|Winemaker Diana Snowden Seysses, Snowden Vineyards
Photo Courtesy of – Joann Ortega Snowden
We’re chatting today with Diana Snowden Seysses, winemaker for Snowden Family Vineyards in Napa Valley and Domaine Dujac in Burgundy, France. Diana, thank you so much for joining me today.
My pleasure, thanks John!
I imagine that it’s not always easy deciding to become a significant member of a family business regardless of the nature of the profession. When did you realize you wanted to become a winemaker? What involvement, if any, did you have in the family business prior to that?
I was nineteen when I started down my career path, too young to recognize the drawbacks or advantages of working in the family business. I chose the University of California at Davis because the atmosphere on campus and in the city of Davis was wonderful. The summer of ’97, after my freshman year I needed to earn some money. I got a job as a sugar sampler at Robert Mondavi winery and loved it. Fall of my sophomore year I declared my major in Viticultrue and Enology and never looked back.
My involvement prior to that was of the low-pressure daily pleasures of youth. We had 12 acres of vineyard for 150 acres of wilderness. I spent my childhood munching on Cabernet, climbing old oak trees, exploring the forests, hunting for arrowheads, sighting bobcats, bears, rattlesnakes. During the years we sold grapes to Stag’s Leap Winery we would buy back one barrel of our wine and bottle it in my uncle’s garage. My sister, two cousins and I would do all of the filling, corking and churning of the ice cream machine we had going at the same time.
In addition to working in both Bordeaux and Burgundy, you’ve got some pretty impressive domestic names on your resume including, Mondavi & Araujo. What do you think is the most important lesson you learned from those two wineries?
Mondavi is huge. I was one of 4 people who spent their whole day driving to vineyards all over the Napa Valley, taking representative samples of berries from vineyards and delivering them to the laboratory for analysis. Winemakers use these numbers for all of their picking decisions. I quickly came to appreciate the importance of every link in the chain. Araujo was my first exposure to making a wine, which above all, honors its terroir. Everything done both in the vineyard and winery are done thoughtfully and rigorously. My time at Araujo built the foundation of my winemaking philosophy today.
Snowden has been growing and selling premium wine grapes for years, but the first vintage under the Snowden label wasn’t produced until 1993. I think John Gibson was the winemaker then. Did you have any responsibility with that “inaugural” harvest? Have you tasted any of the older wines recently?
In 1993, I was fifteen. John Gibson was solely responsible for the wines. I have had a bottle recently. I thought it was very good: impressive length, character and grit.
You started as Snowden’s winemaker beginning with the 2005 vintage, correct? Was that the first year you had complete control over the production?
Yes, I started as Snowden’s winemaker in January of 2005 and I had complete control over production from the very beginning. That said, we hired David Ramey as a winemaking consultant at the same time and I unwaveringly followed his council for the first few years.
What sort of advice did he give you?
He taught me how he makes Cabernet. He told me everything, every detail: when to pick, how much sulphur, sorting, must handling, temperatures, very notably, he encouraged me to do native yeast fermentations. Despite extensive experience in Burgundy with native yeast fermentations, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to try that on 15% alcohol wines without his insistence. On with the list: pressing decisions, racking/topping regimen, barrel maintenance, barrel purchasing, blending, fining, NOT filtering, cold stabilizing, bottling dates. Everything. He let me taste the trials that he conducts in house at Ramey, I even interned at Ramey during the 2006 harvest, while doing Snowden to try and learn more about how he does it. I enjoyed every minute of my time with David and greedily soaked up everything he gave me. As of this year he is no longer our consultant because I’ve learned all I can from him, I have my own ideas about how I want to do some things and we could use the saved money. David and I are still very friendly and I know I could call on him if I needed to. He has one of those cherished places in my heart of teacher and mentor; alongside Francoise Peschon at Araujo, my father-in-law, Jacques Seysses and a few others.
I tasted the 1993 Snowden upon release and joined the mailing list the next day. Back then, Snowden produced only one wine, the estate Cabernet. Now you’re making 4 different wines: The “Ranch” Cabernet, the Reserve Cabernet, the Sauvignon Blanc, and the Merlot. Which is the most challenging for you? Regarding the Merlot, 2008 was the initial release of that wine. I’ve not tried it yet. Is that something you’ll continue to produce?
Deciding which lots will go into the Ranch, our second wine, vs. the Reserve is at times, challenging. I have played with blends from 2005 to present, trying to figure out what works best. I have come to the conclusion that I prefer Caberent Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot in the Reserve and use the fleshier Merlot with our press wine to make the Ranch. We have planted some Malbec, which should be producing fruit by 2013. I’m looking forward to seeing what that’s like.
The Merlot was made because we have just replanted a large block of Cabernet Sauvignon, so it is out of production for 4 years. As a result of the replanting, we have a surplus of blending varieties if we want to put the words ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ on our Ranch and Reserve labels. I really like the Merlot as a stand-alone wine; I think I like it better as a stand-alone then as a blending component. I don’t really know where that will go in the future. We are first and foremost Cabernet Sauvignon makers and I don’t want to detract from that with too many side products. I think we will probably make small volumes of it for fun and for direct sales.
One of the most significant factors that makes Snowden wines special is the style that uniquely blends old world terroir with new world Napa ripeness. What can long time fans of the winery expect from the Diana Seysses style? What sort of trademark do you think will be evident in your finished wines?
