Wednesday, April 9, 2014

SideTrip Napa: Snowden Vineyards

"While I breathe, I hope"........
Such is the Latin phrase on the Snowden Family logo and while that phrase suggests that the ultimate fruits of any given vintage rest firmly in the hands of Mother Nature, it too depicts the drive and passion of this small winemaking family.   I got an intimate opportunity to witness this drive first hand. 
As winemaker Diana Snowden tells the story,  it was 1955 when her Grandparents settled in Napa, buying farmland and neglected vineyards in an area whose fresh country air  was expected to help their son's asthma. Little did they realize they were acquiring some of the richest vineyard land in California.  After decades of selling their grapes to some of Napa Valleys most prestigious wineries, in 1993 brothers Scott & Randy Snowden decided to bottle a small percentage of wine under their own label. 
As owner Scott Snowden told me, "initially the sales were slow, but then we received a very nice review in Wine Spectator. After that, sales picked up and we sold out quickly.  Randy and I thought,  boy, we should do more of this..."  and ever since, they have. 

~ Winemaker Diana Snowden ~

We met Diana Snowden on the dusty Snowden Ranch in the hills east of St. Helena.  She and her father Scott had just completed a vineyard walk to check in on the vines.  Although it was only May,  it was already hot - well into the 80's and Diana was already concerned about the stress on the vines.  Although she was quick to add, after the recent wet vintages she shouldn't be complaining. Yet the temperatures would soon be rising into the hundreds, and she wanted some rain.    
There are two parcels on the Snowden Ranch which hold some interesting history, "The Lost Vineyard" and the "Brother's Vineyard".  The Lost Vineyard is aptly named;  sitting on a peak surrounded by majestic forest, the vineyard is connected to the larger portion of the ranch by a small dirt road and a footpath under the canopy of evergreens.  The Lost Vineyard produces wonderfully rich Cabernet grapes that are typically used for the "Ranch" Cabernet bottling. 

~ This is a view from the top of the "Lost Vineyard". You can see how the vineyard sits surrounded by forest ~

Further up, at the top of their property is the Brother's Vineyard.  This block was recently re-planted after being devastated by phylloxera.  As Diana explained,  "The Brother's Vineyard is the best  and biggest vineyard on the Ranch. The very best site lies within it; we call it Palomino hill  because it was planted to Palomino when my grandparents bought the Ranch. Palomino hill is on the very top of our property. We replanted Brother's Vineyard almost four years ago now. Next year we will have 50% of normal crop and by 2014 we will be up to full crop." 

~ In this picture of the Brother's Vineyard, you can see the young vines ~

As for 2013, Diana is excited...  "I love the 2013's and what a relief!  When you pick grapes on the early side, before they have metabolized all of their malic acid, it's impossible to judge what you've got until after malolactic pretty much have to to let nature and time work their magic.  It was a little unnerving to bring in Cabernet in the first half of September but I couldn't be more pleased with the results." 

~ This interesting shot shows two newer vines grafted onto older rootstock (bottom center) in the Lost Vineyard.  To the mid and upper right, you can see tiny clusters of green grapes ~
After we completed our tour of the Ranch, we made our way to the Snowden offices for a tasting of their recent releases. Driving the winding roads back down to St. Helena, it was very interesting and rewarding discussing all manner of topics with Diana.  Being a bi-continental winemaker surely is not an easy thing and she manages this with seeming ease in addition to being a wife and a mother to two young children.  It is that passion, the "breath", and that committment to family the drives her.  My partner and I were inspired.

~ The Tasting Room set up for us ~
Tasting the 2010's

As I mentioned earlier, it was a hot day, so we were all pleased to start off with some water and some Sauvignon Blanc.
2011 Sunninghill Sauvignon Blanc:   Full medium golden color, this wine never fails to impress me for it's delicate, yet medium bodied nature.  It's vinified in stainless steel and the freshness and vibrancy of the fruit shines through.  On the nose there's ample aromas of white stone fruits, pineapple and minerals.  These flavors carry through on the palate and are joined by crisp, wonderful acidity.  There's a certain viscosity to the mouthfeel that is wonderful.  As I questioned Diana,  this comes from the natural yeast during fermentation and not any buttery oak infused manipulation.  88 points and a great value at about $20. 

~ 2011 Sauvignon Blanc ~

2010 Merlot:   This is 100% Merlot sourced from the Brother's vineyard.  Due to the replanting of the vineyard, the Snowdens were left with a surplus of blending grapes - if they wanted to continue labeling their Ranch and Reserve wines as "Cabernet".  The result was this wine.  It's a deep purple in the glass with violet reflections.  The terroir shines through here with lots of crushed black berry, mocha, spice and warm dirt on the nose and palate.  The balance and intensity are there on the palate and the wine has plenty of acidity to keep things lively.  No green streaks to dislike here, just a long dusty, mocha finish.  Lovely.  91 points, about $30. 
2010 Cabernet "The Ranch":   Much of the fruit from this wine is sourced from the Lost Vineyard.  The Ranch consists of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.  The addition of the Merlot makes the wine approachable sooner than the Reserve and adds some fleshiness to the wine.  Dark purple in the glass clear to the rim.  The nose is classic.  Cedar, black plums, spices and earth.  Slightly reserved but fairly complex.  On the palate the wine marries what I have always loved about Snowden wines: Napa ripeness meets old world terroir.  As Diana says, you can't take the sun out of Napa.  There's plenty of black fruit, cedar, dusty spice and licorice flavors that are melded together and balanced beautifully. Medium weight tannins are smooth and suggest good mid-term cellaring, but this is great now and elegant right through the finish.  92 points, about $34. 
2010 Reserve Cabernet:  While Merlot softens The Ranch Cabernet, the Reserve is blended with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  The result is noticeably different.   This is darker than the Ranch, more brooding as it's purple shade trends toward black.  Aromas of black fruits, road dust, mineral, and cedar are discernible.  On the palate the wine is masculine, with wonderful structure to the rich black fruits that are joined with roasted coffee, licorice, and tobacco notes.  Lots of ripe, dusty, powdery tannins linger on the finish.  This will cellar well for decades.  94 points, about $65. 

~ The Snowden Lineup of 2010 reds ~

We were joined soon after by Scott Snowden, and after a wonderful lunch together we reluctantly made our way to our next appointment.  While I have been happily supporting the Snowdens since their inaugural 1993 vintage, this visit left me shaking my head yet again at the amazing power of wine.  What started as a mere vendor-customer relationship has now grown into one of friendship.  The Snowdens were amazing for their generosity and warmth, treating us as though we were friends for 20 years rather than 2 days.  It is that sort of dedication and passion that sustains them and that's why I am proud to continue supporting them.  
Except from now on my perception is altered.  When I uncork a bottle of their wine, I'm immediately transported back to that day and the time we spent together.  I can smell the dirt road of that ranch, hear Scott telling crazy stories of court rooms and Bob Dylan and instead of remembering vendors,  I remember friends. 

~ Scott Snowden ~ 


  1. Nice post ! I'll have to see if these wines can be found in NH!
    Thx John!

  2. I bet they can. They used to have very limited retail ability but over the last few years, they have expanded that presence. I'm out of my office today, but when I get back, I'll contact them and let you know. Thanks as always for commenting, amico