Yesterday’s Wines, Tomorrow (Stony Hill Recent Releases)

Vinted on April 3, 2014 binned in best of, elegant wines, on the road, overachiever wines, wine review

Peabody’s Wayback Machine has got nothing on the steep, two mile drive from Napa Valley’s Bale Grist Mill State Park up to Stony Hill Vineyard. Brave that vertical, moss-covered tree-lined climb between St. Helena and Calistoga, and in many ways you’re transported at least forty years back in Napa time, and to what seems an entire world away from the Disney-fied scene of the opulent temples of vino-ness that pervade Route 29.

Feel free to insert your own clichés about technology being the only indication we’re living in a modern age when touring this winery’s weathered but functional buildings and it’s gnarled old Riesling vines. They’re pabulum, sure, but in this case also apt (I was warned to plan on no cell phone coverage when I reached the top of their road; the Wayback machine renders that inoperative, I suppose).

“This is the land that Napa Valley Time forgot,” mused Sarah McCrea, the former corporate marketing brand director who, in 2012, stopped fighting the inevitable call of becoming Stony Hill’s third generation proprietor. “And we like it that way.”

McCrea’s grandparents, Fred and Eleanor McCrea, bought this little chunk of Spring Mountain in 1943, when it was a former goat ranch that “nobody seemed to want.” The first plantings happened “in `48, `49, after the war,” according to McCrea. Some Riesling vines from that era still remain on the property. A small winery was completed in 1953, and trust me when I tell you that, while charming and unquestionably setup in a beautiful place with a beautiful valley view, it would hardly qualify as garage-sized for some of the polished-with-gobs-of-cash winery façades just a few miles farther south on Route 29. Since that time in the fifties, almost nothing (thankfully, blessedly, miraculously) seems to have changed here. Case in point: in sixty years, Stony Hill has employed fewer winemakers than the venerable Pittsburgh Steelers have head coaches.

To put Stony Hill in perspective, one has to understand that when they started in the wine business in Napa, there was no perspective. There wasn’t even much of a Napa fine wine business. There’s is a tale that, as Morrissey sang, starts “from before the beginning…”

At the time Stony Hill was planted, Napa County boasted a mere ten wineries. The McCreas “planted what they personally liked,” Sarah McCrea told me as we walked among some of the old soul Riesling vines. “UC Davis told them not to plant Chardonnay, because at the time it was considered ‘untested.'” Thankfully for lovers of elegant wines, the McCreas didn’t listen.

Consider Michael Mondavi, who, in founding Robert Mondavi Winery in the 1960s with his famous kin, has just about seen it all when it comes to the growth of the Napa Valley wine industry from eager and independent podunk farming to adult wine Disneyland. Mondavi told me this when he found out I’d been visiting Stony Hill: “that was my early model for Chardonnay in Napa Valley.” Or what Casa Nuestra’s Gene Kirkham, who’s been in the Valley since the early 1970s, said to me about his brand’s early days: “we had, as an example to follow, Stony Hill.” It’s not really an exaggeration to say that without Stony Hill, we wouldn’t have Napa wine as we know it today.

As Napa evolved, and grew in the largesse of its wine styles, the largeness of its size, and the loftiness of its profile, Stony Hill simply kept on keeping on, crafting steely, focused and elegant white wines that in some vintages can be among Napa’s longest-lived. About the only thing that’s changed was a handover of winemaking duties from Fred McCrea to Mike Chelini; and they have almost identical winemaking styles (oh, and, after about sixty years, the addition of a Cabernet Sauvignon red wine). They remain a rarity of an estate outside of Europe, and even more of an odd bird by Napa standards; a 3500 case, forty acre winery that shuns malolactic fermentation, minimizes new oak, and has never really wavered from its lower-alcohol, subtle, and not-gonna-be-ready-for-sipping-for-another-five-years-or-so style.

It’s yesterday’s Napa wines, ready tomorrow.

Sarah McCrea summed it up to me this way: “We’ve basically made the same wine the same way every day since we started; that’s the secret to our consistency.”

I’ve tasted a number of older Stony Hill wines, some decades old (see a few examples in the inset pics). They’re not always still fruity, buy they are always, at a minimum, intellectually compelling (and sometimes downright glorious). The icing on the cake is that in effectively standing still from a trend perspective, Stony Hill is kind of cool again, and the wines remain overachieving, elegant alternatives to the Valley’s more prevalent bombastic wine stylings. The Wayback machine could, as you’ll see in the tasting notes for their recent releases below, do you a lot worse.

