Stony Hill Vineyard was one of the first Napa Valley wineries built after Prohibition. They were an anomaly in Napa Valley from their first vintage in 1952 through 2009 because they only produced white wine. In the early 2000s they began to make a red table wine for themselves, friends and family; starting in 2009 they began producing a Cabernet Sauvignon from their property.
Their Cabernet Sauvignon is exactly the style of wine one would expect Stony Hill to produce. It is crafted in a leaner manner than most contemporary Napa Valley bottlings of this variety; it focuses on lively acidity and balance rather than ripeness or over extraction. As a result, it is a very food friendly wine. It is lower in alcohol compared to contemporary Napa Valley wines from this variety; the 2011 vintage was exactly 13% alcohol. There are numerous red wines made in Napa Valley today that are 15% or higher alcohol.
Stony Hill was founded by Fred and Eleanor McCrea in 1943 when looking for a summer home; they purchased 160 hillside acres which was previously used as a goat ranch. Prior to founding Stony Hill, Fred spent his entire career working in advertising for McCann-Erickson in San Francisco (now McCann). This was during the height of World War II and little development occurred on the property for a few years.
After they produced their first vintage, they hung a sign out on St. Helena Highway saying “visitors by appointment”. They built the winery in 1951 and bonded it in 1952. The first vintage was several hundred cases of a 1952 Chardonnay which they labeled as Pinot Chardonnay as was common in those days. They continue to produce fruit driven, non-oaky, and non malolactic fermented Chardonnays. In other words, making Chardonnay like it used to be made and producing a wine reflective of the variety rather than post initial fermentation manipulation. This is refreshing in today’s world of oak influenced, malolactic fermented Chardonnays.
In 1948 when they planted their vineyards there were only about 200 acres of Chardonnay growing in California and most of the general wine consuming public was not even familiar with this variety. Their initial cuttings of Chardonnay came from Wente Winery in Livermore. Despite viticulturists encouraging them to plant other white varieties, the McCrea’s followed their gut instinct and planted primarily Chardonnay. When fully planted, approximately 42 acres of hillside vineyards range in elevation from about 800 to 1550 feet and are mostly dry farmed.
The site is on a ridgeline bordered by Ritchey and Mill creeks. Soils are composed of decomposed sandstone and shale with the upper elevations more iron rich soils resulting from volcanic activity. In addition to Chardonnay, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer the following red varieties are also planted: Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Additional varieties will be planted in the coming years. The vineyard row spacing ranges from narrow just over 3 feet by 3 feet to 6 x 12 foot terraces.
And there is a reason for the name, ‘stony hill’; this refers to the significant amounts of rock pulled from the property over the years – some of which has been used in various rock walls on the property and also lines some of the walls in Fred and Eleanor’s former residence.
Their oldest vines on the property (Riesling) date from 1948 and may be the oldest vines of this variety still producing in North America. But they don’t yield many grapes – typically only between 1/2 a ton and around 1 ton per year. In 2020 and 2021 the property underwent significant replanting and replants will continue for a number of years still. Their vineyards became certified organic in 2019.
Sheep are brought into Stony Hill to graze for about a month in the spring, reducing cover crop and adding in organic fertilizer. Wool from these same sheep have been used for making clothing including Ralph Lauren producing for U.S. athletes participating in the Winter Olympics.
In 1953, Stony Hill provided cuttings of their Chardonnay to Hanzell Vineyard and Winery in Sonoma. Remarkably these vines are still living and still producing along with Pinot Noir of the same age. This 4-acre block, referred to as the Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard is located directly below the winery at Hanzell and is about 2/3 Chardonnay (the upper rows) and about 1/3 Pinot Noir (the lower rows). These are the oldest continuously producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines in the U.S. Newer vines have been interplanted in the rows, replacing vines as they die.
Prior to making their own wine, Stony Hill Vineyards were growers only selling the grapes to what few wineries there were at the time including the Christian Brothers, Lee Stewart at Chateau Souverain and Joe Heitz at Heitz Cellars who produced a Stony Hill Vineyard designate Pinot Blanc for a few years in the 1950s.
Early on, Fred was the winemaker for Stony Hill having picked up advice from other growers and winery owners as well as having taken classes in winemaking at UC Davis. Both long time and well-respected winemakers John Kongsgaard and Ric Forman spent short stints making wine here. And Schoolhouse Vineyard, the 2nd oldest continuously producing winery on Spring Mountain, made several of their vintages here.
