Rare Vintage

Asian American Winemakers Are Gaining Visibility

January 31, 2010

Kenny Likitprakong works the Branham Rockpile Vineyard in Sonoma County. Photography by Lianne Milton

It‘s an unusually cool, overcast September morning, and Kenny Likitprakong has already retrieved his first batch of grapes. A boyish 34-year-old in cargo shorts, a hooded sweat-shirt and a silver hoop earring, he is gearing up for the inaugural weekend of fall’s harvest season, marking the start of the busiest time of the year in Northern California’s wine country.

Likitprakong, up since 6 a.m., has been loading a pickup truck with huge, brimming bins of sweet, dark purple grapes from the Branham Rockpile Vineyard near Lake Sonoma — about 70 miles north of San Francisco — and driving them 15 miles down rugged narrow roads to process them at J. Rickards Vineyards and Winery in Cloverdale, CA.

“To me, the grapes always taste better in the morning than at night,” he said.

Likitprakong describes the soils that produce Rockpile grapes as depleted and rocky, creating a unique flavor for his wines, which “really taste like the place.”

With no vineyards of his own, Likitprakong buys about three tons of his grapes from Rockpile — a fraction of the 150 tons he gathers throughout the year from 19 vineyards stretching as far north as Mendocino County, through Sonoma and Napa counties and the Santa Cruz Mountains and down to the Central Coast. He also has business relationships with four wineries, where he crushes and processes his grapes.

Once Likitprakong arrives at J. Rickards, he swaps his pickup truck for a forklift and starts stacking the bins — weighed down by about 1,000 pounds of grapes — into a neat row. He then climbs back into the truck to make one last trip to the vineyard to collect the rest of his grapes.

The sun has finally burned through the clouds, warming the golden hills dotted with oak trees. By the time Likitprakong reaches the vineyard, his six hired hands of grape pickers are waiting for him — and waiting to get paid.

For all the pleasure that comes from uncorking a bottle of wine and pouring it into a glass, the amount of labor that goes into making that wine is no small undertaking.

This is especially so for Likitprakong, who runs a modest operation, but one he’s worked hard to establish. A winemaker of 10 years, he has made his living off the land, harvesting grapes into 100,000 bottles of wine a year — at first for his clients and now for himself under his own labels: Hobo, Banyan and Folk Machine wines.

In an industry dominated by European blood and heritage, Likitprakong is among the few of Asian ancestry to emerge from the wine business in the United States. Born to a father of Thai descent and a Jewish mother from Brooklyn, NY, Likitprakong’s name stands out among the Mondavis, Beringers and Gallos of the wine world.

Unlike the Italians, French, Spanish and Portuguese who have celebrated wine for hundreds of years, Asians have weak cultural ties to the drink. And without that meaningful connection, few of them have shown much inclination toward going into the business.

“It’s not a surprising situation, because basically the history of winemaking in California was established here in the late 1800s or early 1900s, and they all came from European stock like Italy and Spain, so they’re connected to that people,” said Wilfred Wong, a cellar master who picks and rates wines for West Coast liquor chain BevMo! and has worked in the industry for 35 years.

Although there are no official statistics on how many Asian Americans there are in the wine industry, Gladys Horiuchi, communications manager of the Wine Institute in San Francisco, has been compiling her own informal list for California — which makes up the vast majority of the US wine industry — and has come up with only 30 names. That includes everyone from wine buyers to winemakers to sommeliers to administrators like herself.

Even among wine consumers, Asian Americans are a small group. According to the Beverage Information Group in Norwalk, CT, Asians made up only 4.4 percent of wine consumers in the United States in 2008, a slight increase from the year before. That lagged well behind whites, who made up 70.3 percent of domestic wine consumers; Latinos, who made up 12.9 percent; and blacks, who made up 10.5 percent.

However, the growth rate of Asian wine consumers surpassed that of all other ethnic groups in 2008, up 9.6 percent over the year before for a total of 9.1 million. That’s compared to a 4.6 percent increase for blacks, a 2.3 percent increase for Hispanics and a mere 0.06 percent increase for whites.

