With more than 20 years producing organic wines, Chris Condos has created some of California’s finest. With two new releases coming your way this fall, we caught up with the organic heavyweight to discuss sulfur, embracing vintage variations and the allure of Mendocino.
“There was a time when not enough people were growing organic grapes,” explains Chris Condos when we catch up one early spring morning. “It requires a lot more handwork, you know. Managing mold and rot, dropping fruit, opening up the canopy. Convincing farmers to grow organically was incredibly hard in the early days.”
With over two decades of organics under his belt, Chris is the guy you go to when you want the inside track on organic winemaking and later this year he will release two new organic wines exclusively for Angels.
Chris began his venture into organics during his teens while studying plant ecology at UC Davis. “I knew I didn’t want to make cookie-cutter wines,” says Condos. “And I really wanted to make organic wines using no sulfur.”
However, Chris goes on to reveal his first foray into making un-sulfured wines was a flop. “I realized a little sulfur goes a long way in winemaking. Without it, wine has a tendency to spoil, oxidize, and head in the wrong direction.”
Chris’ initial exploration into organics led him to develop intimate knowledge of some of the best organic vineyards in California. “Everything I do is made with certified organic grapes, and made at an organic winery,” continues Condos.
“The rules stipulate we can use up to 100 parts per million of sulfur, but often we are using much less than that. Most of the wines are at around 40 parts per million. The thing is, some people are sensitive to sulfur, so you want to add just enough to keep the wine stable, but not neutralize it.
I would say in general, you get much more expression of the fruit this way.”
The first wines Chris has in the pipeline for Naked Wines are an organic Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Chardonnay, both from the hillsides of Mendocino.
“Mendocino County has by far the greatest concentration of organic grape growing. It’s a great area, especially the interior. It’s not too difficult to farm organically out there, there’s less pressures, nice volcanic soils, and it’s pretty much all dry-farmed.”
Being such a powerhouse of organics, Mendocino has kept Chris coming back to the area for many years. “I’ve just worked with some amazing growers up there and fell in love with that area. It’s a little more down to earth than other places and the climate in Mendo works really well for Cabernet right now.”
It was back in 1999 that Chris first started pushing the organic conversation in wine when working at Catherine Kennedy Winery. “We were really gung-ho at the time,” tells Condos.
“Looking towards France and other countries, reading things. It just felt right you know. Now based in Sebastopol, Chris has garnered a name for himself as a major authority in organic winemaking.
“In the beginning it was a struggle because I had an idea of what I wanted to make, and with organics you can’t add anything, so you have much less control. But now it’s easy, I just roll with it. I embrace the vintage variations, I don’t try to make wines a certain way, I’m just going to let it be.”
The rise in demand for organic wines has seen many vineyards turning to organic farming practices, but that comes with many hours of extra work managing the vines and sorting fruit. It also means managing disease and weeds that compete for soil nutrients and water.
“You really want to keep that life in the soil,” says Condos. “I always relate it back to when I was 20 years old and had my veg gardens. You know, when that soil is good and there’s so much life in it, those things help keep diseases away and the healthier your soil is, things are always going to taste better.”
From the impact of chemicals on the environment to farming methods that promote soil health and longevity, the benefits of organic winemaking go well beyond the glass. Thanks to lifers like Chris Condos, organic winemaking is in incredibly capable hands.
“I don’t really think about it too much,” says Chris as our conversation draws to a close. “I’m just kinda doing my thing.”
Nick Baines is a food and travel writer based in London.