After a remarkably long family ownership which spanned several generations of the McCrea family, Stony Hill Winery was quietly sold in summer 2018 to the owners of Long Meadow Ranch, the Halls. Like a number of transactions in the valley, those in the industry knew of this sale well in advance before this news reached the media. We remember we had an extremely visceral reaction to this change in ownership; over a number of years we had developed a very close emotional tie to this special property. Sadly, a very unique period in Napa’s history came to a close with this sale.
And in late 2020, the Halls sold Stony Hill to Gaylon Lawrence who also owns Brendel Wines, Burgess Cellars, Heitz Cellar, Haynes Vineyard in Coombsville, Château Lascombes in Bordeaux and Demeine Estates. He is also a majority partner in the ownership of much of Mare Island to the south of Napa Valley and has significant holdings in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Florida among other states. We have followed his heritage to multiple places across the country. See our review on this website of Heitz Cellar for more details including Gaylon’s ‘proprietor profile’.
Winemaker Mike Chelini was with Stony Hill from 1972 until 2019 – a remarkable 47-year tenure at one winery. He began his career at Stony Hill as vineyard foreman and then took over the winemaking duties in 1977. That amount of time at any winery is unheard of and is less common in contemporary Napa Valley where winemakers often move to other wineries or take consulting jobs which come and go. Every year we thought we were going to update this paragraph when Mike retired, but each year came and went, and he remained lead winemaker at Stony Hill. Alas, that year finally came when we had to update this paragraph mentioning Mike’s retirement; he stepped aside in Spring 2019 and was Winemaker Emeritus until his passing in late 2023.
The wooden tanks housed in the original winery visually looked much older than their true age, were built in the 1950s and 1960s. A visit to the original cellar was like walking back in time. Since the change in ownership, this winery has been decommissioned. And the old pool near the winery entrance was removed in part for safety reasons. It is these barrels that were primarily used for decades for the aging of their Chardonnay. After seeing these one can clearly understood why oak was never a dominating character in their white wines. This was in complete contrast to most other Napa Valley wineries whose cellar and fermentation rooms have steel tanks and modern looking barrels. Winemaking has since moved to several locations within the valley with a variety of vessels now being used for aging including concrete and larger foudres (larger wooden vats).
For decades during the McCrea ownership, change came very slowly to Stony Hill and that was not a bad thing at all – especially in a valley dominated by constant change. Since the transition to new ownership, changes have come much quicker to the property, primarily in the vineyards and winemaking but also with their hospitality experiences. We are excited and curious to follow both the evolution of the vineyard replants and changes made in regard to attention to detail and precision in the cellar. And how these significant yet incremental efforts will result in the quality of the wines.
Stony Hill maintains a mailing list which was first started in the early 1950s when Fred and Eleanor McCrea sent hand written letters to several of their San Francisco Bay Area friends. The list now often spans several generations of consumers. In more recent years they added an allocation membership with members receiving first priority on new releases.
Visitors pull off the highway at the entrance road to the Bale Grist Mill just north of St. Helena and then drive up what is one of the longer private driveways of any winery in Napa Valley. This narrow one lane road passes through Bothe-Napa Valley State Park before eventually reaching Stony Hill’s gate and their own property. The state park borders nearly all the Stony Hill property. Unlike most Spring Mountain based wineries who have both winery and vineyard neighbors, because of the park’s borders, Stony Hill has no immediate winery or vineyard neighbors.
A visit to the property is like going back in time to when parts of Napa Valley were less developed, less crowded and had more of an agricultural feel. This is one of our favorite Napa wineries for the experience, its isolated feel and the quality of the wines. And it is the oldest continuously operating winery in Spring Mountain District.
Visitors used to park next to the Residence at Stony Hill and its separate garage, but this parking lot has since been removed in favor of a pedestrian walkway. Guests park in a dedicated parking area across the from the walkway. And it is here that visitors are greeted by a wine educator bearing a beverage (not alcohol). Allow about 90 minutes for a visit; tastings are hosted inside of Fred and Eleanor’s old home if cold outside but if it’s a nice day, tastings are held outside on the deck overlooking the property and the valley in the distance or behind the house on the patio. Simultaneous tastings can occur but groups are always hosted separate of one another. We’ve visited a number of times and are always impressed by the quiet of the property. And the exceptional views of parts of Napa Valley and surrounding hills.
