Sommelier-beloved Chardonnay with a valley-view chaser.
Oaks, Douglas firs, and other trees line the narrow road north of downtown St. Helena that winds west from Highway 29 through parts of two state parks up to Stony Hill Vineyard. Fred and Eleanor McCrea, who purchased this former goat farm on the eastern slope of Spring Mountain during World War II, first planted grapes here in 1948.
Most of the vineyard blocks face north or east. During the summer, shade from the mountain comes early in the afternoon in some spots, making the setting a natural for the cultivation of white grapes like Chardonnay, Riesling (shown in lead photo), and Gerwürztraminer. Some Riesling vines planted in the 1940s, now thick and gnarly, continue to produce grapes for Stony Hill’s refreshing White Riesling.
Old World, Low Tech
As good as the White Riesling is, Stony Hill’s mineral-driven, sommelier-beloved Chardonnay sealed the winery’s reputation. Fred McCrea and, from 1977 through 2018, his successor, Mike Chelini, crafted these two whites, plus Gewürztraminer and a Semillon dessert wine, in a small, atmospheric winery equipped with oak barrels dating back to the 1960s. A peek into the old winery, nestled under oaks and redwoods and a space that seems more like a home for a gnome than a wine-production facility, is a highlight of Stony Hill’s easygoing tours.
Overseeing the wines starting with the 2019 vintage is Stéphane Vivier, brought on board the year after the Napa Valley–based Long Meadow Ranch purchased Stony Hill. The French-born Vivier, who also makes the wines for Long Meadow Ranch’s Anderson Valley estate in Mendocino County, describes himself as a New World winemaker with an Old World sensibility. This dual perspective should serve him well as he initiates infrastructure upgrades to complement the low-tech processes that make Stony Hill wines so unique.
In good weather, a tasting on a stone terrace with views east across the Napa Valley to Howell Mountain follows the tour. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, the sessions move indoors to the ranch-style residence the McCreas built in the 1950s, when the Napa Valley of today was only beginning to coalesce. Tastings often include an older Chardonnay in addition to the current release. Many guests are surprised to learn – and taste – how well Stony Hill’s white wines age.
Tip: Syrah is among the reds made here over the years, with Cabernet Sauvignon a 21st-century addition. The Cabernet is made in a lighter style than many of its Napa peers.
Why go: ageworthy whites; easygoing tour; peek into old winery; Spring Mountain setting.
Stony Hill Vineyard appears in 3 Historic Napa Valley Wineries Day Trip.