A High-Stakes Vintage

May 16, 2006

Snowden Vineyards has a lot riding on the 2005 vintage.

After a run of excellent vintages from 1993 to 2001, including solid efforts in the challenging years of 1998 and 2000, this Napa Valley Cabernet specialist hit a huge pothole – two in fact.

Its 2002 vintage developed a low level of brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast, in bottle, and that problem seemed to get worse with time.

After blind-tasting several samples last fall, I rated the wine 82 points, noting the flavors were muddled, earthy and leathery -- nothing like the rich, opulent, focused wines from 1994, 1995 and 1997, each of which earned 93-point ratings.

Scott Snowden, the winery owner, didn’t disagree with my 2002 review and found the wine problematic as well, prompting him to cut the price from $65 to $50.

Then, after examining the next two vintages in barrel, Snowden detected brett in some of the 2003 barrels and decided to declassify both the 2003 and 2004 vintages.

With the 2003 vintage, he said, the winery sold 170 barrels on the bulk market (roughly 4,000 cases) and kept only 15 (375 cases), which will be sold under the winery’s second label, Lost Vineyard, as a red table wine.

All of the 2004 Snowden is also being declassified to Lost Vineyard because it isn’t up to the winery’s standards. The financial impact is enormous. The winery will postpone a needed replanting of its vineyard, and plans to build a winemaking facility will also be put on hold. But Snowden said he thinks that the Lost Vineyard wines, which are priced at around $30, will represent good value and the winery will weather the tough financial times caused by the declassifications.

“The decision to declassify the wines [and protect the winery’s name] was easy, but it was a murderous business decision,” Snowden told me when he visited my office in Napa recently. “But we’re in it for the aesthetics. This [vineyard] site is spectacular.”

Diana Snowden Seysses is taking over production at her family's Cabernet winery.
The vineyard is in the hills above Rutherford, right next to Sloan Vineyard, which in 2002 produced one of the two superstar wines of the year, with a 99-point rating. Scott’s parents, Wayne and Virginia Snowden, planted the vineyard in 1955, which makes the current Snowden team – Scott and his brother and business partner Randy Snowden – more like old-timers than upstarts in Napa Valley, even though they only released the first wine under their own label in 1997. For years, the family sold the grapes to wineries such as Silver Oak and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

In addition to declassifying the wines, Snowden has decided to change his winemaking team and called on his 28-year-old daughter, Diana Snowden Seysses, to oversee production. Despite her young age, she has an amazing résumé. She began working in the wine business when she was 19 years old and a student at UC Davis. She has worked for Araujo, Robert Mondavi Winery and Mumm Napa Valley. Three years ago, she started working in Burgundy, and last year she married Jeremy Seysses, whose family owns Domaine Dujac, where she works as a winemaker.

Snowden also has hired David Ramey as a consultant. He is among California’s most talented winemakers, with his own label, Ramey, and several clients, such as Jericho Canyon. He will work with Diana to fine-tune the wines, and she will split her time between Snowden, Dujac and Ramey.

The 2005 barrel sample of Snowden Cabernet they showed me recently was spectacular, rich, fleshy and deeply concentrated. So it appears that if they can make it through the next two years, their winery will be back on track.

It takes guts to declassify one vintage, not to mention two, especially for a winery that is still trying to establish itself.

Rather than running from their problems, the Snowdens faced them straight on. You seldom see vintners discuss their wines with such candor.

So for them, there’s a lot riding on the 2005 vintage, which I’m hoping to taste in the next two days, when I review barrel samples of this most recent vintage.


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