Stony Hill’s trademark character in their wines is balance; by this we mean careful farming with hands off wine making to showcase both their rich hillside fruit and acidity. Both are desired characteristics for aging wine. Often their wines don’t start peaking until several years after release, although they can certainly be consumed at the time of purchase.
The 2020 Stony Hill Estate Chardonnay is medium golden in color; the bouquet was a bit closed and needed some time to open. It reveals aromas of honeysuckle, a minerality nuance, bruised Golden Delicious apple, corn tassel, and as it opens, a pronounced scent of dried apricots. The texture is one of the hallmark characteristics of this wine, featuring a rounded almost saline texture, but it is not viscous. And this is an important distinction when writing about the texture and style of Chardonnay. It features bright acidity accompanied by flavors of citrus, red apple, and dried stone fruits including apricots and nectarines. The finish is lit brightly, with a refreshing crispness and vibe not always found in riper Californian growing bottlings of this variety. And because of this, this wine immediately begs another sip.
The 2012 Stony Hill Estate Chardonnay is deep golden in color; the richness of these aged aromatics is an appealing character of this bouquet with scents of ripe stone fruits including yellow peach, nectarine and apricot with some tropical note including ripe pineapple and mango. There are also scents of caramelized sugars, crème Brule and baking spices. The palate is a bit more citrusy on the palate than some of the younger bottlings we have tried, offering flavors of mandarin orange, lemon juice, dried orange peel and orange marmalade. This wine’s texture is rounded and supple, and feels gentle across the palate. We tasted this wine 13 years post vintage; it still features a noticeable brightness, especially on the finish but some of the freshness that invariably this wine contained in its youth has been tempered by time.
The 2011 Stony Hill Chardonnay (tried 8 years after vintage date) is dark golden in glass. This wine reveals a variety of aromas indicating an aged wine including hazelnut, and toasted almonds accompanied by ripe golden delicious apple and ripe pear. As the wine breathes it reveals a hint of honeycomb and melon. A pleasing thread of acidity carries this wine into its golden years; this wine is not put through secondary fermentation. It is clean and crisp across the palate. Finishes with flavors of tangerine and hints of lime and is very subtly tart. Light, with a very slightly rounded texture. Still bright. We’ve had several vintages of their Chardonnay in the past; they are always balanced at the get go. And balanced still, after some age.
There is a unique minerality and flintiness often represented in their Chardonnay which differs from the Chardonnay wines produced from the cooler Carneros District much further south bordering the chilly waters of the San Pablo Bay. These are wines that age extremely well and Stony Hill certainly has the history to prove it.
The 2020 Stony Hill Riesling is medium yellow in glass; the bouquet offers aromas of citrus, light star jasmine, an initial passing aroma of saran wrap, honeycomb, lanolin and pear. As it evolves in the glass, it becomes a bit more sweetly fruited including aromas of stone fruits. It was a bit closed while chilled, but give it time and the nose will become more expressive. The palate is bright, fresh and lively with flavors of white peach, nectarine, kumquat, lime, and green apple. The texture is lightly rounded and complements well the freshness of the balanced acidity. While drinking this bottling, we thought of pairing it with a warm evening in Lima Peru, a rooftop, and the company of a beautiful girl while enjoying freshly made ceviche. At some point drinking the Stony Hill Riesling isn’t only about drinking wine, it’s about tasting through decades of history. The grapes this year yielded only slightly more than 0.5 tons/acre. This wine is refreshingly 12% alcohol.
The 2017 Stony Hill White Riesling is the color of dried straw in the glass; this wine immediately offers bright minerality nuances on the bouquet which are almost flinty like in its aromatic presentation. Let the wine open and as it does it reveals additional aromatics including white pineapple and becomes floral with notes of jasmine and honeysuckle. Rounded but not heavy this wine shows excellent acidity and balance. Refreshing and lively from the entry through to the finish. This is a dry Riesling with less than 1% residual sugar. Our threshold for noticing sweetness seems to be around 0.8% (approximately 8 g/L) – we couldn’t notice any sweetness in this wine. It is one of our favorite varieties – especially to pair with spicy foods. Unfortunately, there is not enough of this planted in the world-famous Napa Valley due to the economics of growing Riesling vs Cabernet Sauvignon or other red varieties. And much of this wine is sourced from the original vines planted in 1948.
