It was a glorious Saturday, sunny and warm but not too hot, clear blue skies, and I was with people I work with, people who have over the years become good friends. I had never before been to the Napa Valley, or to any California wine region. We drove north from San Francisco and at times it was startling in how lovely it was. As we approached Napa we hit traffic, the first sign of the popularity of this place as a tourist destination. I saw a sign for Domaine Carneros and then another for Beaulieu Vineyards. We saw large flat vineyards with rows of skinny vines supported by posts and wires, all draped with thin hoses for irrigation purposes - it gets very hot in the Napa Valley and months can go by in the summer without rain.
We, however, were going to visit Stony Hill, the iconic Chardonnay producer, physically located in the tourist carnival that is the modern Napa Valley, but philosophically located somewhere else entirely. Sarah McCrea, the granddaughter of the founders of Stony Hill Winery, and its current Sales and Marketing Director, told us to drive through St. Helena 3 miles past the Chevron station and onto Bale Grist Mill road to find Stony Hill. We literally inched through traffic, finally reaching the town of St. Helena. It took us almost an hour on a Saturday early afternoon to drive perhaps 10 miles, allowing us plenty of time to look at the various shops of St Helena. I saw that I could buy some very cool and fancy outfits for my dog, if I wanted. I'd have to get a dog first, I suppose. I saw a restaurant that looked like what a Hollywood producer's stylized image of a rural California lunch counter should have looked like circa 1972. It looked good.
And then, finally, Bale Grist Mill Road. We began to climb and immediately we left the tourist world behind for this one lane country road.
Stony Hill Winery was created when Fred and Eleanor McCrea bought this land in 1943. They planted Chardonnay grapes in 1947 and offered their first wines to friends in 1952. The vines are a lot older now, younger McCreas run the place, there is some new equipment and the barrels turn over, but not a whole lot else has changed. Obviously this in itself says nothing about the quality of Stony Hill wine, but it happens that Fred and Eleanor got it right in the first place. The vineyard plots are mostly exposed to the east, and are on hills with natural springs running underneath - this is how they avoid having to irrigate in the intense heat and dry Napa summers. They ferment and age their Chardonnay in old neutral wood, preferring to highlight the natural aromas and flavors of their grapes, and they avoid malolactic fermentation, preserving the intensity of the acidity in their grapes. People who know about Stony Hill have for decades prized their Chardonnay for its purity and grace, its unadorned intensity and complexity, and have appreciated its ability to improve with time in the cellar.
Inside the barrel room we sampled the new Chardonnay vintage, the 2012. Sarah said it was a great year for Stony Hill, as opposed to 2011, which was very hard for everyone in the Napa Valley. 2012 produced balanced wines that show the typical Stony Hill intensity and purity, she said. If the barrel sample I tasted is representative, I wholeheartedly agree. The wine was fragrant and intense with fruit and rock and left a lingering spicy and almost grassy taste after swallowing.
I have been drinking Stony Hill wines, when I can find them, for a few years now. I love the Chardonnay because it is delicious and unadorned and it seems to me that it expresses the greatest aspects of Napa Valley terroir. It is rich and intense - this is a hot place. But it is also acidic and finessed - Stony Hill vineyards are 600 feet above the valley floor. I asked Sarah why her family chose to plant Chardonnay instead of Cabernet, the more popular grape.
"At the time we first planted Stony Hill, no one had really given much thought to where certain grapes should be planted," Sarah's father wrote in an email. "My father just planted what he liked, which was Chardonnay, and three other varieties that U.C. Davis suggested - Pinot Blanc, White Riesling (then known as Johannesburg Riesling), and Gewurztraminer. It turned out that because of the eastern exposure the property was ideally suited for growing white grapes. By the time we needed to replant the vineyard, we had already become quite famous for our white wines, so changing to reds didn't make much sense. It is worth noting that our new Cabernet comes from a relatively new vineyard that has a western exposure that is more suitable for growing red grapes."
If you visit Stony Hill you will not taste old vintages, it's not that kind of place. You will taste whatever is current, whatever they still have in stock. And as fun as it is to taste the wines, the viscerally moving aspect of the visit is walking the vineyards with Sarah, Milo, and whoever you came with, experiencing this place high in the hills.
Tasting these wines I could feel how different they are from the typical Napa wine. These are made to showcase the juice from the grapes grown on their hillside vines, and the soils they come from. Nothing more, nothing less. Now that I've seen the gorgeous setting where these wines are grown and made, I feel like I have a richer understanding of why these wines smell and taste the way they do. And the prices are quite reasonable - current release Chardonnay shouldn't cost more than $45. I think of Stony Hill Chardonnay as the best wine, dollar for dollar, that's made in the US, but take that with a grain of salt, as I have less experience with California wine than some who are better qualified to make such a statement.