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Stony Hill and the Triumph of Terroir over Time

When Fred and Eleanor McCrea stumbled across the property that would become Stony Hill Vineyard it was the early 1940s and the United States was on the cusp of a new awakening in industry, fashion and economics. Fred, an advertising executive in nearby San Francisco, craved a getaway in the mountains where he, Eleanor and his two children could relax and get outside. Wine lovers themselves, they liked the idea of growing grapes in retirement.

The Stony Hill Vineyard ranges from 800 to 1550 feet in elevation in Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District. Fred and Eleanor were fans of white Burgundy, and while they would have planted the entire property to Chardonnay, viticulture advisors from the University of California recommended they diversify. They planted the first vines on the property in 1948 to Chardonnay, White Riesling and a small amount of Semillon, followed a few years later by a field of Gewurztraminer.

The first Stony Hill harvest came in 1952, and it the wine was snatched up quickly by family and friends. By 1954, every bottle was sold via mailing list, with a waiting list growing by the day. First with Fred McCrea and then since 1973, winemaker Mike Chelini has brought a consistently restrained style and a minimalist approach to Stony Hill wines. Today, there isn’t a sommelier in any top restaurant in the world who doesn’t know Stony Hill and the fruits of the McCreas’ early labors.

Year after year, decade after decade, Stony Hill wines have stood the test of time and the changing palates of consumers to remain some of the most respected and highly-sought-after California wines in existence. Perhaps one of the most surprising facts to come of these humble beginnings is that all of this attention comes not for a big, bold red that we associate with cult Napa Valley wineries today, but rather, a lean, bright, and brilliantly elegant Chardonnay. The occasionally maligned white grape is what led wine collectors to brave the spare, winding, and narrow gravelly dirt roads up to the McCrea home on the property to taste wines with Eleanor in her dining room before leaving with a small allocation of three to six bottles in the trunk of the car. Visitors must still navigate the same winding roads today (though they were paved a few decades later) and they taste wines in the very same dining room or on the beautiful patio overlooking the vineyards.

Eleanor and Fred have since passed on, and operations are now under the direction of Eleanor and Fred’s granddaughter, Stony Hill President and third-generation steward of the estate Sarah McCrea. It is her entrepreneurial spirit, along with a stalwart commitment to maintaining Stony Hill’s reputation for wines of impeccable quality and longevity that have brought the winery into a new era of renewed respect for Old World style winemaking with success and grace.

Wines

Stony Hill produces four primary wines: Chardonnay ($45), Cabernet Sauvignon ($60), White Riesling ($30), and Gewürztraminer ($27). The Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are typically released after two and three years of aging, respectively. While the wines are complex and pair well with food upon release, their true flavor profile is often not realized until several more years of age.

Because of its small production and limited inventory, Stony Hill does not actively sell library wines. Instead, older Stony Hill wines are more likely to be found in the auction market or on the wine lists of restaurants with active cellaring practices. In testament to the enduring nature of the wines, the Stony Hill website maintains an active wine archive going back to the 2001 vintage, complete with tasting notes and critical reviews for each vintage still likely to pop up in the collecting marketplace.

Vineyards and the Legacy of Longevity

The bright, mineral backbone of Stony Hill’s wines is a credit to the volcanic mountain soils and, far beneath the surface, limestone rock. The McCrea’s dedication to dry farming over the last 65 years forces the vines to stretch roots ever deeper year after year, delivering the property’s distinctive sense of place straight to the grapes at the surface. Some of the vineyard sections have been replanted over the years, largely in the 1980s, but many of the old gnarled vines have been producing since the 1940s and 50s.

Stony Hill’s cool growing climate, high elevation, and morning sunlight help to strike a balance between even ripening of the grapes and stress on the vines. Rather than harvesting by flavor, Mike Chelini closely monitors the grapes’ development and will pick when the moment the pH begins to increase and natural acidity drops. The result is grapes with enough acid to last for decades, along with the complex flavor profiles that unfold only after several years of bottle age.

Stony Hill’s vineyards are Napa Green Certified, and have been dry-farmed since their inception. Even throughout periods of drought, the natural springs and reservoirs have proven sufficient for wine growing.

Winemaking

The Stony Hill winery, located not far from Eleanor’s original dining room, remains relatively unchanged since Fred first made wine there in the early 1950s. So, too, has the winemaking style. Save for a new press that was purchased in the 1980s, the equipment that helped produce early, significant vintages (1962, 1976, and 1979 among them) are still in use today. More recently lauded vintages of the wine, such as the 1997, 2001, and 2007, which entered the market at a time when malolactic fermentation, extended time on lees and new oak cooperage were in great favor, continue to command attention on the auction block for the distinctive finesse and longevity.

Winemaker Mike Chelini, who has managed the Stony Hill vineyards since 1971, and winemaking since 1973, has gone from legend to iconoclast and back again in his many years at the helm. While most winemakers with as many accolades under their belt as Chelini would be content to rest easy upon reputation, Chelini is anything but complacent. Committed, dedicated, and highly opinionated—of course. But making wine in the Old World style also means there are no fancy machines to do the work that should begin in the vineyard and finish in the glass many, many years later. And so, like generations of vignerons tied to the indelible, authentic sense of place that can only be understood after a lifetime making wine from the same land, Chelini forges ahead, never wavering from the enormous challenge—increasing by the year as more hot new wineries enter the market—to do justice to the great name of Stony Hill.

