There’s a definite cool factor about Chris Condos. Perhaps it’s that he decided to try his hand at winemaking at the age of 25 or maybe it’s the fact that he had a brief DJ-ing stint in college. It could be his relaxed, organic approach to winemaking or that without a vineyard of their own, he and his wife Suzanne have managed to create a winery. Or what about the fact that he started making hard cider on a whim and it’s become extremely successful? Whatever it is, Chris’s cool factor becomes more evident the longer I spend with him at the Horse & Plow tasting barn in Sebastapol, California.
Chris isn’t new to the winemaking game. He founded his first brand, Vinum, in 1997 with his friend Richard Bruno and you could say the two were essentially disruptors of the space.
“We were the young punks in ’97,” Chris recalls. “Our focus was Chenin Blanc and Petite Sirah and we maxed out two credit cards financing our dream. When we first started, no one made Chenin Blanc. Now, twenty years later, it’s kind of cool and a lot of hipsters are making it.”
In fact, his first collaboration with the wildly-popular wine club, Winc, was for a Chenin Blanc. His advice to aspiring winemakers would be just that: make wines that you like, rather than trying to make a popular style you think others will want to drink. When Chris and Suzanne founded Horse & Plow in 2008, they continued to make wines they enjoy with a particular focus on organics. “My wife did her first harvest in Burgundy and fell in love with Pinot,” Chris explains. “She came out to California and worked at De Loach, David Bruce, and Goldeneye.” Suzanne’s passion for Pinot later became Lutea, a small brand dedicated solely to the grape. “[Lutea] eventually got rolled up into Horse & Plow, so she makes the Pinots and I love her style,” Chris says. “Suzanne never went to school for winemaking, so she just has a great palate and knows what to do.”
The husband and wife team, who Chris says “have really similar takes on winemaking,” work exclusively with growers who are committed to organic and/or biodynamic techniques. They continue to uphold this standard even after the grapes have arrived at the winery, making natural, vegan wines free of synthetic nutrients or additives and GMO’s and low in sulfites. Chris puts their winemaking philosophy simply:
“Start with the best grapes you can. Choose the best location, the best varietal in that location, and pick it at the proper time. I’m never trying to make a wine like something. I don’t like to put too much of a handprint on it.”
The tasting barn, which opened in the summer of 2016, matches the Horse & Plow personality and has what Chris describes as an “old Sonoma County feel.” The barn is built on the grounds of a former apple orchard and its location is ideal; it’s just off Gravenstein Highway, which is sprinkled with other notable wineries, and only 15 minutes west of Santa Rosa. Essentially an extension of their own neighboring property, Chris and Suzanne wanted to create the ultimate hangout for locals and visitors alike. Once inside the barn, the rustically-charming tasting room greets you with a laid-back, unpretentious vibe. As a nod to Chris’s DJ-ing days, a turntable plays records throughout the tasting. There’s an instant Southern hospitality that is reinforced by the fact that Suzanne is from Savannah, Georgia. As for the tasting list, there’s definitely something for everyone.
“I’d recommend people start with the skin contact Pinot Gris,” Chris says. “It’s a pretty fun one once people have it in their mouth. We leave it on the skins for about 20 hours and then we press it and treat it like a white wine or a rosé. The result is a kind of pale orange-ish tint.” For reds, he recommends visitors try the Carignane, a Rhone-style variety which happens to be his personal favorite. “It’s such a versatile red,” Chris explains. “I can make a rosé or a really fruity, young red or even a serious, age-worthy red. [Carignane] has great fruit flavors and good acid. It’s hard to find a red with good acidity like that.”
And of course, there’s the selection of ciders, which Chris says are “only 25% of our production, but 50% of our sales through the tasting room.” The success of their cider has changed Horse & Plow’s entire dynamic. “We made some in our garage the first year, crafting them very much like wine because that’s what we know, and soon turned commercial, ” Chris says. “It’s really fun to make because the possibilities are endless and there’s a certain freedom that allows us to do whatever we want.” Just as they source grapes from organic vineyards that line the North Coast of California, the duo works with local apple orchards to gather as many apple varieties as they can. “Our most popular cider is Hops and Honey,” Chris says. “But I personally like Heirloom; it’s a more classic, richer, truer cider.” Visitors can decide for themselves by ordering a flight of the four ciders.
During the warmer months, guests can enjoy their flights outdoors. The tasting room opens up to the inviting outdoor patio which is surrounded by several majestic oak trees, a working garden and orchard, and a chicken coop. Just as Chris describes his winemaking as hands-off, you won’t find overly-manicured grounds here; it’s naturally picnic heaven. Visitors can pack their own basket of goods for a picnic, but the tasting room’s prepared flight of local cheeses and breads is too tempting to pass up. Unlike some wineries, Horse & Plow is family and pet-friendly, making the tasting experience enjoyable for everyone. “The first Fridays of the month we stay open late and have music, food, and special releases on occasion,” Chris adds. In fact, Suzanne is next door preparing food for an event that’s happening in a few hours; she sends over biscuits, which are absolutely divine and to be expected by a someone who grew up around Southern cooking.
The Horse & Plow tasting barn has quickly become a welcome addition to the laid-back town of Sebastopol and ultimately, an extension of the greater Sonoma County wine community. With the October wildfires devastating the county and nearby Napa and Mendocino, it’s support from the local community that has given fire victims hope. Though the tasting barn was far enough away from the flames, the fire did burn clear up to their Santa Rosa winery near Coffey Park; Chris assures me the wines were safe. Yet while Chris and Suzanne were fortunately not affected, they do feel for their community’s loss. To support the Sonoma Strong effort, Suzanne made sandwiches for the firefighters and Horse & Plow hosted a dinner/auction with proceeds going to the fire victims.
Clearly, no two days are alike in the wine business, yet I feel compelled to ask Chris where he sees the industry in ten years. He leaves me with a thought that goes hand-in-hand with our conversation about strong community. “Everyone has their local brewery and their local bakery, and I think that will become the new trend: focusing on your local market and supporting the local winery. Because of this, I think a lot of small, independent wineries are going to start taking over.” Perhaps Chris has foreshadowed the wine industry’s future, but for now he’s more concerned with making wines he enjoys, regardless of trend.
“If you make something you really enjoy, it’s easy to do a good job,” Chris says.