Stony Hill Vineyard was a complete anomaly in Napa Valley until 2003 – producing only …drum roll… white wine, and did so since 1952 (their first commercial release). In fact they were one of the first Napa Valley wineries built after prohibition (who are still in production). Starting in 2009 they began producing a Cabernet Sauvignon from their property – after selling the fruit for several years. Initially they began to produce a red table wine for themselves, friends and family – and ultimately decided to bottle this as a commercial release.
If Stony Hill was going to make a red wine, their Cabernet Sauvignon is exactly the style of wine they would make. This is a wine that is lean, focusing on good acidity, a balanced wine that is very food friendly. This is a style of wine that Napa in general has not seen in several decades. It is a wine that is lower in alcohol compared to today’s Napa standards – the 2011 vintage came in at exactly 13% (there are plenty of red wines made in Napa 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 (initially 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 not much 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” – today a sign still says the same thing in the same location. 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). Their focus has always been and is still on producing fruit driven, non-oakey, and no 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 quite refreshing in today’s world of oak driven, 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 Chardonnay (along with some other varieties). Today their 30 acres of hillside vineyards range in elevation from about 800 to 1550 feet and are primarily dry farmed. Their oldest vines (Riesling) date from 1948 along with about an acre Sémillon dating from 1954.
Prior to making their own wine, Stony Hill Vineyards were growers only – selling the fruit to what few wineries there were at the time including the Christian Brothers, Lee Stewart at Chateau Soverain 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.
There is a unique minerality and flintiness often represented in their wines which differs from the Chardonnay wines produced in the cooler Carneros District much further south (and bordering the cold waters of the San Pablo Bay). These are wines that age extremely well – and Stony Hill certainly has the history to prove that fact.
This is one of our favorite Napa wineries for the experience, its isolated feel and the actual wines. It is the oldest continuously operating winery in the Spring Mountain District. Until the winery and property was sold in 2018, Stony Hill was still owned by the McCreas and was being run by the 3rd and 4th generations.
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 very 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 their own 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.
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 will probably be less common in contemporary Napa Valley where winemakers often move to other wineries or take consulting jobs which come and go. Every year we think we are going to update this paragraph when Mike retires, but each year comes and goes and he remains 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 is now Winemaker Emeritus.
The wooden tanks housed in the winery date from the 1950’s and 1960’s. It is these barrels that are used for the aging of their Chardonnay and after seeing these you can clearly understand why their Chardonnays are not flavor driven by oak. This is in complete contrast to most of the other Napa wineries whose cellar and fermentation rooms have steel tanks and modern looking barrels. A visit to their cellar is really like walking back in time.
By now you may realize that change comes very slowly to Stony Hill and that is not a bad thing at all – especially in a valley dominated by constant change.
Stony Hill maintains a mailing list which was first started in the early 50’s 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 began a wine club.
A visit to the property is like going back in time to when parts of the Napa Valley were less developed, less crowded and had more of a agricultural feel. Allow about 90 minutes for the tour and tasting; the tour visits the fermentation and barrel room – guests will not see much steel here as this room primarily contains very old wooden barrels which visually look much older than their true age.
Tastings are hosted inside Fred and Eleanor’s old home (at their dining room table) if cold outside but if its 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. 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.
The Stony Hill trademark are wines that are very “balanced” – by this we mean careful farming with hands off wine making to showcase both their rich hillside fruit and the acidity (desired characteristics for aging the wines). Often their wines don’t start peaking until several years after release, although they can certainly be consumed at the time of purchase.
They produce several Chardonnays, a lean dry Riesling, a Gewurztraminer and also a fantastic dessert wine, the Sémillon de Soleil which is produced in extremely low quantities (first produced in 1972) so it sells out rather quickly.
The 2011 Stony Hill Chardonnay (tried 8 years after vintage date) is dark golden in glass. Offers a variety of aromas indicating an aged wine of this variety including hazelnut, toasted almonds, ripe golden delicious apple and ripe pear. As the wine breathes reveals a hint of honeycomb and melon. A nice thread of acidity carries this wine into its golden years (this wine is not put through secondary fermentation). Clean and crisp across the palate. Finishes with flavors of tangerine and hints of lime – 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.
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 – 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 – less then 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. One of our favorite varieties – especially to pair with spicy foods. Unfortunately not enough of this 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.
The 2013 Stony Hill Sémillon de Soleil (only available in half bottles) 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 – showcasing 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. Best enjoyed anytime accompanied by a Hilary Hahn Beethoven Violin Concerto.
This label had an interesting start. After Christian Brothers decided not to buy the fruit for this wine 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.
NOTE 1: after a remarkably long family ownership – 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. Sadly, a very unique period in Napa’s history came to a closure with this sale – and we hope change comes slowly with the transition in ownership.
NOTE 2: and in late 2020, the Halls sold Stony Hill to Gaylon Lawrence who in the Napa Valley also owns Burgess Cellars, Heitz Cellar, the Haynes Vineyard in Coombsville and Demeine Estates. He is also a majority partner in the ownership of most of Mare Island to the south of the Napa Valley and has significant holdings in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Florida among other states. We have chased 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’.
For more information 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