Horsepower Vineyards: The Hoofbeat of Tradition

May/June 2021 Cover Story

Written by Kim Curzi

Equestrians in the Pacific Northwest are no strangers to good wine. Aside from the fact that Oregon and Washington boast world famous AVAs in close proximity to the barns and farmlands where we ride, horse-lovers have always had an enthusiastic attitude toward wine. Signs like: “Fueled by Champagne and Ponies,” “Heels down, Bottoms Up,” or “I cannot survive on wine alone… I also need a horse!” fill our tack rooms and are etched on the wine glasses we bring to shows. Simply put: find an equestrian and you will also find a wine enthusiast. 

Beyond being a go-to beverage for riders, there is an obvious kinship between horse lovers and vintners. The green fields and rolling hills, a lifestyle that revolves around the natural world, a love of the outdoors, and skills that are mastered over a lifetime, provides equestrians with a special alignment toward winemaking that goes beyond what is found at the bottom of the glass. 

A Horsepower teamster works the vineyards | Andrea Johnson Photography

Horsepower Vineyards is located on the Oregon side of Walla Walla AVA on 18.2 acres, all of which is farmed by six draft horses: four sorrel-colored Belgian drafts (Red, Bayard, Cielo, and Fuego) and two black Percherons (Bill and Bob). This team of horses is the single driving force behind the farming and cultivation of over 68,000 vines across five vineyards. A method of farming that has produced award-winning Grenache and Syrah of the highest standard. It is a nod to an old-world method of farming and has produced wines of such high quality that the use of the horses extends well beyond gimmick. In fact, the draft horses are essential to the winegrowing process. 

Christophe Baron, the owner of Horsepower Vineyards grew up in Champagne, France, in a family that has been making wine since the 17th century. He remembers the horses his grandfather worked with during a time when machines were becoming more commonplace in the industry. For a family with roots in traditional viticulture, Christophe sensed a connection to the land was missing from modern winegrowing. 

He moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1996 and was the first commercial winegrower to plant in the stones of the Walla Walla valley. He brought a deep sense of commitment to the land, using organic methods of planting and cultivating in order to remain true to his family’s values and to the way he believes wine grows best. The project grew under his oversight: the phases of the moon were taken into account; everything was done naturally and according to what was good for the land. Christophe admits, “It is a wacky way of doing things, but it is the ancestral way. We are being good stewards to the land.” 

At Horsepower Vineyards the draft horses are essential to the winegrowing process.

In order to push the envelope of organic farming even farther, he moved entirely to biodynamic methods, pursuing a process on the farm that was pure and in a way that honored the tradition of winegrowing he grew up with. This included the vines, certainly, but also how the orchards on the property were farmed, as well as how the animals were cared for. No steps were skipped, and Christophe acknowledges this takes time and patience. Of course, any true horsewoman can relate. 

Something very specific was happening on the vineyards during this push to pursue biodynamic and old-world methods. The traditional style of wine growing is to plant vines densely; meaning each row is planted close together and in narrow fashion. Christophe’s first Walla Walla vineyard was planted 10ft apart and with 4ft between vines. Now, his rows and vines are 3.5ft x 3.5ft apart. 

At 3.5 ft wide, the narrow vines are only navigable by horses. | Andrea Johnson Photography

Machines are too wide to work vines planted narrowly, so in choosing to plant in this way he was making a commitment to how his grandfather tended his vines: organically, with a strong connection to the land, and powered entirely by horses. There was no turning back. 

Joel Sokoloff is the vineyard manager and met Christophe as a horse-lover and member of the close-knit Walla Walla wine community in 2014 and soon began working at Horsepower. He is often asked what part the horses play in cultivating the vines and why bother with a process that is so tedious and time consuming. 