What you are describing is what I think makes our site great; it has a natural elegance that transcends categories. Its character is undeniable and unique. My aim is to allow the site to speak through the wine.
|Vineyards on the Snowden Ranch
Bravo! That’s refreshing because we hear so much debate about alcohol levels, excessive ripeness, and the evolution of wines made for the table, into “cocktail wines” that don’t really marry well with food. How do you view this debate?
Well, I have lived in France for 11 years at this point and I have become heavily influenced by their sense of aesthetic. I can’t stand jammy, over-ripe wines with residual sugar. They don’t work with food, taste of nowhere, don’t age well and give you a hangover. I should point out, I have made wines at Snowden with 15% alcohol, which are not overripe or jammy. They have bright fruit and the alcohol is in balance with the rest of the wine. You can’t take the sunshine out of the Napa Valley, nor would you want to. The climate is an important part of what makes it what it is. Generally, but not always, the tannins ripen once you have hit 14.5-15% potential alcohol. In Burgundy the tannins are ripe around 11% alcohol.
What do you see, thus far, as your greatest challenge to address at Snowden? Do you see it as a cause for concern or excitement?
Certainly the 10-acre replant, the 2 million dollar loan to pay for it awakens concern and excitement! This vineyard, the Brother’s Vineyard, is the best site on our property, on the very top of the hill between Napa Valley and Conn Valley. The Brother’s Vineyard was dying of phylloxera when I came on board. I can’t wait to see what the wine is like from it.
Ok, so regarding “The Brother’s Vineyard”, is this the vineyard you refer to above, that caused you to have excess Merlot with nothing to blend it with? Is that fruit solely for the Reserve, or will it depend?
Yes, the Brother’s Vineyard is the best vineyard and the biggest vineyard on the Ranch. The very best site lies within it, we call it Palomino hill (it was planted to Palomino when my grandparents bought the Ranch). Palomino hill is on the very top of our property. The rest of Brothers is excellent too; good aspect, highest in altitude and well drained. We replanted Brother’s Vineyard two years ago now. We made Merlot 2009 and 2010. We have a mix of clones, some of which were provided in bench grafts. The bench grafts will produce fruit this year. We’re expecting about 2 tons from the 10 acres. Next year we will have 50% of normal crop and by 2014 we will be up to full crop. As for what fruit goes into which cuvee, only time will tell.
|The “Brother’s Vineyard” – Snowden Family Ranch
The replant is certainly cause for excitement and I understand your concern too. Obviously you have long term plans for Snowden. Is there a specific wine you see as being the quality benchmark that you’re striving to emulate at Snowden? How high is the bar set?
High. Domaine de la Romanee Conti high. Araujo, Chave, Rayas, Conterno, Henschke high. I want to make the best possible wine from our world-class piece of land. We’re not there yet. But I have a 50-year plan in mind, which is nothing in the lifespan of a family-owned wine estate.
A 50 year plan? That is certainly bold and impressive! By my math, you’ll be almost 80 at that point! Can you tell us what some of these plans are?
First, let me say, that I am satisfied with where we are right now. We have a spectacular piece of land and given our means we are doing all we can to honor it. My idealism will have to be patient in the face of economic realities. In an ideal world we would farm organically and have our own caves and winery on our property. All of this will take time and money. Hopefully it will happen in my lifetime, it really depends on sales.
In addition to your responsibilities at Snowden, you’re also Cellar Master at Domaine Dujac in Burgundy. Cabernet in Napa and Pinot Noir in Burgundy couldn’t possibly be more different, but what type of knowledge sharing, if any, have you been able to take advantage of in crafting the wines in either region?
The chapter ‘Honoring Terroir’ started at Araujo, and deepened in the homeland of Terroir; Burgundy. All of the philosophies I hold true and dear are born there: vineyard work is the most important, pick when tannins are ripe, native yeast fermentation, and in a perfect world, add nothing but sulphur. Those statements are as true for my Snowdens as it is for the Clos de la Roche. I have also brought things to Burgundy. When confronted with the cleaning job of some particularly dirty hoses I like announcing “I’m gonna get New World on your ass”!
I’m laughing… And that means??
We’re talking a typical Californian sanitizing regime: caustic, rinse, acid, rinse. In general, (and there are exceptions!!) only tepid water is what the French use to clean hoses.
I’ve started a little tradition of asking all my interviewees this final question: After working all day in the cellars, what does Diana uncork when she gets home?
Gosh. That’s tough. The joy of wine is in the diversity! I would be miserable if I had to pick one wine for the rest of my life! But OK, I’m tired, I’ve worked all day racking, I was wet and cold, No! I was bottling, I hate bottling, despite fuzzy childhood memories, it makes your brain numb and your backache and then you realize you botched your cork order… But it’s the last day of bottling and everything is in the cellar and the winery is clean. The kids are in bed, I’ve showered, blow dried and I’m in cashmere and I have a moment of quiet with my husband…. Champagne…No! Amontillado Viejo from Hidalgo. Yes. Mmmmmm……
Sounds like you’d deserve it for sure. Thanks for joining me Diana and keep up the great work. Snowden wines are wonderful, and represent excellent value. I wish you the best of luck and hope to talk to you again soon.
Thanks John for the kind words and good luck with the website. The breadth of topics here is vast! I’m not surprised you have a growing following, as it’s a rare treat to read winemaker’s replies to your thoughtful questions. What a great service to the world of wine lovers!