Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Stony Hill - A Visit to the Iconic Napa Valley Winery

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.

Luckily one of us saw the sign for Stony Hill.

We drove by a vineyard whose vines were thick and gnarly, old-looking, without irrigation hoses - just vines.

We arrived and were greeted by the very friendly and genuine Sarah McCrea, and her mother Willinda, who said hello and went back to work in the office.

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.

Sarah took us to see the vineyards and the barrel room, and Milo the Stony Hill springer spaniel accompanied us on our walk.

As we walked from the offices, it was immediate and apparent how far away I felt from the tourist road, how bucolic the scene was.

We walked past a plot of Chardonnay vines and saw beyond that another plot of old Riesling vines.

I looked back at the offices and tasting room and thought, "I could live here."

The old vines were vaguely anthropomorphic in appearance.

They seemed so sturdy and weathered, such beasts compared to the delicate grapes they would give forth, to my untrained but highly opinionated eye.

I looked closely at a Riesling vine and saw that budding had actually begun - early this year, Sarah said.

We reached the barrel room and press. Stony Hill is famous for Chardonnay and produces about 3,000 cases in a typical vintage. There is also a Riesling, a Gewurztraminer, a Semillon sweet wine, and now a Cabernet Sauvignon - first commercial vintage is 2009. There's not a lot of wine, and unbelievably to me, Sarah says they still sell the majority via their mailing list. I guess that makes sense, actually. Why give money to a middleman if people are willing to buy direct?

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."

We walked a different path back to the tasting room and again I marveled at the scenery - we were way up in the hills here. Does wine made here, in this style, resemble the more industrial wines made on the valley floor?

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.

But taste you will, and we did this in a lovely outdoor garden in back of the office area. A happy little pig watched over us from the side of the office.

We tasted 2010 Chardonnay (utterly delicious - the best of the recent Stony Hill vintages I've tasted), 2011 White Riesling, 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (restrained and expressive, very impressive!), and the 2010 Semillon sweet wine.

As we sipped and talked, we looked out onto a plot of Syrah, relatively young, planted in 1998. This is sold only to wine club members, along with another rarity - a rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon. I've often thought that Syrah and other Rhône grapes should do very well in the intense heat of the Napa Valley - I bet that Stony Hill's Syrah is excellent and I hope to taste it one day.

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.

If you haven't tasted a Stony Hill wine, you should. It may change your mind about what the Napa Valley is capable of.


Anonymous said...

Any chance we can have a synopsis of your eating and drinking highlights in San Francisco ("San Fran" "Frisco") ?

Unknown said...

Stony Hill looks great. I can say that it is one of the well maintained vineyards in Napa Valley. There also others like Ladera and Spring Mountain.

Unknown said...

Sounds like a fantastic trip! Traveling through the Napa Valley is a great way to view the wineries while sampling some great wines. Seeing your pictures and reading about your adventure makes me want to open a Chardonnay myself. Cheers!

Paul Roberts @