His office looks like ground zero of a wine paraphernalia bomb. Magazines, books, wine bottles, wine keys, tutorials, knickknacks, photos and objets d’art extend outward from his desk in erratic circles. There are three clear spots in the office: his chair and two guest chairs. It is a reflection of the amount of diverse information and responsibility in his life.
Snyder is also president of the Oklahoma Grape Growers and Winemakers Association, a position he has used to lobby for legislation that helps Oklahoma’s wineries. He doesn’t want to discuss politics, however. He wants to talk about a passion of his: the Norton grape.
Sand Hill Vineyards, Snyder’s winery just outside Calumet, produces Norton, a grape indigenous to North America. The grape was first cultivated in Virginia by Daniel Norton. It produces a bone dry, tannic red that is difficult to control.
Sand Hill’s Norton won a gold medal in this year’s Dallas Morning News Wine Competition.
Norton is not exactly a household name in wine varietals, but Snyder believes the grape has potential in Oklahoma.
“It’s an incredibly difficult grape to work with,” he said. “Many winemakers won’t work with it, but if you can harness the grape and have the patience and willingness to invest in some good oak, it’s an experience unto itself.”
Before he knew the wine won a gold, one of the judges, Doug Frost, a wine writer who holds titles as a master sommelier and master of wine, sent Snyder a note.
“As one of the judges at the Dallas Morning News Competition,” Frost wrote, “I had an opportunity to taste your Norton the other day. Excellent work! While I don’t know what score the group gave your wine, I was mightily impressed with it nonetheless.”
Snyder imports the grapes from Missouri, but he’s started growing his own. Like most winemakers in Oklahoma, he’s experimented to see what will work in Oklahoma.
“Spanish varietals like Tempranillo and Albariño seem to do well,” he said. “Other varieties like Norton that are cold-hardy are performing well, including Riesling. We’re just going to have to find out what works best in our climate. We’re at a crossroads in the industry. Many wineries are bulking in juice from California. It’s legal, but it prevents us from showing Oklahoma’s true terroir.”
The vineyard at Redlands is a research vineyard, according to Snyder, so the students are exposed to as many varietals as possible. The acreage now contains 46 distinct varietals, but no hybrids or North American native grapes. Sand Hill bottles 25 varieties of wine. Snyder is also the winemaker for Tidal School, the state’s largest production winery.
His deep involvement with the wine industry in Oklahoma means he has a vast store of information about varietals, winemaking, viticulture and the politics of wine. And part of what he does at Redlands is pass that information along. To date, 125 students have taken coursework in the Redlands program. His students scored a Best of Show at the State Fair of Oklahoma’s 2010 wine competition for their Chapel Creek Ozark Mountain Norton.
The flow of students has slowed since the program started in 2006. Snyder believes it’s because some students realize that winemaking and vineyard management are hard work and science-heavy work. Still, he’s hopeful that some of them will go on to make Oklahoma wines.
“Last summer, Oklahoma had 50 tons of grapes that weren’t harvested,” Snyder said. He’s hoping his current and former students will begin to use those grapes, rather than California juice, to create wines that reflect Oklahoma’s native soil and climate.
The Sand Hill Norton is available at Pancho’s Liquortown, 6801 N. Meridian, and Joe’s Place Fine Wines, 1330 Alameda in Norman.