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Stony Hill Vineyard: A Napa Chardonnay Pioneer

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Mike in Cellar 2 photo by Alex RubinMike Chelini in Stony Hill Cellar    photo by Alex Rubin

By Dan Clarke

Fred and Eleanor McCrea planted Chardonnay at their weekend retreat in 1947.

This alone would qualify Stony Hill Vineyard for a special mention in Napa Valley history books.

However, it’s not just that the McCreas were early adopters of the grape that has since become California’s most-planted varietal. What’s more remarkable is the history of extraordinary wines this vineyard has produced.

Though he wasn’t there at the beginning, Mike Chelini has an enviable record of longevity, too. He had worked a couple of years with Ric Forman at Sterling Vineyards when Fred McCrea hired him to manage the vineyard at Stony Hill in 1972. Mike has never left.

Chelini has taken courses in the viticulture and enology departments of Fresno State and UC Davis, but wasn’t an experienced winemaker when he arrived at Stony Hill. But then neither was Fred McCrea, the man who would become his mentor. McCrea’s style was minimalist. Grapes were picked at moderate sugar levels and good acidity and oak wasn’t allowed to become too much a factor in the winemaking process. The resultant wines garnered a reputation for developing in the bottle and lasting a long time. After assisting with the winemaking chores for several years, Mike assumed the role of winemaker at the time of Fred’s death in 1977. The winemaking style has not varied.

Stony Hill is west of Highway 29 about halfway between St. Helena and Calistoga. It is in the Spring Mountain District AVA (American Viticultural Area), which, while technically part of the larger Napa Valley AVA, is more mountainous than it is valley floor, with separate vineyard parcels ranging from 800 to 1500-feet in elevation.

In 1947 Fred McCrea had planted Chardonnay because of his fondness for the white wines of Burgundy. At the suggestion of UC Davis, he also planted some Pinot Blanc, White Riesling and Gewürztraminer in the year following.

Chelini and Alejandro PicmonkeyMike and vineyard foreman Alejandro Salomon amid Chardonnay vines high above the Napa ValleyAlex Rubin photoMinor additions and subtractions to the vineyards were frequent though the years. In 1973 the Pinot Blanc was pulled to allow planting of more Chardonnay. Chelini says that about a decade later the huge old Chardonnay vines from Fred McCrea’s original planting were still providing him with beautiful fruit, but were increasingly subject to various age-related problems. They were old and had to go. So in 1986 the original Chardonnay vines planted in 1947 were pulled and replaced.

At present there are 36 producing vineyard acres at Stony Hill with the largest segment devoted to Chardonnay, all of which is from the Wente clone.

But for a couple times when a little water was applied to help new vines get started, Stony Hill has always been dry-farmed. Production is less than from vineyards on the Valley floor deliver, but the fruit quality is outstanding. “Our yields are very small,” Chelini explains. “We probably average two tons per acre, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less.”

Chelini says that there was a Chardonnay block at the top of the property had been producing grapes exhibiting more tropical fruit qualities than he liked. That Chardonnay was removed in favor of red grapes in 2004. Mike and his wife Kathy had visited Montalcino on a trip to Italy and noticed red soil similar to this part of the Stony Hill property in the Napa Valley. Could Stony Hill have made a beautiful Brunello-like wine from Sangiovese Grosso grapes? Well, it might have been able to do so, but “in Napa, Cab is king,” as the saying goes, so that vineyard is now planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Though a departure for this estate that’s always been known as a white wine specialist, the introduction of Cabernet has proven to be a successful move.

Stony Hill remains a small operation, producing about 5,000 cases of wine per year, much of which goes directly to customers on their mailing list. It is still family-owned. Sarah McCrea, granddaughter of Fred and Eleanor, now serves as President of Stony Hill Vineyard and another family member, Alex McCrea, is the winery’s Hospitality Manager.

The business is family-like in a larger sense, too. Winemaker Mike Chelini and his wife Kathy actually moved to the Stony Hill property in 1970 when he was working for Sterling. They have raised their children at Stony Hill. Daughter Missy Gott teaches first grade at St. Helena Primary School. Misha Chelini works in sales for Buehler Vineyards and is married to a man named Scott Harvey (not the winemaker by that same name, but the owner of Urban Wine Brokers, which represents Stony Hill in the marketplace). Mike and Kathy’s son, Americo, better known as Rico, is a recent graduate of Cal Poly’s enology program, who has embarked on a career as a consulting winemaker and already has already secured Andretti Winery as his first client. He is also making a Carneros Pinot Noir for his own label, A.D. Chelini. Rico and his wife Lindsey are partners in the Back Door Bistro and Wine Bar in Vacaville.

The 68-year old Mike Chelini is generally acknowledged as the longest serving winemaker in the Napa Valley. He has seen a lot in his time. Customer preferences change and winemaking styles change, too. Whether promoted by winewriters or merely reported on by them, there has been a trend toward a “more is better/bigger is better” philosophy—a development Chelini decries. Recent years have seen softer, higher alcohol wines that pander to “instant gratification,” in his view. Grapes picked at higher pHs and lower acidities may mean wines that have customer appeal in their youth, but are less likely to stand the test of time.

Mike plans to keep on growing grapes and making wine just the way Stony Hill has always done. After all, it’s a formula that has worked for 65 years.

 

Editor’s note: More about Stony Hill can be found at www.stonyhillvineyard.com. If you’re planning a visit to Napa Wine Country, you may want to first visit the North Coast listings in Taste California Travel’s Resource Directory. There you will find links to winery websites, as well as links to the site of hundreds of Lodging and Dining options.