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Stony Hill goes red


The venerable Stony Hill is one of the Napa Valley's earliest wineries, established in 1943 with vineyards planted on a ridge astride Spring Mountain just north of St. Helena.

In 1952, the founders, Fred and Eleanor

McCrea, added a commercial winery to their hillside property, a home for Fred to make chardonnay, riesling, gew?rztraminer and semillon. It was built by Congressman Mike Thompson's father, Charles Edward Thompson, and the wooden winery doors were hand-carved by Fred McCrea.

The McCreas were among the first growers in California to plant chardonnay after Prohibition ended (in 1933), on east-facing slopes between 400 and 800 feet in elevation on the valley's western side, not far from the Bale Grist Mill.

They quickly earned a reputation for making delightfully balanced, elegant, lightly oaked, food-friendly white wines amidst a growing tide of big Napa cabernet sauvignons and merlots.

They've survived through it all by adhering to the notion that slow and steady can win the race, picking grapes based on acidity and pH and selling their wines mostly by mailing list.

Part of Stony Hill's slow and steady signature has been a lack of oak during fermentation, particularly new oak, which imparts stronger flavors to wines than neutral, or used, oak. Many have likened Stony Hill chardonnay to Chablis.

"Fred McCrea loved Burgundy, and he planted chardonnay and tasted the wine and it tasted pretty good by itself," Stony Hill winemaker Mike Chelini recalled. "He was sort of frugal to start with, and he didn't want to spend a lot of money on barrels but even then, in 1952, French barrels weren't available."

Still, the family wasn't opposed to change. Last year, in time for its 60th anniversary, Stony Hill released its first red wine, a 2009 cabernet sauvignon, intended to show off the property's light touch with Napa's most famous grape.

On the eastern slopes of the Mayacmas mountain range, Spring Mountain is a natural for cabernet, and Stony Hill was long an exception in producing only white wines. Marked by a swirl of volcanic and sedimentary well-drained soils, varying exposures to the sun and a range of altitudes, it's a place where grapes struggle for water, nutrients and sunlight. Spring Mountain cabernet is known for its soft tannins, nuanced acidity and rich flavors, produced by such well-respected names as Cain Vineyard and Winery, Keenan Winery, Terra Valentine and Pride Mountain.

Stony Hill's 10 acres of cab, planted in 2004 in volcanic soils, is on west-facing slopes fairly high up on the property, just below Smith Madrone Vineyards. It has enviable structure and acidity and is marked by a sense of restraint, just like the winery's whites.

Its earthy leanings would appeal to lovers of lighter reds like pinot noir, picked before the fruit gets overripe and the tannins too intense.

The McCreas' son, Peter, has headed up Stony Hill since his parents' death, with his wife, Willinda, and daughter, Sarah, helping out. But the consistency of the wines over all these decades is very much due to Chelini, who is celebrating 40 years at the helm this year.

"It's just so expensive to put a lot of oak in the wine," he noted. "But it's definitely more challenging (not using oak). You taste any little flaw you might have had in the vineyard that oak can mask or enhance. It's all timing. You have to have very clean fruit."

For the cabernet sauvignon, Chelini is adhering to his longtime minimal-oak philosophy, employing only 30 percent new oak barrels for aging about half of the wine, and leaving it in barrel for 18 months at a time.

"A little oak enhances the wine," he said. "We like our wines to be food wines, and chefs happen to love our wines, as do foodies. We provide consistency and integrity."

Peter McCrea calls it a wine his parents would have appreciated, old-fashioned at a low 13 or 13.5 percent alcohol, drinkable when young but sturdy enough to age. It's a time capsule back to the kind of Napa cabs people were making in the 1960s and 1970s, with hints of green olive, black cherry and cocoa.

Only 250 cases of cab were made (Stony Hill's overall production is about 3,500 cases a year), and the wine is priced at $60, modest by Napa Valley standards.

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at virginieboone@yahoo.com and followed on Twitter @vboone.