2012 Stony Hill White Riesling (Napa Valley, $27)
Reserved, mineral-driven, and deep on the citrus fruits. Yes, limes can be “deep.” It’s not trying to be Rheingau, but it gives a similar sense of wet stone steeliness and austerity, its stern disposition reinforced by a pithy structure. And it’s a baby; a stern, beautiful baby.

 

2012 Stony Hill Gewürztraminer (Napa Valley, $24)
Where the Riesling is stern (did I mention stern?), this is a bit more flamboyant, but a reserved take on flamboyant. Lychee, flowers, hints of saline and stones are the greeters, followed by mouthfuls of tropical fruits and a line of acidity that wants to hang a Do Not Disturb sign on the bottle neck, lest you forget that this wine will really start coming together a few years hence.

 

2011 Stony Hill Chardonnay (Napa Valley, $42)
White peaches, stone fruits, flowers… and it’s tight as a drum right now, though it’s also paradoxically lithe and deep simultaneously right now. Gorgeous, but making a move right now on her would ruin the moment and break some of the romance of anticipation. If you want an impatient sneak peek under the lingerie at how this might develop, try the 2008, which is now heady, floral, honeyed, hinting at spices and marzipan, but still linear, and drinking beautifully.

 

2010 Stony Hill Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley, $60)
Made from 2004 plantings at the west-facing, highest elevation spot on their property, this is Stony Hill’s second vintage of Cab. Peter McCrea described the Cab’s soils as quick-draining and “so red that you can see it from 25,000 feet.” The wine is pure, vibrant stuff; currants, spices, tomato leaf, earth, and a sense of poignant and to-the-point honesty.

 

2011 Stony Hill Semillon de Soleil (Napa Valley, $30)
Just as Stony Hill’s take on Cab is exactly the take you’d expect from them, their 100 case take on passito, sun-dried style dessert wine is exactly what you’d expect from them, too. Juicy, full of lemon drop aromas, and enough raging acidity and liveliness that the sugar seems more loving kiss than the full-on, French-kissing spectacle that is most flabby NV dessert wines. The finish lasts almost as long as some of their Chards can age in bottle…

Cheers!

23

 

 

    Comments

  • Solomon Mengeu


    Pretty cool post Joe you seem to have a knack for finding these amazing off the beaten track wineries & vineyards. Its especially refreshing to read articles such as these when most of the wine media is so busy keeping up with the whole Bordeaux en primeur campaign.

    I am not saying its not important, because it is but I think sometimes we can lose perspective of the bigger picture when we overly focus on one aspect of the wonderful & intriguing wine world.

    By the way what happened in Washington, I was hoping to read about how all that all played out. Or is that an upcoming article on 1 wine dude?

    Solomon

    • 1WineDude


      Solomon – thanks, I appreciate it. This is the focus (for the most part) of 1WD in 2014; smaller production, interesting shiz. Regarding WA, I'm not yet sure if/how that will get written up; I've pitched one story idea to one mag but have yet to hear back (which is typical, I'm sad to say), but I think one of the stories there will get the light of day, and there will for sure be some tweets/FB posts of wine recommendations from what I tasted at the big event. Regarding en premier/Bordeaux – f*ck them. Seriously, I find en premier to be incredibly bizarre, because I've no interest in wine as an investment vehicle (of which it is a relatively poor one for reasons explained here in previous articles), and because the more I barrel sample the less likely I think it is that we can ascertain a wine's potential from that tasting alone… just… no way. I am actually **less** sure of my abilities of doing that after doing thousands of them now. it doesn't help that the Bordelais high-end producers can't seem to wipe their butts without knowing whether a handful of critics used one-ply or two-ply toilet paper that morning :). So the business model is whacked, and I think shouldn't be encouraged any more than it is already…

  • Fredric Koeppel


    Absolutely one of your best pieces, the writing, the ideas, the critiques. And I'm jealous, of course, that you visited this legendary winery…

    • 1WineDude


      Fredric – whoa! Thanks for that. Either it’s because I’ve set the previous bar too low, or I am improving (or both?)! Anyway, that means quite a bit to me coming from you, so now I’m about to go brag about it to my wife (because she knows what a great writer you are…). Cheers!

  • gabe


    Awesome post, and it sounds like a really amazing winery. Even their pricing has restraint! I'll put it on my short list of wineries to visit next time I'm in California.

    • 1WineDude


      Gabe – HA! Good point, hadn't thought about the prices but they are incredibly reasonable. Cheers!

  • MTGA Wines


    So cool to see you feature Stony Hill Joe! Probably the best bang for you buck when it comes to white wines in Napa… there are probably a chosen few who come close. The wines are always super reliable (old vintages and current releases). Any time folks are looking for off the beaten path producers this is one I consistently recommend.

