OUR AVAs – Snipes Mountain

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Snipes Mountain: Steep, Rocky and Exceptional

BY RONALD HOLDEN

Mount Adams presides in the western distance as you drive through the Yakima Valley. A great arc of sky connects the hills that form its boundaries like crumpled blankets: Rattlesnake to the north, Horse Heaven to the south. You barely notice the narrow, banana-shaped outcropping covered in vines alongside the Interstate south of Sunnyside. This is Snipes Mountain, a tiny, 4,000-acre AVA that’s home to some of Washington’s most renowned vineyards.

Designated the state’s 10th AVA in 2009, it’s named for Ben Snipes, a cattleman whose house stood at the bottom of the slope. In 1914, vinifera (semillon, pinot noir) were planted on the hillside by viticultural pioneer W.B. Bridgman; when Dr. Walter Clore needed cuttings to plant at the Prosser research station, he got them from Bridgman’s vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

The AVA’s topography is distinctive, with melon- and baseball-sized cobbles as a reminder of the Missoula floods, but its geology has nothing to do with the valley floor; it’s a natural upwelling that remained immune to the ravages of the ice age. Those cobbles retain plenty of heat, just as the galets of the Rhone Valley do, reflecting their warmth back into the vines. Today, vineyards thrive on slopes facing all four directions of the compass at elevations between 800 and 1,300 feet. No “boundary politics” were involved with this AVA; it’s based on a straightforward elevation contour.

The AVA is roughly the same size as the state’s other, more celebrated micro-AVA, Red Mountain, 40 miles further east. There’s only one estate winery on Snipes Mountain, Upland Vineyards, whose owners, the Newhouse family, grow 800 acres of grapes (90 percent of the AVA’s current plantings). Upland, which manages its own system of wells for irrigation, grows a dizzying 35 varieties on Snipes Mountain (chardonnay, riesling, all the Bordeaux varieties in red and white, all the Rhone varieties, Spanish varieties, grapes for Port) sold to two dozen wineries. Upland saves less than one percent of its crop for its own richly nuanced wines, vinified by consultant Robert Smasne and winning Best-of-Show acclaim at wine fairs across the state. Todd Newhouse, a practical farmer with a history degree from Whitman, says the AVA designation should mean increased recognition—and increased prices—for the wines made from grapes grown on Snipes Mountain. It’s not a cheap project, but Newhouse has crews grading a rocky parcel of the north slope so he can plant another 100 acres of grenache and malbec. “This AVA is one of the gems of the valley,” says viticulturist and wine maker Wade Wolfe.

 

For winery details and travel information, visit www.snipesmountainava.com.

Ronald Holden is a Seattle-based writer and the author of Northwest Wine Country.

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