The Inveterate Stony Hill Vineyards
Wine: Stony Hill Vineyards
Region: Spring Mountain, Napa Valley
Grapes: Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon
Vines: Napa Green Certified, Dry-Farmed
Production: Small - 4,000 case annual production
I met Stony Hill president Sarah McCrea for dinner at Doris Metropolitan in the French Quarter about two months ago. The final presidential debate was on television and we both admitted to feeling somewhat relieved for the excuse not to watch. Our tasting/dinner was arranged by Jarvis Communications so that I could experience a few of the wines for review on Pig&Vine. Sarah and I had never met, and embarrassingly, I'd never met Stony Hill. If I have, I'd blocked it out, such was my attitude toward California wine. Until recently. Either the "New California" winemaking is more to my liking, or I was won over by tromps through the Rockpile AVA and stomping verdelho in Calaveras County this past summer, or reaching 40 has made me a far more agreeable human. It's likely a healthy mix of all. In any case, asking a few wine pros about the estate revealed that I had indeed been missing out.
To be clear, Stony Hill is not "New California." They are 110% old school, retro without irony, authentic without pretense.
At dinner, conversation flowed easily and we agreed quickly on a few small plates for sharing that turned out to be excellent pairings with the four wines Sarah brought with her. The riesling went perfectly with a cured snapper bruschetta topped with fennel and thinly shaved jalapeño, a 2008 chardonnay was dreamy (not hyperbole) with seared sweetbreads and truffle oil, and the cabernet sauvignon complemented well the lamb chops with a chickpea-tahini yogurt business. Of coursed these were coursed out over what extended into a four-hour affair, ending with Doris somm, Buck Williams, joining us to taste through the wines. He later returned with a bottle of Dauvissat Chablis Séchet. Or was it Raveneau Vaillons? And later still, there were several lovely cru Burgundies from top estates passed around that I didn't have the presence to jot down and have no mind for details to recall today. Not like that's an important skill for a wine writer...
Stony Hill Vineyards, Spring Mountain, Napa
Sarah's grandparents, Eleanor and Fred McCrea, planted vines in 1948 and celebrated the first harvest in 1952. The vineyards are planted on a narrow strip of Spring Mountain, before it was Spring Mountain AVA, and nestled between protected State Park, which it also pre-dates. Actually, you could argue that Stony Hill was around before Napa was Napa, before it was rich and famous Napa. Most interesting of all, they planted white grape varieties. Today, in the heart of Cab Land, the majority of their small production is still white. The McCreas loved white Burgundy, so that's what they set out to grow.
They have no vineyard neighbors, which means low to zero risk of vine disease. It also means there's no worry over chemical spray or seepage from other vineyards or crops. They vineyards are all dry-farmed and Napa Green certified. They're roughly 200-300 feet above the fog line, protecting them from excessive moisture and mildew. All the vineyards, except for the cabernet, are planted on northeast facing slopes. Typically you hear about southwest facing slopes, because those are generally preferred for ideal sun exposure. But in this case, the vines, planted at 800-1500 feet about sea level, better appreciate the morning sun. And as the afternoon rolls around, so does shade from the forested sidelines, giving ample opportunity for grapes to cool and retain their acidity. These are not your typical Cali flavors, but they are exactly what you'd expect from these vineyards; you can taste the place.
Winegrower Mike Chelini took over for Fred when he passed in 1977, and has been crafting the wines ever since. He's about as old school as they come, from what I hear. He has no cell phone and no email address. Bravo. Levi Dalton did a great episode with Mike Chelini on his podcast "I'll Drink to That" a few years ago, if you'd like to hear more about his story and philosophy on winemaking.
Stony Hill White Riesling 2014
If the labels aren't reflective of yesteryear, what's listed on them certainly is. "What is white riesling?" I asked Sarah. She explained that in the late 1970s there was a grape known as grey riesling planted throughout California, so a distinction was necessary. Grey riesling turned out to be trousseau gris, cousin to the trousseau (noir) of Savoie-Jura. White riesling is the riesling we know and love, like all those Alsatian beauties I wrote about last month.
Floral and near-ripe stone fruit aromas give way to white peach and mineral notes on the palate. It finishes off-off-dry with less than 1% residual sugar. It was beautiful with the snapper crudo and expressed itself well against the spice of raw jalapeño. Buy it from the winery or find it on Wine-Searcher. Averages $30 per bottle.
Stony Hill Chardonnay 2008 & 2014
We had two chardonnays that evening, the current release 2014 and the 2008, which is definitely worth seeking out if you can find it (maybe at the winery?). If not, buy extra bottles of the current vintage so you can lay some down. This is what The Hill is all about.
Remember I said the McCreas loved of white Burgundy? The thing most lovers of that category hold close is the wine's ability to age, and what it becomes when treated well. Those ripe apple and pear notes mellow into sultry tunes with subtle hints of nutty deliciousness and a richness that warms the soul. Still plenty of acidity with a long finish. The 2008 was unbelievably decadent and life affirming paired with the sweet breads.
The 2014 is clear and crisp with no malo and no lees aging. Neither malo, new oak nor lees aging is rare for the West Coast and Burgundy proper. "For us, it's the appropriate thing to do with the fruit we have," Sarah said. "Old vines, up on the mountain." The chard vines are planted at about 1,200 feet above sea level. Buy chardonnay from the winery or find it on Wine-Searcher. About $48 and $58 per bottle respectively.
Stony Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Let me prepare you properly by saying, cabernet is never my go to. I can't remember the last time I said, You know, I'd really love a cab tonight. Probably as long ago as when I said, You know, I think I would like that little house with the white picket fence, briefcase toting husband and 2.5 children. Which was never.
But this cabernet has changed everything. Well, the cabernet part anyway. I've most certainly passed on the husband and 2.5 offspring. It was great with the lamb chops, but as we lingered at the table, I caught myself going back again and again for just a wee bit more cab. At one point I thought, Who am I?! Amy C. Collins, that's who! And this bright, gorgeous beauty with delicate aromas of raspberry and cranberry and soft texture should be the new paradigm for mountain grown cab sav.
It's a newcomer to the white wine portfolio at Stony Hill, with the first vintage in 2009, after 60 plus years of white wine only. The vines are planted on the summit and over the southwest face where it gets all the best sun to make ripe, balanced wines. About 420 cases are made annually. On day two - Sarah sent me home with the leftovers - the cab showed more earth and tobacco, and all four wines drank deliciously.
A HUGE thank you to Sarah McCrea, Stony Hill and Jarvis for this opportunity and stellar evening.