    Great post!

  • Bob Henry


    Joe,

    Good to see that Stony Hill had made it on your radar screen.

    Last summer, a wine cellar reorganization client gave me a bottle of their 1976 and 1996 vintage Chardonnay. The former wine tasted profoundly more youthful than the latter wine. (A hallmark of the severe drought year 1976, which produced deeply flavored white wines and highly tannic red wines.)

    You can find an insightful profile of the winery in Roy Andries de Groot's book titled "The Wines of California, The Pacific Northwest & New Jersey" (Summit Books, copyright 1982, 463 pages).

    Book dedication:

    "To Joe Heitz and Fred McCrea
    two great winemakers
    who gave me a sense of the art and balance
    in the creation of wine
    and led me to the
    disciplined exhilaration of tasting"

    Pertinent editorial:

    Part Two: "The Best Wines of the Best Vineyards and Wineries."

    Chapter IV: "The Powerful Rich White Wines: Pinot Chardonnay (pp. 80-94).

    Part Four: "Profiles of the Classified Vineyards, Wineries and Winemakers"

    [no chapter number] "The Great Vineyards and Wineries: Stony Hill Vineyard on the Mountain Above the Napa Valley" (pp. 273-294).

    De Groot's book is still available from used book sellers online:
    http://www.amazon.com/Wines-California-Pacific-No

    Likewise Robert Benson's interview book titled "Great Winemakers of California" (Capra Press, copyright 1977, 303 pages), which profiles Stony Hill:
    http://www.amazon.com/Great-Winemakers-California

    ~~ Bob

  • Bob Henry


    Joe,

    Another long-lived, non-malolactic fermentation "artisanal" Chardonnay producer here in California is Kalin Cellars:
    http://www.kalincellars.com/toc.htm
    http://articles.latimes.com/print/2010/nov/18/foo
    http://www.sfgate.com/wine/article/Kalin-Cellars-

    Founded by Terry Leighton, Ph.D. — a retired professor of microbiology at U.C. Berkeley — who also holds the rare distinction of being an American who makes wine in Burgundy.

    Under the Kalin brand, Terry also makes sparkling wine, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

    And speaking of his Pinot Noir . . .

    Backgrounder: http://www.princeofpinot.com/winery/202/

    Excerpts from Robert M. Parker, Jr.’s The Wine Advocate (Issue 99, closing date 6-30-95):

    “American Pinot Noir Comes of Age"

    “Today, most of the finest Pinot Noirs, both in Burgundy and America, have been largely influenced by the great master, Henry Jayer. Although in semi-retirement, Jayer continues to be an inspiration for both Burgundy and New World Pinot Noir producers. . . .

    “In America, most of the finest Pinot Noirs are being made in Jayer’s style. I wish I could include the Domaine Leroy style. Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy’s burgundies are so profoundly rich and complex that she truly has no competition anywhere in the world, . . .

    “The bottom line is that American Pinot Noir has never been better. The top California and Oregon producers can compete with all but the two dozen or so of the Cote d’Or’s greatest red burgundies. . . . .”

    Kalin Cellars 1990 Pinot Noir Cuvee DD ( Sonoma ) 94 points

    ”I have rarely tasted as complex and profound a Pinot Noir as Kalin’s 1990 Pinot Noir Cuvee DD from Sonoma. Anyone who is familiar with the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti’s magnificent 1980 La Tache might want to try a bottle of Kalin’s Cuvee DD for comparison.

    “It possesses a huge fragrance of macerated prunes/plums, smoked meats, jammy raspberries and cherries, and loads of smoke and herb notes. The flavors are reminiscent of tea and smoked duck. The wine is full-bodied, with huge richness, great precision, and freshness, as well as a heady, spicy, lightly tannic finish. It should drink well for 10 – 15 years.

    “Years ago I remember tasting Kalin’s 1979 Pinot Noir Cuvee DD, which was a dead-ringer for one of the great grand crus of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Whatever the Leightons are doing with Pinot Noir, the 1990 is mind-boggling.”

