Southern Comfort in West County

By Marcy Gordon
Sonoma Discoveries Magazine

f you didn’t grow up in the South sipping cider on a big covered porch or are unfamiliar with the southern charms and comforts of low-country lifestyle in places like Savannah and Charleston—spend a few hours at Horse & Plow and you’ll likely get a sense of what you’ve missed.

Although water is served in mason jars, the southern hospitality and atmos-phere extends well beyond externals at Horse & Plow. Here it means a warm welcome, with an effort to put you at ease, and a commitment to your comfort and enjoyment. The experience is deeply relaxed, not stuffy or snobby.
Open since mid-July of 2016, Horse & Plow tasting room showcases a bespoke line of organic ciders and wines with several selections offered daily by the glass, in flights, and on tap.

Inside the tasting room a long polished wood-burl bar sits atop a base covered with reclaimed barn siding. Large metal tiles imbedded on the siding echo the burl in an oxidized patina. An apple-green settee along one wall gives the room a pop of color and a nod to the stately style of classic of southern décor. Overhead, two chandeliers made of cider and wine bottles look like a regal headdress and crown the sleek yet rustic look.

Outside the tasting room, there’s patio seating looking out over the property that features a mighty old oak in the center bordered by a working vegetable garden, a small apple orchard and a chicken house. Adirondack chairs and benches are grouped beneath the oak tree.
Owners Suzanne Hagins and Chris Condos bought the property in 2012 with the intention of opening a tasting room for their fledging label.

“There was a barn here but the building was not to code so we took it down and kept the same footprint, same shape, salvaged all the wood and put it back together. We wanted something that felt part of West County, part of the community,” says Hagins.

Horse & Plow is the umbrella brand for their label of limited production wine and ciders. The Gardner label features small lot, higher-end Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In total they make less than 4,000 cases a year.

Originally from Savannah, Suzanne forged a career working in food and beverage in Charleston, South Carolina. A desire to learn more about wine led her to France in 1998 where she worked her first harvest in Pommard at Comte Armand. In 2000 she moved to California and after working in several cellars, including David Bruce, DeLoach Vineyards and Goldeneye, she started her own boutique Pinot Noir label called Lutea in 2004.

Her partner and husband Chris Condos’ background is more traditional with a degree in plant ecology from San Francisco State University and viticulture and enology from UC Davis. He launched Vinum Cellars in Oakville with a partner in 1997 and currently produces 30,000 cases annually.
In addition to producing their own labels, the busy couple also worked as consultants to several wineries. Horse & Plow started as a side project in 2008 and grew slowly.

So why start yet another label? One major reason is their commitment to organics and desire to work with growers using only certified organic and/or biodynamic techniques. Organic practices extend to the winemaking as well in that all the wines are vegan, made with low sulfites in small-lot fermentations and without synthetic additives or GMOs.

As Suzanne explains, “Impacts on the land, from farming techniques to water usage, all add up so it’s been very important to us to use all organic fruit since day one. We put it on the label, we want to bring that to the forefront.”

Each year they produce over a dozen single varieties such as Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and a Carignane Rose under Horse & Plow, along with several vineyard designates under The Gardener label including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Riesling.
Chris takes the lead on the whites, with exception of the Chardonnay, and Suzanne specializes in the Pinot Noir and the Grenache. The Horse & Plow label represents the traditional methods of farming, while The Gardener connotes the approach of caretaker tending the vines and nurturing the wine.
“We have different approaches and that creates different tasks around the winemaking,” says Suzanne.

“But there’s also a lot of crossover in how we are each involved.”

They also make two blends: Draft Horse Red and Draft Horse White.the Horse & Plow brand. We really try to over-deliver on them and keep the price point down, since those are usually the first of our wines most people try,” she said.

Both blends are wonderful and make a fine first impression. Draft House White 2015—a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Riesling—is a harmonic convergence of fruit, flavor and acidity: a juicy mouthful of delight. The Pinot Blanc base lends richness. The Riesling brings minerality, and the Pinot Gris gives it acidity and lively aromatics.

