Stony Hill goes red

  • Winemaker Mike Chelini uses a thief to sample wine in the barrel room of Stony Point Winery in St. Helena. Chelini has been the wine maker for 40 years. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

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.

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