Reflections on a Napa Valley icon, Stony Hill Vineyard

When news broke last week about the sale of Stony Hill Vineyard in the Napa Valley to the Hall family of Long Meadow Ranch, I went to the cellar and pulled out a bottle of the 1996 Stony Hill Chardonnay. I have a lot of Stony Hill, especially the long-lived chardonnay, in my cellar, because even before I started writing about wine, I was a fan – and customer — of Stony Hill.

Stony Hill was one of the original cult wines, with most of it sold through a mailing list. It was established in the 1940s by the late Fred and Eleanor McCrea. My husband and I visited Eleanor in the mid-1980s at her home on Spring Mountain and sipped gewürztraminer – she was out of the much-sought-after chardonnay – on the patio while admiring the expansive view. We got on the waiting list, and it was several years before I got the news that I’d finally made it onto the mailing list and could buy the wines.

The McCreas had planted chardonnay, which wasn’t common in California in the ‘40s, because they loved the white wines of Burgundy. They went on to plant riesling, gewürztraminer and a little semillon, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that Stony Hill – by then owned by Fred and Eleanor’s son Peter and his wife, Willinda – planted cabernet sauvignon, the grape that Spring Mountain is best known for.

Stony Hill’s chardonnay has always been made in a funky cellar with no new oak and no malolactic fermentation, which results in a very lean, racy, almost Chablis-like style that ages quite well. The family never chased fashion, continuing to produce that same lean style even when the market gravitated to flashier chardonnays that were oaky and buttery.

One of the most remarkable old California wines I’ve tasted was the 1973 Stony Hill Chardonnay, which was nearly 30 years old when I tried it. That wine was made by Fred McCrea, with the help of his then-assistant, Mike Chelini. Chelini, who took over in 1977, when Fred died, is still the winemaker.

The 1996 that I drank the other night, at more than 20 years of age, wasn’t quite the wine that the 1973 was, but it was still really interesting. It needed some time to open up after all those years in the bottle, and the golden wine unfolded to reveal still-lively fruit, a toffee note and a hint of wet stone.

Longtime customers are understandably apprehensive about the winery changing hands. In her announcement of the sale, Sarah McCrea – who is Peter and Willinda’s daughter and president of the winery – said her family was pleased to be selling to a family (Ted, Laddie and Chris Hall) “who already knew and loved Stony Hill” and had been buying the wines since the 1980s.

Stony Hill, Sarah said, was in need of significant infrastructure improvements that the family simply couldn’t afford. National wholesale sales were difficult, a problem that’s faced by many small wineries. And the McCreas wanted to do right by their longtime employees; according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Chelini had been promised when he was hired that he would receive a portion of the proceeds if the property was ever sold. Chelini, by the way, will make the 2018 vintage and then will become winemaker emeritus.

The Chronicle reported that the Halls will replant parts of the vineyard and upgrade the winery equipment (though Chris Hall insisted that the old barrels will remain). The Halls, who farm organically at Long Meadow Ranch, will implement organic practices at Stony Hill. The McCreas will maintain a minority interest.

The Halls also said they don’t plan to change the style of the wines. Time will tell.

 

 

 

 

 

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