to the senses, their complexities genetic rather than contrived. Their nimble, approachable, yet unpredictable character reflect the kind of guy who, not long after his limited-production wines are snapped up by an unlikely North Carolina market 3,000 miles from Sonoma County, will fly there just to meet his local distributor and "see what's going on in Durham," he says. He might discover kindred spirits here, a home away from home for his family of wines.
WINE WITH SOUL: I've praised Hobo's warmly delicious Sceales Vineyard Grenache before and he makes cheap, lip-smacking whites and reds via Banyan and Folk Machine. But stopping with what Likitprakong calls his "twice a week wines" limits appreciation for what he can do. His pinot noir from the tiny Amaya Ridge vineyard, in the rugged Santa Cruz mountains, is about the priciest wine he makes, around $45, under yet another label, Ghostwriter. The delightful surprise of this wine is not just that it's actually much cheaper than its nearest comps (which include, to my palate, Burgundy's famous Chambolle Musigny). It's also that it doesn't call to mind the rough, restless intrepidity of skateboarders, Bonnie Prince Billy, hoboes or DIYers. The Amaya Ridge pinot feels unforced, to be sure, and what's unforced about it is its quiet grace and classical beauty.
This article appeared in print with the headline "WInes for the wanderer."