Horiuchi expects those figures to continue expanding, especially given the growing juggernaut of Asian American purchasing power, projected to reach $670 billion by 2012 and growing three times faster than the Asian American population.

“The industry will have to look at the demographic in the future because these are our customers,” she said.

But whether the numbers will eventually translate into more Asian Americans choosing to go into the wine business is another story. James T. Lapsley, an adjunct associate professor of viticulture and enology — the cultivation and science of winemaking — at the University of California, Davis, notes that wineries require a lot of upfront investment, including the purchase and maintenance of land that may not produce any vintages for the first couple of years. Challenges related to wine distribution also make it difficult to turn a buck.

“It’s a capital-intensive business, and if all you’re interested in is making money, probably there are better places to invest money,” he said.

Many people end up going into the business less for the money and more for the allure of a lifestyle that strays far from the structure of a 9-to-5 desk job. For anyone who does not place a high value on that lifestyle, working at a winery may not seem so appealing.

“If that’s part of your emotional equation of decision making, you have to come from a background that values that,” Lapsley said. “In Western society, wine has been a cultural commodity, but that hasn’t been the case in India or Asia.”

Typically in Asian countries, wine is trumped by other more popular drinks like soju, sake, whiskey or beer. Asian wines also tend to be rice-based, or made with fruit other than grapes. But Lapsley said that is starting to change, with countries like China and India trying their hand in the business (see related story on pg. 37).

Likitprakong’s ties to the wine business stem from his great-uncle, Supasit Mahaguna, who worked in the whiskey business in Thailand but harbored a passion for wine. Likitprakong’s own father, Somchai, made his living as the general manager of Domaine Saint George, a winery near the hills of the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, where he still works today.

“He’s been working at a winery since before I was born,” Likitprakong said.

Somchai came to Healdsburg, CA, in 1972 at the behest of Mahaguna, who had just purchased Domaine Saint George and needed someone to manage it.

The patriarch of the family, Mahaguna was born in China but fled to Thailand during the Communist Revolution. Somchai grew up in Bangkok, Thailand, and worked at a whiskey distillery, later moving to New York, where he eventually met his wife.

Mahaguna implored Somchai and his wife to relocate to Healdsburg to oversee Domaine Saint George, a request Somchai — a man bound by familial tradition — felt obligated to honor.

“It’s an old Chinese-style family thing — my dad couldn’t refuse,” Likitprakong said.

Likitprakong, on the other hand, felt no compulsion to follow in his father’s footsteps — at least at first. Although he spent much of his time in Healdsburg because of his father’s business, his interests were focused more on surfing and skateboarding — something he still keeps up today (he currently surfs about three times a month and skateboards once or twice a week).

Eventually, though, he felt the tug of the wine business, enrolled at UC Davis and received his bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology. In 1999, he began making wine for various companies. Three years later, he was making wine for himself as a side project, and in January, he finally broke off to establish his own business.

“Now we’re just at the point where we can barely pull it off,” Likitprakong said.

With a 3-year-old daughter and a baby on the way in December with his longtime girlfriend and partner, Lynn Wheeler, Likitprakong is feeling more pressure recently to make his wine business a success. In the past, he could handle the rough patches, when he would end up without reserves that he could age and sell later. But now he has his family to think about.

Nonetheless, there’s plenty Likitprakong enjoys about the job, like the flexible hours, which allow him to spend more time with his daughter.

“I might not have a lot of money for her, but I have time,” he said. “I can get home at 2 p.m., wait for my daughter to go to bed, then work until 11 p.m. bookkeeping.”

There’s also the gratification of seeing his grapes all the way through the process of becoming a wine, and even working with artists to come up with the label designs for his bottles.

“I like to get my hands on all of it,” he said. “I want everything to reflect my interests.”

Likitprakong is fortunate enough to come from a family whose experience in the wine industry allowed him a running start. But for Asian Americans like Vanessa Wong, the first in her family to go into the business, she had to break the mold.

