California Chardonnay Shines as Stony Hill Turns 60

Sarah McCrea and Peter McCrea
Sarah McCrea and her father Peter, proprietors of the Napa Valley's Stony Hill Vineyards, at a 60th anniversary tasting at Corkbuzz Wine Studio. McCrea's parents bought the property in 1943, and the winery's long history specializing in chardonnay began with its first vintage, 1952. Photographer: Elin McCoy/Bloomberg

When Peter McCrea’s parents paid $7,500 in 1943 for an old goat farm on Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain, it came with a house, a barn, a cottage, and three chicken coops. The chardonnay vines arrived four years later.

The rest, as they say, is history. Their Stony Hill Vineyard is one of California’s oldest great wineries.

At a 60th anniversary of the winery’s first vintage, held at New York’s Corkbuzz Wine Studio, a dozen chardonnay bottlings spanning four decades quash any lingering doubts about their quality and ageability.

In contrast to the buttery, oaky, alcoholic style that has largely defined California chardonnay, Stony Hill’s wines are delicate and tightly wound, almost Chablis-like when young.

That can fool you, because the wines gain weight and complexity with age. The 1973 (then labeled pinot chardonnay), is amazingly alive, pure, vibrant, stunning.

Over the past thirty years, as other wineries kept cranking up an over-the-top chardonnay formula, Stony Hill’s modus operandi was all about saying no: no to new oak barrels, no to the latest technique, no to a fancy winery, no to an updated label. After all, why mess up a good thing?

Terroir, Balance

“Terroir and balance are what it’s really all about,” says McCrea, a former vice president of Chevron who, with his wife Willinda, took over after his mother’s death in 1991.

As bottles chill on ice behind the bar, the bespectacled McCrea, his daughter Sarah, and Mike Chelini, winemaker since 1973, settle on stools to reminisce.

It’s hard to picture a more bucolic Napa Valley, with only 10 wineries and no Ferraris, as it was when Fred and Eleanor McCrea bought the 160-acre property as a weekend retreat. Only 200 acres of chardonnay existed in the entire state. (The number now is nearly 100,000.)

Viticultural experts at the University of California at Davis warned that planting disease-prone chardonnay was risky, so Fred McCrea put in riesling, gewurztraminer, and pinot blanc, too.

But he kept 25 of the 40 acres of rocky volcanic soil, at elevations up to 1,200 feet, for chardonnay. “My dad was inspired by great white Burgundy,” McCrea recalls.

Budwood Clone

The McCreas cut budwood from the Wente Vineyards in Livermore Valley. The so-called “Wente” clone, imported from France in 1912, populated the state’s early vineyards.

Stony Hill’s first vintage, 1952, sold via letters to friends for $23.40 a case, including delivery. Today, half of its annual production of 2,500 cases of chardonnay ($40 a bottle) is still sold the same way.

America’s chardonnay boom only started after the 1976 Judgment of Paris Tasting, in which Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena beat out famous French white Burgundies. Vintners scrambled to plant. Now the most popular varietal in the U.S., Chardonnay accounts for a quarter of all California wine sold.

Over the years, styles have been a work in progress. The long disaster era of oaky, plumped-up, buttered popcorn-and vanilla-tasting chardonnay eventually drew a backlash.

What followed were unoaked, “naked” chardonnays aged in stainless steel, many so boring they are indistinguishable from one another.

Happily, in a recent redemptive turn, thoughtful producers have come back to the kind of balance Stony Hill had all along.

Perfect Grapes

As we sample the wines, Chelini ticks off why they taste the way they do. Location counts, of course. “Ours is an unforgiving style,” he says. “You have to pick at the right time and have perfect grapes.”

Unlike most wineries he avoids malolactic fermentation, a winemaking step that softens acids, makes wines round at the expense of crispness, and imparts a fat, buttery character.

At Corkbuzz, we taste from youngest to oldest to see how the floral, stony character unfolds at 10 years with notes of earth, citrus and baked apple and at 20 to deeper flavors of nuts, caramel, and orange.

High points include the ripe 1999, with its tangy lemon custard and dusty earth flavor. Long, citrusy 1984 is perfect right now, while 1981, one of my favorites, has stunning complexity. The 1977, from a drought year, is burnished, mellow, rich. The fruit-filled 2007, the current release ($40), already shows depth and minerality.

Cult Cabernets

Luckily, older vintages can be had both at auction and retail. At a May Bonhams sale in New York, lots of 12 vintages sold for $654 to $1785 ($43 to $150 a bottle). In comparison to the inflated prices of Napa’s current cult cabernets, these seem amazingly modest.

I ask McCrea how Stony Hill has resisted fashion and kept to the same style for all these years.

He chuckles. “It’s fabulous discipline to have a mailing list of a couple of thousand people who want you to keep making wine exactly the same way.”

But the McCreas -- and winemaker Chelini -- aren’t totally stuck in the past. Their first cabernet, a lean, smoky red with olive and cherry notes ($60) just debuted. And the vines are only five years old.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include an Elizabeth Lopatto book review and Richard Vines on dining.

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