Both Joel and Christophe remark on how much connectivity is gained from working the land with horses. You can feel the parts of the vineyard that are stony by the change in the the tension through the handles of the cultivator, you can feel the leaves on your clothing, you can tell when you are caught up in a vine or in the soil, you can smell the changes in the seasons, and you can watch the earth turnover under the footfalls of the gentle giants who walk the rows. 

Vineyard manager Joel Sokoloff and one of the Belgian drafts. | Andrea Johnson Photography

Joel says, “It’s a challenge, to be sure, to describe what it’s like here and what it is to work the vineyards with the horses, without the benefit of some hands-on time. I’m not trying to overly wax poetic, but there’s a singular satisfaction to working the land with just the soft clink of trace chains and clank of stones, with the fumes of sweat, manure, and soil in lieu of diesel and soot.” 

But it also changes the flavor profile of the wine. The animals aren’t just a logistical element, they are quite literally the heart and soul of the wines that are produced, and the team has committed to them full-stop by architecting the vineyards in a way that only that horses can manage. This is true from the way the horses churn the soil to how the grapes are affected by density. By using a method that facilitates synergy and connectivity to the land, Christophe hopes to produce vines that will live to be 100 years old or more. By treating the land well and by respecting the process, he hopes the vines will continue to thrive. 

Teamsters groom four of the Belgian draft horses that work the vineyard. | Andrea Johnson Photography

As team members the horses are treated just as thoughtfully. They are shod in handmade size 7 and 8 draft shoes, forged from 1/2” flat bar, which they must wear in order to navigate the stony alluvial fan in which the vines are planted. When all the vineyards are being cultivated, the horses will walk a total of 44 miles. At 13 total passes per year that is over 570 miles walked by 6 horses and 3 teamsters, under draft. Usually this occurs over the course of 120 – 140 days in the short Walla Walla growing season. Using horses for winegrowing is so new to the US, equipment had to be brought in from France. The harnesses used for the Horsepower drafts is specific to the needs of the vineyard and are built by a father and son team called Samson Harness in Gilbert, Minnesota. 

Joel remarks that Horsepower Vineyards is a real team effort. From the horses (of course) to the farrier who shoes them, to the teamsters, and to Elizabeth Bourcier who makes the wine alongside Christophe, it is a small team who has a close relationship with each part of the process. 

Andrea Johnson Photography

Large draft horses working between grape vines makes for excellent photography, but it is clear that Horsepower Vineyards is no gimmick. The animals are working members of the team; they aren’t just plopped in front of the vineyard to attract guests or for snazzy marketing. It is, however, a stunning visual. One that is aligned with an old-world style that fulfills its promise of intimacy, connectivity, and quality. Ask any horse-lover if those values mean anything to them and the answer will be a resounding, yes. 

Horsepower Vineyards produces about 2000 cases of wine a year, and is popular among restaurants and wine aficionados. The vineyard’s customer is less a casual wine drinker and more a wine devotee, and as a result Horsepower has a long waiting list and doesn’t hold tastings on property. Flying Changes readers who are interested in purchasing bottles can contact the vineyard for special access by mentioning this article. You can also join their formal waitlist to become a member. Bottles can be purchased from online retailers at around $150, however, their 2018 Grenache might be hard to pin down. It scored an incredible 100pts from Owen Bargreen, a wine-rating blog that specializes in wines made in the Pacific Northwest. Horsepower’s other bottles, not surprisingly, also score highly. 

Photograph by Horsepower Vineyards

Christophe says Horsepower’s wine is the real deal. Wine-lovers will be impressed by the flavor profiles. Owen Bargreen says Horsepower, “produces wine that embodies tension and finesse. They’re simply remarkable and impress regardless of vintage.” Horse-lovers will fall in love with the vineyard’s gentle giants and how much synergy exists between the horses and the team. Horsepower’s slogan is: the hoofbeat of tradition, but informally, Christophe likes to say it’s: no bullshit, only horseshit

Cheers! 

Learn more at www.horsepowervineyards.com

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