Beginning in 2021, Stony Hill began producing a propriety white wine blend called Escalie – a blend of Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Riesling.
Sémillon de Soleil was not originally created as an intentional wine. After Christian Brothers did not purchase their Sémillon grapes, Darryl Corti, owner of the prominent wine shop Corti Brothers in Sacramento told the McCreas he would buy a dessert wine if they made one and sell it in his store. For several years, Stony Hill produced this wine exclusively for Corti Brothers. The first vintage of Sémillon de Soleil was from 1972. Sadly, the 2018 bottling was the last vintage produced of this wine (this was from non estate grapes).
The 2018 Stony Hill Sémillon de Soleil is medium amber color in the glass; offers a wide depth of aromatics including ripe nectarine, peach, apricot, crème Brule, caramel, honey and candied orange peel. This wine is certainly, plenty sweet to satisfy dessert wine enthusiasts but not cloyingly so. Slightly rounded in texture the acid doesn’t ring loudly until deeper into the finish. There are flavors of dried apricot, nectarine and prune.
The 2013 Stony Hill Sémillon de Soleil is remarkably dark golden in the glass for such a young wine. It reveals generous aromas of honeycomb, ripe apricot and a juicy white peach. On the palate it is certainly sweet but with a clean taste profile (and as expected from Stony Hill showcases the ripe fruit rather than any oak) tempered by a decent amount of acidity. This particular vintage has truly produced an exceptional wine of this style with excellent aging potential. This wine is only available in half bottles. Best enjoyed anytime accompanied by a Hilary Hahn Beethoven Violin Concerto.
The 2019 Stony Hill Cabernet Sauvignon is deep ruby in the glass; there is a pronounced floral thread on this bouquet including of rose petals, violets and lavender. Other aromatic layers reveal notes of dried herbs, including sage and dried tobacco leaf. And petrichor. A similar aroma reminded us of pouring water on slate rock on a hot day. And there is a note of creosote bush, which reminded us of us camping in the middle of nowhere Panamint Valley, CA in spring time when the creosote bushes are in bloom and the resulting smell of crushing their oily leaves between our fingers. Pretty and elegant are somewhat generic words, but are highly appropriate descriptors for its aromatics. The palate is bright, fresh and savory with flavors of blueberry, currant and red plums. There is an earthy character at play accompanied by dried herbs including thyme and finishing with a tobacco spice. The tannins are dusty, feathery and fine-grained with a light lingering chalky character. Their texture is well integrated into the seamless and bright finish. Beautifully balanced. 13.5% alcohol.
The 2019 Stony Hill Syrah is deep ruby and nearly opaque in the glass with an amaranthine rim; the attractive bouquet is savory and floral with notes of violets accompanied by a persistent thread of pink peppercorn. Other scents include dark olive and rose petals. We were immediately surprised by several factors including its freshness, savory character, lightness on its feet and lively acidity. It is crafted in a style more similar to northern Rhone region of France rather than from Napa Valley sunshine. The palate offers flavors of red plum, currant, and cranberry with a lingering note of white pepper, tobacco spice, and dried herbs including sage on the finish. Both fruit and tannins linger for some time in parallel. Its texture is chalky, almost creamy featuring polished and fine-grained tannins. Juicy. 13% alcohol. Only 80 cases of this beauty were produced.
The Elevation Bottlings. Stony Hill will be producing three different Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings from the property, each one from grapes grown at different elevations. Their lowest elevation Cabernet Sauvignon will be from around 800 feet, another at 1,000 feet and their uppermost from 1,550 feet.
Total annual production is around 3,000 cases as of our latest update to this review with production growing as some of the replants mature. Eventually production should reach around 5,000 cases per year. For more information, to schedule a visit to the property and or to join their mailing list or wine club, visit: www.stonyhillvineyard.com. Also view our mention of the 2012 Stony Hill Chardonnay in Robb Report focusing on premium Napa Valley white wines here: www.robbreport.com/paid-issue/whites-roses
Original Winery (no longer being used)