A winemaker at Peay Vineyards in Sonoma County, Wong took an early interest in wine while working at a catering company in junior high school.

“After we’d finished work, the woman who owned the catering company would kick back and drink a glass of wine,” Wong said. “She offered me some and I was fascinated.”

Wong got a job at a wine and cheese shop in San Francisco when she was 15. In high school, while trying to figure out her major, she flipped through a course catalog from UC Davis and noticed classes on winemaking. She then set off to persuade her parents of the legitimacy of her chosen path.

“I told my mom that it’s the same stuff as pre-med,” Wong said, noting the major’s required classes in chemistry, biochemistry and organic chemistry.

In college, she held an internship at a winery in Napa Valley and later studied at the Bordeaux University Institute of Oenology in France.

Today, at 40 and on her 23rd vintage, Wong is an eminent name in the wine industry. But for her parents, it took some convincing, at least in the beginning, that she made the right move.

“Unless you spend a lot of time consuming wine, it seems mysterious,” Wong said. “It’s not in the culture. How I got into it — it was chance. … It was convincing my parents that it was science-y.”

Wong also had to overcome the cultural taboo associated with alcohol in some Asian societies, especially among older generations. Then, there is the lack of appreciation for the taste and smell of wine. Wong points out that Chinese wines, for instance, are typically high-proof spirits meant to be knocked back and not savored.

“The idea of alcohol might not be so well accepted, whereas in Europe, wine is a food — it’s a meal,” she said.

While Wong’s family may not have prized wine, she did grow up in a culture that valued food, and that in turn influenced her palate. Her grandmother grew her own vegetables and Wong learned the importance of raw ingredients. She also paid attention to the spices and flavors that enveloped her home.

“My mom was an amazing cook, and we had sit-down dinners, Chinese-style multicourse (meals) every day, and everything was homemade with a lot of smells,” she said. “My mom had a very, very acute sense of smell and I must have gotten that from her.”

Beyond that, Wong attributes very little to her Asian background in terms of its influence on her winemaking. 

“If anything, I have a work ethic that’s more associated with my culture,” she said. “Otherwise, I never really regarded myself as an Asian American winemaker — I’m just a winemaker.”

For Likitprakong, the opposite is true. He plays up his ethnicity as part of his business, coming up with names like Tuk Tuk Nation — a reference to the taxis in Thailand — for his wine. He has also developed a line of white wines with his father called Banyan Wines, a label inspired by the familiar trees with dripping branches widely found in Asia. Likitprakong specifically designed Banyan Wines — which include a Gewürztraminer, a Riesling and a Viognier — to be paired with Asian cuisine like som tam, a Thai papaya salad. 

“Asian food is a huge influence on my winemaking,” he said. He describes Asian dishes as a neglected food pairing with a lot of potential.

Finding a wine to go with different Asian cuisines can be a challenge, especially since the more common ones available in stores tend to be varietals like a cabernet, whose harsher flavors clash with Asian spices. Sweeter wines pair better with Asian foods, but stores don’t keep as many of them in stock.

“A cabernet doesn’t go well with Asian foods, but it’s really popular,” Likitprakong said. “Gewürztraminer isn’t.”

Selling his wines to Asian restaurants has been somewhat of an uphill battle for Likitprakong, mainly because a lot of Asian restaurant owners aren’t interested in any kind of wine, let alone wine from his cellars.

He and his father even go into Thai restaurants and speak with owners in their native tongue, but with little success. Likitprakong claims that his girlfriend, who is white and also meets with clients, has better luck selling wine to Asian restaurant owners because they assume she knows what she’s talking about — a courtesy they don’t extend to Likitprakong and his father.

“They just assume we don’t know a lot about wine because they don’t,” Likitprakong said. “It’s just the Asians not trusting Asians.” 

Although Likitprakong has sold his wine in Japan, the Asian business just hasn’t been as big as he expected in terms of cementing a customer base.

“I’m probably doing just as good as anybody, but there’s still a lot of room,” he said.

Pia Sarkar is Hyphen’s features editor.