Spotlight on Napa Valley: Stony Hill Vineyard

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Long before the ‘new’ California took hold Stony Hill, nestled up on Spring Mountain, built its reputation on good-value, subtle, no-new-oak Chardonnay. It’s the ideal counter-narrative that demonstrates Napa is far more than its mainstream monolithic reputation, superstar consultants, and wallet-busting cult-wines. Stony Hill’s Chardonnays have become icons in the Valley without ever becoming mainstream, all while Stony Hill remained a family owned winery.

Fred and Eleanor McCrea founded the winery in 1943 with a passion for white Burgundy. Hence the focus on a more minimalist style of Chardonnay from day one. With the first vintage being made in 1952 and sales almost exclusively through mailing list – Stony Hill was one of the early examples of word of mouth niche marketing in the Valley – today wineries like Stony Hill thrive because of Direct to Consumer sales enabled through e-commerce.

Viticulture and Winemaking

Stony Hill has had remarkable consistency in style and quality throughout the years, largely due to the tremendous consistency in the winemaking position: only 2 winemakers over its nearly 60 years. First, Fred McCrea who crafted the wines until his death in 1977. Second, Fred’s assistant Mike Chelini who took over after Fred’s death.

Northeast exposure and high elevation are the hallmarks of Stony Hill’s site. The vines have always been dry farmed on the volcanic and limestone soils. Picking focuses on acidity and Ph in order to ensure natural longevity in the bottle. The Chardonnay plantings in 1948 were of the Wente clone. The last replanting was in 1986.

Winemaking has a clear direction and purpose: ageability through fruit quality. The grapes are crushed and press with minimal skin contact. They are fermented in neutral oaked and then racked to remove yeast influence. There is no malo-lactic fermentation. Ageing is in neutral oak. That’s it.

The Wines

These are remarkable ageable Chardonnays for California. They age up to 10 years with no hint of oxidation. Twenty or more years in bottle are completely possible for these wines, though at that point oxidation can become an issue on a bottle to bottle basis. I would compare these wines in quality to strong village level Burgundy, but distinctly Californian in the fact they focus on the fruit iself. As such, you can easily taste the Spring Mountain terroir in each glass – sunny fruit with great clarity and food versatility.

Tempura Matsutake Mushrooms at Bar Terra

Tempura Matsutake Mushrooms at Bar Terra

I recently tasted both the 1998 and 2009 vintages in Napa. The 1998 had a high quality core but shortly after opening became a bit too oxidized for continued drinking. The wine demonstrated ideal umami and soy characteristics that made it a wonderful pairing with tempura Matsutake mushrooms at St. Helena’s fantastic Bar Terra. Very Good to Very Good+.

The 2009 Stony Hill was in a perfect place – developed but fresh and fruity without a hint of oxidation. Lemon and Mitsui apple with that more palpable umami characteristic Chardonnay only acquires with age. This was a masterful Chardonnay that demonstrated what Stony Hill is capable of. Excellent.

Stony Hill is not currently in BC, but I suspect it may be soon. The Chardonnay is $54 USD for new vintages at the winery

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