Hunting for Snipes Mountain
What's so special about the state's second-smallest AVA?
In between the Yakima River and Highway 82 a hill—draped in sunshine, rising 1,309 feet above sea level—juts out of the Yakima Valley floor. This is Snipes Mountain, the sole protrusion of its kind in the valley, the state’s second-smallest American Viticultural Area, and home to a mere six wineries, and at least 25 different varietals.
Here, ancient soils, daytime heat and nighttime cooling have collided in a geologically distinct site in the middle of the Yakima Valley that may have more history than just about any place else in the state. But for wine drinkers, Snipes is just coming into its own. Here's a look at why, exactly, the region and its wines will be increasingly in demand in the coming years.
From soil to climate, Snipes—which is a sub-AVA of the Yakima Valley AVA—is unique. It has its own microclimate. It has its own rain shadow. It has its own soil. While the north slope is typically covered in wind-blown soils over lakebeds, the south is home to aridisol, which is composed of river-worn rock cobbles, compacted silt and absolutely no organic matter. In fact, the mountain is built on 8-to-10-million-year-old rounded river rocks deposited by an alluvial flood. The unique mineral is composition so exclusive to this small sliver of the Yakima Valley that it's known as the Snipes conglomerate.
The steep south slopes provide elevation and dramatic slope angles—which wash the grapes in wind and provide excellent air drainage. Most of the heat on Snipes is generated on those south slopes, producing great daytime ripening conditions. Richness and ripeness comes during the day thanks to the angle of the vines; the elevation and incline provide dramatic cooling at night, which means the grapes retain bright acidity.
It's not just Snipes dramatic slope, soil, aspect to the sun, and proximity to the river that make it special, it's also the site's legacy. This is one of the first places in the state where wine grapes were planted—commercially as early as 1914 and 1917, and some of the 1917 vines are still producing. In 1934 the site became the first commercial winery east of the Cascades. Grape growers like the Newhouses, who bought the winery and vineyards in 1972, are still working vines planted as early as 1973. Todd Newhouse reopened Upland Winery a few years back and is using the mountain's fruit pretty much exclusively.
The combination of a farming family with serious history in the area and the mountain's unique geological formations and consequential soil profiles drives winemakers like Bob Betz to Snipes. The site, he says, brings a richness and texture to his cabernet. Grenache here has a great deal of intense fruit and balance, but is not as brooding as other places in the state.
“I really love the freshness and vitality it brings to our Besoliel [southern Rhone] blend," says Betz.
While a lot of Washington winemakers use Snipes grapes for blending, a few are designating their wines specifically by vineyard or AVA. Jon Martinez of Masion Bleue makes two Snipes wines, the Graviere blend and the La Montagnette grenache, and is taken with Snipes ancient soils, the rounded river rock, elevation and slope. “It’s the best of both worlds. You get the richness and ripeness, plus you hold good acidity,” he says.
Meanwhile, Robert O. Smasne, who has been working with the AVA for 15 years, since before it was a glimmer of an AVA, has some 13 single-vineyard Smasne Cellars wines from Upland and Snipes. For him, those unique and ancient soil profiles, diverse elevations and the fact that it's a warm site combine to “create wines that are unique, variety expressive with depth and refined elegance.” And Sean Boyd of Rotie Cellars can't get enough of Snipes, which he calls "one of the best spots for grenache and mourvedre in the state that we'll ever find."