    Excerpt from Robert M. Parker, Jr.’s The Wine Advocate (Issue 80, closing date 4-23-92)

    Domaine de la Romanee-Conti 1980 La Tache ( Burgundy ) 96 points

    “This wine offers further evidence of how spectacular many 1980 red burgundies have turned out. One of the great vintages for DRC, their 1980s even rival their spectacular 1978s and 1985s. The wine exhibits a dark garnet color, and a magnificent bouquet of herbs, smoked duck, black fruits, truffles, and minerals. In the mouth, it is expansive and super-rich, with all of its tannins having melted away. The result is a majestic drinking experience. Drink it over the next 4 – 5 years. “

    [Bob's aside: In the mid-1990s I used to go to Valentino restaurant in Santa Monica and — without even dining — buy the 1990 Kalin Cellars “Cuvee DD“ Pinot Noir off the wine list for $45, and take it home. Talk about "wine arbitrage" ! ) ]

    ~~ Bob

  • Bob Henry


    Joe,

    What these wines all have in common is:

    (1) decades-old "heritage clone" vines;
    (2) vineyards isolated from their neighbors and unaffected/minimally affected by phylloxera (hence no need to have replanted the vineyards in the 1990s — see link below on that subject);
    (2) low density planting;
    (3) minimal irrigation or "dry" farming (see link below on that subject);
    (4) small yields due to age;
    (5) vineyard managers who are good stewards of the land — and winemakers who are good stewards of the grapes delivered to them.

    We can't duplicate these "legacy" growing conditions with "heritage clones" today.

    And that is why we have "fruit bomb" — "Big Flavor — excessively extracted high alcohol wines coming from California.
    http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2014/03/california

    My advice? Buy older California wines at auction. Here's a "primer" for your readers:
    http://www.latimes.com/style/la-fo-wine23apr23,0,…

    ~ Bob

    • 1WineDude


      Bob – I understand your point, though not sure we can so quickly jump from one scenario to the other (fruit bombs). I mean, could SH make a fruit bomb if they wanted to do that? Probably, stylistically, going for higher extraction, etc.

  • Bob Henry


    Joe,

    When one recalls the California vintages of the 1970s and 1980s and pre-phylloxeria replanting of the 1990s, we never had "fruit bomb" wines — even though there were lots of opportunities (particularly in drought years).

    The wines were fully rope, but not over-ripe. The wines had acidity, and "normal" (12.5% to 13.5%) alcohol levels.

    Even the late-harvest Zinfandels from folks like Ridge and Mayacamas — with some naturally approaching Port levels of alcohol around 17+ percent — were still very balanced wines.

    I ascribe the reason to old vines vineyards and "heritage" clones that dIdn't lend themselves to "Big Flavor" wines.

    Here are three writers who can reminiscence about wines of that era:

    Dan Berger: http://www.vintageexperiences.com/pages/dans-cred

    Charles Olken: http://www.amazon.com/Charles-E.-Olken/e/B003VOFD

    Charlies Sullivan: http://www.amazon.com/Charles-L.-Sullivan/e/B001I

    ~~ Bob

    • 1WineDude


      Bob – I understand, I just think the logical leap is not totally complete. I.e., there are factors like global warming, stylistic critical preferences, etc., also playing roles there.

  • Bob Henry


    Erratum.

    The wines were fully RIPE, but not OVERLY-ripe. The wines had acidity, and "normal" (12.5% to 13.5%) alcohol levels.

  • Charlie Olken


    I have a cellarful of older Stony Hill wines, and if I can brag on your blog, Joe, I will recall my visit with Fred McCrea back in the 70s where, after tasting wines still waiting to be bottled, we lunched on Fred's homemade tuna sandwiches on his back porch.

    I am less concerned about '"so-called" fruit bomb wines, because they are invariably conflated with wines that have alcohols higher than what the inestimable Mr. Henry refers to as "normal". Chardonnays like David Ramey's, HdV, DuMol, Lewis and others are indeed riper now than they used to be, but they are still as high in acidity as those earlier wines and are much more complex.

    The replantings after the phylloxera problem certainly hastened a bunch of changes that were going to happen anyhow, but what they also did was change the vineyard schemes over to trellising systems designed to get more fruit ripe with regularity. That, plus better yeasts and climate change, are in my mind responsible for at least part of the increased ripeness we see. But so too is the realization that we can get balance and more flavor. The term "big flavor" is meant to be pejorative by its users. I wonder why small flavor is better. Please do not give me hamburgers or prime rib with small flavor.

    Balance and flavor are not mutually exclusive. And out of balance was then and is today still out of balance.

    • 1WineDude


      Brag away, Charlie! We are jealous! Great points, and I agree that the development (both the better and the worse) of NV wines over the years is probably more complex in terms of causes than most people might at first assume.

  • Bob Henry


    Charlie,

    I "second" Joe in thanking you for joining this discussion.

    The climate change we are experiencing s-l-o-w-l-y over decades (on average, a degree or two Fahrenheit increase at best) is not as severe as the weather California experienced in discrete drought years such as 1976. And yet . . . we didn't get "fruit bomb" wines.

