“We make a red wine.”
Normally that’s not the sort of statement that raises an eyebrow in Napa Valley. But when one vintner told me that at dinner one night last week, I had to taste it for myself.
The vintner in question was Peter McCrea who owns Stony Hill. While most Chardonnay in the region receives lavish oak treatments and has high alcohol levels, Stony Hill Chardonnay is aged in 40-year-old (and therefore neutral) barrels and has 13 percent alcohol. His other two wines, a Gewurztraminer and a Riesling, roll in at 11.24 and 11.65 percent alcohol respectively. And at $21 a bottle, the wines stood out for another reason from the Napa wines.
Not your average California whites. Which is why I jumped in a car with another wine writer and drove up to the winery the next day in pursuit of the red nobody has ever tasted outside of the winery: Stony Hill Syrah.
The clouds hung low across the valley as we approached the driveway. It was drizzling on the leafless manzanilla trees, covered in green lichen. The driveway twisted and turned for two miles, first through the woods but as we climbed, rows of vines punctuated the forest, which had become dominated by evergreens.
The small winery lies 600 feet above the valley tucked into the forest. In the 1950s, the McCreas cleared an area to build a swimming pool and used some of that wood to build the winery. Many barrel rooms today are built for show as well as function but this rustic room housed only a few dozen barrels in a decidedly un-showy manner. Honestly, one of the barrels stamped “Diener & Roth, Stuttgart” looked as if it had traversed the seven seas and barely lived to tell the tale.
“So do you ever get new barrels?” I asked Peter.
“Yeah, when one gets a hole in it,” he deadpanned. Or perhaps he was being serious as some of the barrels are over 40 years old.
We wandered back to the house where his parents had lived. Apparently there’s a commanding view of the valley from the deck but we weren’t able to see it with the drizzle. Peter and his wife, Willinda, had decamped for the town of St. Helena some years ago and the house on the hillside was mainly for receiving visitors. It was very neat and clean yet not updated, kind of like my grandmother’s lake house before she died and the house was sold and torn down with a mega-mansion put up in its place. I had the feeling the same thing could easily befall this place someday.
Some other wine writers form the conference joined up with us as we started the tasting. First was the Gewurztraminer 2006, which has only a whiff of the grape’s characteristic spice and is a lean, non-Alsatian rendering with notes of lychee and pear. (By the way, I later saw this wine available at Taylor’s Refresher—yes, I went to the location in the Ferry Building—and thought how I’d like to try it with the fish tacos.) The 2006 White Riesling was up next and is, according to Peter, “bone-dry.” It has a big attack with good minerality and a pleasant finish.
The Chardonnay is the most planted grape in the vineyards. And the resulting wine, vintage 2005, was most un-Californian, with no malolactic fermentation to make it creamy and no new oak barrels to make it butterscotchy. It was straight up Chardonnay, unadorned, expressive of the grape and the place with the sprightly acidity of green apple and quite a persistent finish. At the dinner the previous evening I had picked the wine out of a lineup of three Napa chardonnays simply by the aroma because it is so distinctive. I’d like to try it in a lineup of Chablis. I’d also love to see how the wines age but unfortunately the winery has no more library wines so post a comment with your experience if you’ve tried a Stony Hill with some age on it.
Just for laffs, I asked Peter if he ever thought about converting to the creamy, coconutty style of chardonnay. He said “our 2,500 mailing list members would go batshit if we did!” Indeed. Consistency is assured thanks to the old vines and the fact that Mike Chelini has been making the wines since 1971.
So what about the elusive Stony Hill Syrah? We had to jog Peter’s memory about his pledge from the previous evening but Mary, who runs the office, ducked out and returned with the fabled bottle. There’s a small vineyard by the garden that was once planted with Zinfandel and about five years ago was replanted to Syrah. The wine is just for consumption at the winery and at the McCrea home. It’s only 13 percent alcohol, light in color and an attractive wine, highly gulpable. It lacked the depth of, say, a good St. Joseph. But if you were to expect a red wine from Stony Hill, this is what it would be.
Peter let slip that they actually have a five-acre bloc of Cabernet Sauvignon in their highest vineyard. They sell those grapes today but maybe one day we could try a Stony Hill Cab—even more elusive than the Syrah.
If you want to visit Stony Hill, make an appointment for M – F 9 – 5 at 707.963.2636.
Skinflints unite: not only are the wines affordable but the web site says the tastings and visits will always be free! StonyHillVineyard.com
The whites are available at retail as well as the winery.
Search for the Stony Hill Chardonnay, Stony Hill Riesling, or Stony Hill Gewurztraminer
Some more shots: