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A High-Stakes Vintage

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: May 16, 2006 12:14pm ET

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.

Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  May 16, 2006 9:41pm ET
Brett is a nasty little critter. It's too bad they couldn't get ahold of it quicker. Of course, that's easier said than done... since Brett is present EVERYWHERE. I do applaud their commitment to producing a quality product by declassifying the wine. I wonder if they considered doing any reverse osmosis to remove the 4EP and 4EG, the chemicals generated by Brett that cause the off flavors... it might have been worth a try.
Shane Runyon
Florida —  May 17, 2006 9:21am ET
Thanks for the news.James and Brian, if you can use the chemical process to get rid of Brett, what else is lost in the process-?
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  May 17, 2006 2:00pm ET
What gets lost during reverse osmosis is the million dollar question. The people that offer the service claim nothing is lost, except what you're looking to remove. I'm not sure I buy that. But if you've got a flawed wine, then maybe it's worth giving it a try. In the case of excessive 4EP and/or 4EG, maybe it's worth losing a bit of complexity (or whatever) to remove the Bretty flavors. I don't think you'd know until you try... and maybe the wine would turn out great. I'd probably have at least tried it on some portion of the wine.
Colin Haggerty
La Jolla, California —  May 17, 2006 9:27pm ET
Good points, Brian. I guess it depends on how much the winery owner is willing to gamble. That is, if the reverse osmosis does not adequately clean up the wine (or if it strips the wine of its character), that just means that there has been even more monetary loss incurred with no reward. On the other hand, success could mean making the wine available for marketing under the flagship label. It seems to me to be a roll of the dice.
M F Habenicht
Philadelphia, PA —  May 17, 2006 9:58pm ET
Dear Mr. Laube: While the rest of my family watched American Idol, I chose to surf the Wine Spectator site. I decided to ask you a question directly, & I apologize that is not specifically related to your article on the 2005 vintage. On a recent stop at the PA State store, I came across a 2003 Buehler Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. It included a store provided description as a "Wine Spectator #90 Point Rating". I've been looking for the Buehler 2003 for some time but decided it was in limited distribution in PA. Now I find what I think is the vintage only to be suspect of the "Estate" designation. I checked your on-line ratings and did not come across the 2003 "Estate" rating. Nor have I seen it in any editions or Advance Rating articles. Could you please advise if you have had a chance to review this vintage of Buehler Cabernet? I'd hate to think the State store mislabeled the vintage.... I look forward to your comments. Thanks!MFH
James Laube
Napa, CA —  May 18, 2006 2:23pm ET
I'll have more to say on Brett issues, how Snowden fared in my tasting, but as for Mr. Habenicht, you are correct. It appears the shelf-talker is wrong. The 90-point rating was for the 2003 Buehler Napa Valley, not the estate Cabernet, which I have reviewed (it's in the very good range) but it has not been published.
Cody Parker
May 19, 2006 9:51pm ET
Re-decanter the wine into a holding tank via innert gas. Then crossflow filtrate the Brett out. ohh by they way- 25 gallons of bentinite
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  May 20, 2006 3:57pm ET
You're right, Cody, crosssflow will remove the brett itself, but not any of the 4EG or 4EP that the brett produced. Once those chemicals are there, the only way to get rid of them is to do a reverse osmosis. You don't have to take the levels of 4EG or 4EP to zero, since there's a threshold detection level for most people. If you're "lucky", and only a portion of your wine was infected, you can often blend the clean barrels together with the brett barrels to get an overall concentration of 4EG and/or 4EP that are below threshold.
Douglas Johnson
Appleton, WI —  May 23, 2006 7:53pm ET
What a big sport Mr. Snowden was, dropping the price of a poor wine from $65 to $50! For an 82 point wine, he should have given it away or poured it down the drain. Who in their right mind would pay that much for tainted wine? Even if it were up to standards of previous years, $65 a bottle is a little rich for my blood, particularly when I can find many comparably rated Cabernets at half that price and less!

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