    We have newer clones in our vineyards that may not be properly "sited" for their terroir. (Think "suitcase clone" Pinots planted in "un-Burgundian" warm climate regions of the state.)

    We have (as you stated) newer trellising and canopy management practices.

    We ripen our grapes to higher sugar levels before picking.

    We have new, more "efficient" cultured yeast strains that do a better job of converting those higher grape juice sugars into alcohol.

    And we drip irrigate our vineyards in response to water conservation measures and a history of drought conditions.

    All of which produce more extracted wines than in the 1970s and 1980s.

    And I assert too often resulting in less "balanced" wines. (Not an across-the-board declarative statement. I have enjoyed many California wines that clock in at higher alcohol levels.)

    I invite anyone to seek out (say) the 1984 Caymus "Special Selection" Cabernet Sauvignon and taste it.

    It has everything a Cab enthusiast could ask for — ripeness, aromatics and bouquet, supple tannins and a caressing mouthfeel, with no hint of "heat" in the finish.

    That's my "benchmark" for a great Napa Valley wine. Superb in its youth and old age.

    How many contemporary wines can boast this style?

    ~~ Bob

    ("inestimable" ? I'm not worthy . . .!)

  • Charlie Olken


    Bob–Sadly, the recent Caymus Spec Selections are the poster children for over the top winemaking.

    But, one does not need to match that wine in its specifics in order to find great, balanced Cabs from Napa. It has become de riguer to quote Corison and Spottswoode in these conversations, but I would suggest that wines like Trefethen's Halo, Chappellet PHEV, Shafer Hillside, all running a point or so higher in alc than most of the top wines of the 80s, are nevertheless balanced, deep and successful.

    I would not disagree that there are NV Cabs and other CA wines that have gone beyond my preference levels in ripeness. But that is measured in desiccated grape character and by so much glycerin that the wine has lost its grip and is now "slippery" on the palate.

    And this trend, while more obvious now, is not all that different from the OTT Zins of the mid-70s. I'm not sure you know Tom Hill, one of the more frequent commenters on blogs and in chat rooms and boards, who keeps reminding me that we at CGCW once said of the overripe Zins of the late 70s, "Wines with bad table manners".

    Finally, underripe, green wines, of which we have seen an increase in the last few years, are also not my cup of tannin either. "Balance" may be an overused word, and we each have our own sense of what that means, but, for me, it has to do with a wine's central character, and when excess ripeness or underripeness rob the wine of that character, I lose interest in it. Obviously, high alcohol, overreaching acidity, flat and sugary wines and the like also qualify–as they have always done.

  • Charlie Olken


    Bad editing. The wine not needed to be matched to find great wine is the 84 Caymus SS reference by Mr. Henry.

  • Bob Henry


    Charlie,

    I haven't sampled a Caymus "S.S." in at least 10 vintages, so I can't speak to the current drinking experience. But those 1980s wines were magnificent. And as I stated above, a "benchmark" that others would be wise to follow.

    I know Tom Hill indirectly through his comments posted on Steve Heimoff's wine blog, his tasting notes found at http://www.sbwines.com/trh/, and what little I have learned online regarding his "day job" at the Lab.

    Over the top Zinfandels from the mid-1970s weren't the types of wines my tasting group and I were drinking in the 1980s. We quaffed Ridge single vineyard designates that showed Paul Draper's guiding hand of restraint. (And in the 1990s we chose restrained Zins from Rafanelli and Ravenswood single vineyard designates.)

    About 10 years ago, I participated in a complete vertical tasting dinner of Shafer "Hillside" Cabs, moderated by John Shafer who flew into Los Angeles for the event. I liked those wines ("vote of my wallet": I was on the mailing list). But I have found the recent releases a little too ripe, and a little heavy-handed on the new oak barrel vanillin as a flavoring element.

    For my palate, I find the contemporary "red Meritage" wines of California deliver a more satisfying drinking experience than the 100% Cabernet Sauvignons. The act of blending gives winemakers "permission" to "dial it back" on the extraction levels and aim for a more "balanced," nuanced and elegant wine.

    (In keeping with my affinity for Cheval Blanc as the standard bearer red Bordeaux, which has only a low single digit percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. Suggesting that Cabernet Franc may be the world's most neglected "noble" red grape variety.)

    As always, good to hear from the "dean of California wine reviewers."

  • Bob Henry


    Let's give the readers a better link to Tom's tasting notes:
    http://www.sbwines.com/trh/

    Shout it out loud! By leaving a comment on 1WineDude, you accept the fact that you totally rock, and possess excessive amounts of intelligence and good looks. You also agree not to be a douchebag (we love debate here, but we don't tolerate attacks), and to use your superpowers for good.

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