So, I’ll leave out some of the sordid details about the various times, I’ve seen Hobo’s riding the freight trains coming out of Emeryville except to say that yes, having grown up in suburban San Diego, I was fascinated the first time I saw them and second, that’s an interesting name for a winery right? Then I got a chance to taste through some of these and walked away with some of the Hobo Wine Company Camp Cabernet Sauvignon for my wine club members and here’s why:
Winemaker Kenny Likitprakong might have one of the most unique stories of any winemaker who grew up in Sonoma, having a great uncle owning a winery, having graduated from UC Davis’ acclaimed viticulture program, yet there’s something entirely different about Kenny.
First, he used to skateboard. Seriously skateboard. I think due to my southern California roots, my idea of someone who surfs or skateboards, is probably a bit different than it might be here. Like, stairs and hand rails aren’t an issue for a skateboarder. A long board isn’t a surfboard. A boogey board is a speed bump. Anyway, there’s a certain culture that usually goes along with anyone who rides even slightly competitively. There’s a sense of place, humbleness, but an edge of sorts.
How do you define an edge as part of a winemaker? There’s a story about Kenny floating around that at the tender age of 27 he approached the owner of Rockpile vineyard (perhaps the most famous Zinfandel vineyard in northern California) and simply asked for some grapes. He was 27, but looked about 17. He was declined. So, at a different event, he asked again. Then again and again. Both men say it took somewhere over 10 requests for some googling to happen at last and then finally, a sale to be made.
Kenny’s work there was reminiscent of where he wanted his labels to go. Picked earlier than others, retaining that higher acidity, there is a perspective here. This Hobo Wine Company Camp Cabernet Sauvignon is definitely a different look into Cabernet, if not only in terms of style, but also in terms of price point.
What I find interesting isn’t this lower alcohol perspective, that’s pretty much the standard these days when it comes to freshly trained winemakers. What is different though is that, instead of going after only the coolest climate vineyard sources around, Kenny takes that perspective and sources fruit from some of the warmest.
Take the wine in your glass. Ask a winemaker about Sonoma and they’ll gush over the Sonoma Coast. It’s cold. Stuff gets ripe, but darn it’s cold after 4pm. And Windy. And foggy. Oh and it gets ripe like the day before it’s suppose to be picked….or the day after according to some. That isn’t the case with the wider Sonoma County where it continues to be pretty warm throughout the course of the day and often well into the evening. It’s a spot where you can eat dinner outside, like 10 months a year in shorts and a tshirt.
Taking warm weather fruit and keeping a lid on the fruit forwardness of the wine, is a skill. In my opinion, it’s an art and not a science. Look anyone can pick a few Brix early and then make a “food friendly” wine. But, can people really take fruit that’s allowed to 100% ripen and then do the same? I don’t have a problem with the first group, far from it, I’ve shipped plenty of their member of late in our wine clubs.
That being said, there are ways to keep a relative lid on alcohol levels. First and foremost, native yeast. For the former engineer in me it sounds weird to say, but no one knows exactly why native yeasts tend to lead to lower alcohol levels compared to commercial options, when controlling for other factors like Brix and oak exposure.
Also, there’s a few things that you can do to limit the way alcohol “feels” in your mouth and how the alcohol interacts with the rest of the fruit juice in your glass. Not fining and not filtering are two other ways which you can control the way a wine feels to consumers and to the wine trade.
Which leads me, in a roundabout way, as always, to the Cabernet Sauvignon in your shipment this month. For quite some time, my wife and I have wanted to find a high quality house Cabernet. The funny thing about owning a wine of the month club, is that every time you’re invited to dinner or to an event at a friend’s house, adult or child, people wouldn’t mind you bringing the wine. That’s ok and it’s probably more enjoyable for us, as well as, everyone else to raid the sample drawer, rather than drink some $12 Cabernet that someone liked once at Trader Joe’s…….but, it would be nice to have a House Wine right? I mean sometimes, the sample drawer does run low (even though some wineries count samples as up to 5% of their total production). In the long term battle between Sonoma and Napa, I don’t see it as a competition like so many others. Instead, the regions despite being neighbors, I think, should be accepted for their huge differences. One of the major differences is the average price point for the wines being produced, which included both the price that grapes can fetch on the market, as well as, the available production facilities. Most wine lovers who have tasted through Napa Valley and Sonoma have been to a warehouse facility in Sonoma, a shared facility that drops costs as low as they can possibly go. There’s about 5 such options in Napa, with the capacity for about 5% of what’s available in Sonoma. Ok, so finding a house wine….despite all the other factors, leads me to Sonoma for a few reasons. I’ve been searching for a while.
I think this, might do the trick. Retail on this is $18 which deserves a mention. To start, I’ve run into at least 4-5 of these similarly priced $18 retail wines from winemakers that I respect quite a bit. It made me ask, why $18 when the average wine consumed in America is about $6.25. I mean, isn’t $20 a nicer, rounder number? Why not $15, other than the 15%+ price reduction?
There’s an element of the wine drinking public, about 30% of the total market depending on whom you ask, willing to pay $50 for a bottle of wine. That’s the target market for winemakers making small production wines. After all, if you’re only clearing about 25% of the total purchase price to consumers and only 5% when sold into the crappy and antiquated 3 tier system….making only about 500 cases or 6,000 bottles of wine….well you can do the math about why making wine for under $10, simply doesn’t make sense without expanding production levels to a place most winemakers don’t want to go. Ok, since this is actually a fun exercise, take a minute to see why it’s said that it takes a large fortune to make a small one in wine. By the way, the investment to get down into that bottom tier, might be $10mm in Napa Valley these days. A sobering thought for many, winemakers included.
|Price per bottle||Profit per bottle||Cases Produced (bottle x12)||Total Profit|
For what it’s worth, I adjusted the last number in the table for a smaller % profit, based on what I’ve heard about the long term sales of higher end wines.
I mean, you can see why someone would think that unless they could get into the $18 or so tier, that there was really no point financially. There are two major cut offs when it comes to winery production levels. At about 5,000 cases, you tend to see an employee, or at least a broker or distributor brought on board. 5k-25k is considered pretty much no mans’ land when it comes to production levels. At 25,000 cases of wine per year, it becomes easier to bring on employees and continue growth. It’s damn hard to get there though. The average sale for a $18 retail wine is 3 cases.
That’s also why you need a talented winemaker at this price point, essentially the kind of guy that typically doesn’t stay all too long. It’s also why these price points are completely dominated by the bigger boys that are capable of dropping zeros on all of those numbers above.
In any case, I view this as a pretty typical $30 Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon. Except it’s priced at $18.