Thursday, November 8, 2012

Stony Hill Vineyard – A Mountain Top Winery in St. Helena, California

After visiting Trinchero Family Vineyards I took an adventurous drive up Spring Mountain above St. Helena to Stony Hill Vineyards. Located south of the Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, the property sits on the western slope of the Napa Valley between Richie Creek to the north and Lyman Creek to the south. Moderating climatic influences such as northeast-facing slopes and an elevation between 700 and 1200 feet above the valley floor make this mild microclimate an ideal location for growing premium Chardonnay grapes.

The winery is very remote as you take a very long winding drive through a forest of trees and up a very narrow road. By narrow, I mean there is only room for one car on the road and it would be near impossible for a tour bus or limousine to comfortably make the journey. Visits and tastings are by appointment only so unless they send you directions you won’t find the winery as there is no sign on highway 29 indicating its location. On the way up I stopped occasionally to snap some shots of their vineyards and enjoy the mountain top vistas of the valley below and the mountains on the other side.

About half way up the mountain I met an elderly man who seemed to be out for a leisurely stroll, enjoying the ideal weather - sunny and 73 degrees! To be polite, I stopped and asked him if he wanted a ride and as expected he replied, “No thank you, I’m just out getting my daily exercise.” I later learned that the man was Peter McCrea who is the son of Fred and Eleanor McCrea who founded the winery. 

In 1943 Fred and Eleanor bought 160 acres of land on the west slope of the Napa Valley north of St. Helena. They cultivated their first Chardonnay fields in 1947 and then planted Pinot Blanc, White Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Semillon. Their first harvest was in 1952 and the first release of their first Chardonnay was in 1954. 

When I got to the top of the mountain I arrived at Peter’s house and was greeted by his very hospitable wife Willinda McCrea. Peter and Willinda inherited Stony Hill in 1991 when Peter’s mother passed away and they continue to run the business today. Willinda, a very hospitable host, then gave me a tour of the vineyard and barrel room where they use 5-30 year old neutral oak barrels to age their wines:

“So long as they are kept clean and don’t leak, we continue to use them rather than using newer barrels that would impart oak flavors.” 

This minimalist approach to making Chardonnay is maintained by Mike Chelini who became Stony Hill’s vineyard foreman in 1972 and then winemaker when Fred died in 1977. Since then Mike has overseen both vineyard and winery operations, supervising six full time, year-round employees who hand tend the vines and hand pick the grapes. 

Willinda says Mike prefers to allow the wine express the character of the grape rather than the winemaking process which tends to make their Chardonnay more Burgundian in style. This minimalist approach to wine making allows the intensely flavored fruit from their volcanic rocky, hillside soils to determine the character of the wine. All of their wines are 100% grown, produced, and bottled at Stony Hill Vineyard.

Visiting the winery is more like visiting someone’s home. There are no typical winery accommodations and you essentially taste their wines in the dining room of Peter and Willinda’s house. So, after touring the vineyard and the barrel room I sampled the following wines:

The first wine was the 2011 Stony Hill Gewürztraminer. Very few wineries in California produce this wine and most of those that do are along the coast, mostly in Mendocino. Stony Hill is able to produce this cool climate grape because of their altitude and they have eastern facing slopes so they don’t get the late summer afternoon and evening sun. On the nose I picked up green apples, melon rind, kiwi fruit, dried apricots, a touch of minerality and just a hint of tropical fruit. On the palate it is light bodied, very crisp with high acidity and it has a medium (+) length finish. A delicious wine without being sweet and it has relatively low alcohol (11%). I brought a bottle home for $24.

The second pour was their flagship wine, the 2010 Stony Hill Chardonnay. It has aromas of golden delicious apples, pears, figs, mandarin oranges and just a touch of hazelnut. On the palate the wine develops from the entry through the mid palate and the finish, providing an array of subtle complex flavors and sensations.  This is a wine that actually makes you think and ponder the experience of the nuances of the development of its flavors. A truly spectacular Chardonnay for $42 a bottle and I picked up a case for a friend who is a BIG Stony Hill fan.

I then tasted their “every day drinking” Chard, the 2011 SHV Chardonnay. This wine is bigger than the previous wine with more up front aromas of green apples, melon and figs. On the palate it is more aggressive with more body and a medium length finish. Yet this wine was produced in the same manner as the previous wine, but from a different vineyard. This wine is an excellent value at $24 a bottle and I brought two of them home to serve with Thanksgiving dinner.

The third wine was the 2011 White Riesling. On the nose I picked up melon rind, apple pie filling, golden raisins, and lemon/lime. On the palate the wine is very fresh with medium (+) acidity, it is medium bodied and has a prolonged finish. It has just a touch of sweetness (1%) so it is off-dry but has no petrol-like characteristics which are often found in California Rieslings. A very nice wine for $27, and I brought a bottle home.

The fourth pour was the 2010 Stony Hill Semillon de Soleil. Very few wineries in California produce Semillon and when they do they often blend it with Sauvignon Blanc. On the nose it has aromas of honey, graham crackers, and candied apples. On the palate it is sweet, medium bodied, and yet it is well balanced with good acidity (medium +) and it has a clean finish.  The only thing this wine would need to make it more Sauterne-like is Botrytis to intensify the flavors. This wine sells for $30 a bottle (375 ml).

The final pour was the first red wine ever produced by Stony Hill, the 2009 Stony Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is very UN-Napa like and is old world in style. It is light ruby in color and is very aromatic with fresh cherries, red currants, pomegranates and green olives. On the palate it is medium bodied with refined chewy tannins (probably due to its youth), medium acidity, is well balanced and has a prolonged finish. This wine is very different than most of the wines you’ll find in the valley that tend to be very big and full-bodied with 14.5%+ alcohol. This wine in comparison has only 13.5%. There were only 250 cases made of this wine so visitors are limited to 3 bottles. This wine sells for $60 a bottle.

Later in the week…

On the following Wednesday the friend I picked up the case of the 2010 Stony Hill Chardonnay, who is a big fan of their wines, shared with me a bottle of the 2002 Stony Hill Chardonnay from his cellar. Here are my notes from this 10 year-old properly stored Chardonnay:

Visually this wine is clear, pale straw yellow, with thin legs. On the nose it has exotic aromas of lemon custard, pineapple, apricots, white flowers, and just hints of smoke, minerality and a wisp of buttery caramel. On the palate it is a multilayered wine that is very crisp, medium bodied with a lot of zest, a touch of spice and a lingering clean finish that goes on for days!

This is one of the best Chards I've tasted in a very long time.

This just shows you how well Chardonnays, properly made and stored, can radically improve with age. So, if you buy some of the 2010 Stony Hill Chardonnay you may want to hold on to it for a while!

To see more pictures of Stony Hill Vineyards, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

To visit or for more information:

Stony Hill Vineyard
3331 Saint Helena Highway North
Saint Helena, California 94574
Phone: 1-707-963-2636