Introduction of Cabernet Sauvignon at Stony Hill Vineyard

After many years of farming the vineyard known as the Top Block, Chelini and the McCreas came to the conclusion that it would be better suited for Cabernet Sauvignon. They replanted five acres to Cabernet Sauvignon in 2004—and feel passionately that red wine from Stony Hill has the potential be as elegant and long-lived as the Chardonnay—maybe even more so.  Stony Hill’s commitment to make these wines in the same minimalist style that flies in face of what the world has come to think of Napa Valley Cabernet, is what’s made it a bit of an iconoclast in the market, and sustained its status as a beloved producer among wine collectors and terroir-impassioned sommeliers.

The Cabernet Sauvignon was planted on a vineyard block located at the highest elevation on the estate at 1550 feet above sea level. While Stony Hill Cabernet Sauvignon has only been in production for a few years, the same minimalist winemaking approach has it gaining attention for both its elegant, austere style and incredibly long aging potential.

When the McCreas decided to plant Cabernet, they determined that in order to remain authentic to the Stony Hill name, the wine should be crafted with the same dry farming methods and lean winemaking style that they believe bring out the very best expression of Stony Hill’s terroir. The grapes are allowed to mature to their optimum ripeness, which for Chelini, means a perfect balance of flavor, pH, total acidity and brix. The alcohol is kept under 14% and new oak is used only sparingly. The result is another age-worthy bottling that wine lovers can enjoy decades down the road. And, in bucking the trends and staying true to tradition, Stony Hill may very well be creating another legacy style for its red wines to equal those of its white wines.

Un-Dramatic Change

Stony Hill President (and third-generation steward of the property) Sarah McCrea is confident that applying her grandparents’ traditional ways to this new undertaking will prove not only a smart business decision, but will serve to set the resulting wines apart as distinct, graceful and utterly collectible in their own right.

“We remain dedicated to producing incredible Chardonnay,” says Sarah. “But we’re not trapped in time, either. We know that there are other varietals that will benefit from our lean winemaking style, and I think we do great justice to Cabernet. We’ve shown that high-alcohol, high-maintenance wine is not the only way to make great wine in the Napa Valley and will continue to do so,” she adds.

What’s Old is New

The notion of innovation via originality—or rather, of being original, and staying that way—isn’t so novel. But it’s a difficult responsibility to bear, especially when being original often means standing alone. Stony Hill is one of the original wineries that put California wines on par with the classical greats of the Old World. Of those other handful of wineries in the very same class (Chalone in Monterey County, and Hanzell in Sonoma among them) Stony Hill is the only one operating under the same family ownership, same minimalist farming and winemaking practices and same commitment to truly hand-made and small production winemaking from one small estate.

Remaining authentic and truly peerless are qualities to treasure. But were it not for the caliber of the wines themselves, year after year, it would merely be romantic. And that is something the McCreas are not.

“We’re realists,” says Sarah McCrea. “We understand that it’s an incredibly competitive marketplace. As lovely as our family story is, as picturesque as our mountain vineyards are, and as special as visitors feel when they come and taste in the same spot where my grandmother hosted adventurers and critics alike over 60 years ago, what really matters is what happens in the bottle and in the glass year after year,” she says.

Wine Club

Stony Hill offers three wine clubs, each named for the elevation points of the three main vineyard areas on the estate: Elevation 800’, Elevation 1200’ and Elevation 1550’. Priced at approximately $130, $220, and $430 per shipment, respectively, and featuring three, six and 12 wines per shipment, sent four times per year. Both the Elevation 800’ and Elevation 1200’ clubs include a 15% discount on purchases and a 20% discount on re-orders and members-only tastings for up to four guests; the Elevation 1550’ club includes a 20% discount on purchases and a 25% discount on re-orders, and members-only tastings for up to six guests. For more information on the Stony Hill wine clubs or to sign up, visit http://www.stonyhillvineyard.com/shop/Wine-Club.

Tasting Room/Getting There

From the time when Fred and Eleanor McCrea managed winery operations, through the tenure of their son, Peter McCrea and his wife Willinda McCrea, and now, the leadership of their granddaughter, Sarah McCrea, all visits to Stony Hill are hosted by a member of the McCrea family. Today, Sarah’s cousin Alex McCrea delights visitors with tastings that still begin at Eleanor’s table, and include a tour through the winery and vineyards. The limited space for guests, narrow mountain roads, and personal tours require that all visits must be arranged by advance appointment by filling out the form at http://www.stonyhillvineyard.com/tours or by calling 707.963.2636. Tastings and tours are available Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Visits average 90 minutes, and are $45.00 per person.

Stony Hill is located three miles north of St. Helena off Highway 29 in the western hills above the Napa Valley. Directions are emailed to guests following confirmation of a tasting appointment.

Unerring Style: As Contemporary Now as It Was Then

When Stony Hill was founded in 1952, Napa Valley winemaking was just getting its first post-Prohibition legs back and taking most of its direction from many of the same Old World wines that continue to endure today (and have for centuries). It’s no small coincidence that when a fine dinner or celebration was in order, glasses were filled with white Burgundy, lean and elegant Bordeaux, and, of course, Champagne—the bristly backbone of which is, of course, Chardonnay. The appreciation we still hold for many of the objects and ideas of that time continues to influence design and fashion today, from Herman Miller to Emilio Pucci.

Borne of the same era, Stony Hill remains as relevant today as those same contemporaries we continue to seek out as touchstones not to bygone eras, but to supreme quality, unerring style and true hand-craftsmanship in our own current lives. Lucky are those finally discovering it after all this time. They will have something lovely with which to raise a glass for a long time to come.  

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