The Draft Horse Red 2015 is a Carignane lovers’ dream. The blend, a base of Carignane with Petite Syrah, Syrah and Grenache, has depth and dimension with a great range of fruit flavor and hit of fresh acidity. This wine has verve!

Two wines of note on The Gardener label are the 2013 Chardonnay, and the 2012 Pinot Noir, both made with grapes from Marimar Torres Estate, Don Miguel Vineyard.

Vibrant and thoroughly delicious, The Gardener Chardonnay 2013 is made with a measured use of oak that gives the wine an elegant rich style and finesse that is full, fresh and light with a pretty honey-floral nose.

The Gardener Pinot Noir 2012 is silky in texture with great balance. Only 10 months in barrel keeps the fruit-forward style from being dominated by too much wood and it tastes true to its varietal character.


Horse & Plow Ciders
Three years ago ciders were added to the mix. Suzanne and Chris strive to use lesser-known apple varieties in their ciders and source the fruit from local growers. They get many apples from neighbor Dave Hale, who still prunes the old apple tree on the tasting room property.

The Horse & Plow approach to cider is to use apples like grapes and blend for flavor, acidity and texture. Like spices, some apples add bitter notes and others have a range of sweetness. Over 20 different varieties grown locally and from their own estate are used in the blends.

If you often wonder what all the fuss is about cider, hold on to your hat—the Farmhouse, Heirloom, and Hops and Honey ciders will surprise and thrill you.

The Hops and Honey is a blend of six different apple varieties with a base of Golden Delicious and Jonathan. Honey is used for the priming sugar, which gives a great aroma, mouthfeel and a very refreshing finish.

The Farmhouse cider has 12 different apples in the blend—Gravenstein base with local heirlooms, such as Muscat de Bernay, Hudson Golden Gem and Ashmead’s Kernel add depth and nuance. All the components are kept separate until they put the blend together, then sugar and champagne yeast are added right before bottling. After the yeasts have done the job carbonating and settle at the bottom, the cider continues to develop, adding more structure and complexity. The Farmhouse is full of rich Gravenstein flavor and with a long round balanced finish. This is not a one-note cider by any means. Pleasantly dry and not over-sweet, it hit all the right notes. This could very well be the gateway cider for non-cider drinkers.

There are no designated vintages for ciders. But a high quality cider such as the 2015 Farmhouse vintage is age-worthy.

On weekends at Horse & Plow you’ll find a farmstead selling tomatoes, kale, green beans and cucumbers from the vegetable garden along with eggs and flowers. During the week visitors can grab a bag in the tasting room and pick their own.

“In Sebastopol people are very educated and concerned about farming practices. That’s why the tasting room is important. We are able to share our products in a place and with a clientele that care about and appreciate our efforts with the cider, the wine, and the fruits and vegetables from the gardens. We want our guests to feel welcome and relaxed where they can stay as long as they like and take away a feeling of Southern hospitality,” says Suzanne.

Horse & Plow achieves their goal. The only thing missing are filigree beards of Spanish moss hanging off the oak tree and the sultry southern air.

Asked what else she might be doing if not for making wine, Suzanne ponders for a long moment. “I love cooking, so maybe a casual restaurant. But that’s even a crazier business than winemaking! But really, I can’t imagine anything else than this—we do love it.”

Tasting Room Daily Flights: Three ciders $10 or four wines or ciders for $15.

Wines and ciders on tap change frequently, but always include one wine and two ciders. Growlers are available, $10 for the glass and cider fills are $12, whites $22, and reds $28. All fills are same price as the bottle so you get an extra 25 percent for free.

Cheese plates are offered: Point Reyes Blue with the cider and a Brie and Manchego with slices of seasonal apple varieties for the wines. Or bring your own picnic and hang out under the big oak.   SD