Sunday, May 21, 2017

My Kind of Wine Country Heroes: Suzanne Hagins and Chris Condos of Horse and Plow

The turntable spins vinyl - a favorite vintage song from the Police is playing now. There are eggs for sale here on the counter, from the chickens on the property, and you can buy herbs and plants by the front door. Welcome to Horse and Plow, my favorite Sonoma winery.

There are no fancy brochures touting "farm to table." But everything here is more authentic than the places that spout the slogan.

Longtime fine winemakers, who craft small lots of artisanally produced wines for others as well as for their own two labels, Chris Condos and Suzanne Hagins opened up a winery tasting room in Sebastopol that's casual and comfy. It's also a hit with the locals.

If you've ever wanted to escape from the overly precious vibe of hipster joints, with their longwinded tasting notes, crazy prices, and "allocations," then you need a great big breath of Horse and Plow.

Condos and Hagins have two labels - their affordable, artisanal tables wines - under the Horse and Plow label - and their more elegant, higher end label - The Gardener.

Guests enjoying their Sunday afternoon at Horse and Plow
Today in the tasting room, they're serving forth one Pinot Noir (their Sonoma County cuvee, a bit on the fruity side) from the tap. It's a young wine. And why not. Another Pinot - their Russian River Valley, in a far more sophisticated style - comes from the bottle.

Purely by accident, I've dropped by on wine club pickup day. The two are pouring a beautiful new Gewürztraminer from Napa, and my perennial favorite, their rosé, comprised of 90% Carignane from Cox vineyard in Mendocino. It is made using the saignée method.

Even the cider cocktail is sourced
locally and from organic fruit.
Wine club pickup day gives me a chance to mingle with the club members, gathered around a plank under a beautiful oak tree. I find myself talking to video production people who are natives of Marin County as well as the neighbors up the road who raise organic turkeys with the local 4H club, an endeavor supported in part by the local Slow Foods group. The poultry raisers appreciate the growlers for sale. Take them home, bring them back.

Apple trees - old and new - at Horse and Plow
There's a lovely spread of smoked salmon on baguettes and a cheese platter with, gasp, lovely, sweet, organic strawberries (not big, white, hard, pesticided ones from Safeway). This is exactly why I love Horse and Plow.

Suzanne and Chris are that admirable breed of independents, who, without a vineyard of their own, have managed to create a winery. That's part one. No small feat. Part two: their winery uniquely embodies Sonoma at its finest. It celebrates the county's fecundity and agricultural history, its friendliness, and its native, free range, unpesticided essential growingness - the qualities that attracted people like Luther Burbank ridge soils, sunshine, and vitality.

Chris Condos and Suzanne Hagins
Condos and Hagins source their grapes from great North Coast growers (in Napa, Mendocino and Sonoma) who only grow grapes organically, and every vineyard they buy from is certified. They also are the only Sonoma winery I know that produces only wines labeled "Made with Organic Grapes," buying grapes only from certified organic vines.* Seems simple enough - but they are the only ones. Somehow. It's weird, right, that there aren't more - but oh well. At least there's someone who gets it right.

They're also catering to locals, with their beautiful handcrafted ciders, that pay homage to Sebastopol's apple heritage. (And their apple sources are organic, too.)

On their own property, they inherited a few 70 year old apple trees. And they've planted more - 30 new apple trees. All are heritage species they cannot source locally. "We will be making small lots of estate cider," says Hagins.

Hagins has also come up with a craft cider cocktail, using a fruit syrup made of strawberries grown nearby and her own rhubarb and Horse and Plow cider.

Horse and Plow doesn't feed the "wine is pretentious and important" BS stream. Here wine is obviously an ordinary beverage, made to be enjoyed by real people. People are hanging out. They're not zooming into the parking lot and driving out 20 minutes later after their "tasting." They're drinking. Wines by the glass. They're playing bean bag toss (not boules). They're ordering cheese plates. They're holding babies.  They're enjoying wine with their life, not making wine something separate.

At this sweet spot, amid the picnic tables and the oaks, you'll find yourself actually enjoying wine country once again and remembering what the fruit of the vine is - an invitation to slow down, relax, and enjoy.

And maybe, next, let's try the cider flight...

* Preston Farm and Winery is the only other winery in Sonoma that is 100% organic - and it is also Biodynamic. It's an estate only winery. Horse and Plow sources all their grapes from organic growers.