By James Knight
Up and down Plaza Street I tramped in search of Healdsburg's newest tasting room. MapQuest might have helped, but I would have preferred to have seen some old hobo signs pointing me to the Hobo Wine Company. In the last century, these crudely scratched hieroglyphics helped the footloose navigate the open road. For instance, a kitty cat signified "kindhearted lady here," while an upside-down cup warned "this town allows no alcohol." Healdsburg, of course, is competing for a world record in winetasting rooms. If many more pour into town, they'll have to set up a wine country Hooverville of sorts—the plaza filled with cardboard shacks plastered with wine labels for wallpaper, and staff, humbly garbed in barrels, offering tin-handled tasting cups . . . Sounds like fun!
When I stopped by the Russian River Wine Company's digs to ask for directions, I found winemaker Kenny Likitprakong behind the bar, and I knew I'd found it. Called Downtown Wine, the storefront is now a venture of Branham Estate Wines as well as Likitprakong's Hobo, Banyan and Folk Machine labels, while the RRWC continues mail-order operations in the back room. The soundtrack here is likely to be Elvis or another LP played from a small record collection, not Wine Country Lite; hoodies are appropriate apparel. After all, the proprietor is a skateboarder-turned-winemaker, an H-town local who grew up in the wine business. While he set out in the world hoping to do anything but, Likitprakong eventually found his way back to the grape. Now hardly older than 30, he's both settling down and making a precipitous leap, leaving his day job as winemaker at Moshin Vineyards to make a go of it on his own.
Likitprakong's Banyan Wines, which he cofounded with his father, is aimed at pairing with Asian cuisine, a market where varietals like Gewürztraminer are too often simple and sweet. The refreshingly dry 2007 Santa Lucia Highlands Riesling ($17) displays a mild Alsatian whiff of petrol, a complexity rare in this state (and a treat, Likitprakong says, that's not for everybody), with tropical, floral notes and a palate-cleansing, juicy lime finish. Although the pool of California Rieslings is a small one, this one's in the top four among those I've tasted.
The unusually wordless Folk Machine labels depict a murky, industrial American wasteland. "Factories and Smoke" 2007 Potter Valley Pinot Noir ($28) sports Dr. Seuss–inspired artwork. Unfiltered, with a rose petal hue, it's bright with sweet-and-sour cherry flavors and a faint hint of what may become a bouquet of sweet dry hay. A great wine for cheese plates and charcuterie—or green eggs and ham. Bearing the Hobo label, the 2006 Rockpile Zinfandel ($28) is intense, rustic and brambly, perfect for a can of beans toasted over a campfire.
To find Downtown Wine, tramp on up to the Healdsburg Plaza. Town allows alcohol. Head northeast toward the sign of the goat. Hot coffee here. Turn right, past the lighthouse, walk two doors up. Hobos welcome.
Downtown Wine, 132 Plaza St., Healdsburg. Open Thursday–Monday, 11am to 6pm. Tasting fee, $5. 707.473.0337.
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