If this little winery seems to buck the trends of today, consider this: there might have never been a day when Napa Valley wasn’t ruled by trends. In the 1940s, one of the most popular grapes was Riesling. Chardonnay was experimental. Fred and Eleanor McCrea bought their property in 1943, high above the east side of the valley on a narrow road that winds through oak woodland. Consummate urbanites, they stayed in San Francisco much of the time, and built their house in 1957. Advisers from UC Davis told them, “Under no circumstances plant Chardonnay.” So they planted Chardonnay.
Among a dozen or so wineries in the valley at the time, Stony Hill is mentioned several times in a recent book about the early days of the wine boom, David Darlington’s An Ideal Wine. Then-budding winemaker John Kongsgaard remembers his epiphany during a visit with Fred McCrea: “Elbow propped on his fireplace mantel, holding a glass of Chardonnay while listening to Parsifal, the younger man said to himself, ‘I want this guy’s life!'”
Today, Peter and Willinda McCrea continue the family business, with winemaker Mike Chelini, who lives just down the road and has held that job since 1971. The tiny cellar holds barrels that look like they’ve had a similar stay, although a barrel sample of the 2011 Chardonnay shows a youthful verve of lychee and grapefruit, and a searing acidity that won’t be tamed soon—the house style forbids malolactic fermentation, and aims for the angular style of Chablis that Fred McCrea held dear.
Tastings are held in a capacious, flagstone-studded, Eisenhower-era (or Mad Men-era, for our readers from TV Land) living room. The 2009 Stony Hill Chardonnay ($42) has floral and vintage sparkling aromas, lychee flavor and a crisp finish; the 2010 White Riesling ($27) has subtle, powdered sugar, pear cotlet aromas, and is said to gain complexity with age. Some of the original vines planted in 1948 survive, and it’s labeled “White” Riesling because that once distinguished it from Gray Riesling, a more productive grape that filled untold gallons of “Rhine Wine.”
The 2010 Gewürztraminer ($24) has spicy aromas of jasmine, pineapple and finishes absolutely dry; the 2009 Semillon de Soleil ($30) was dried on prune trays to concentrate the sugar, but is rather restrained for a dessert wine, with light, honeyed apricot flavor, like a well-made mead. For red wine drinkers, there’s a red blend and a nice Syrah from a half-acre in front of the house, too—if just to buck the trend.
Stony Hill Vineyard, St. Helena. Tours and tastings by appointment, Monday through Friday, weekends when available. $25 per person, refunded with purchase. 707.963.2636.