Napa Diary Day 6: Stony Hill – from Chardonnay to Cabernet

It’s all change at Stony Hill, an icon in Napa Valley for its early production of Chardonnay. Fred and Eleanor McCrea purchased the property in 1943 and planted their first Chardonnay in 1947. The first vintage, produced in a lean style without malolactic fermentation, was 1952. Even today, after a half century of changes in fashion, it remains one of Napa Valley’s best-known Chardonnays. although its style lives up to the name of the winery, stony and lean, the antithesis of the caricature of rich, fat, buttery Chardonnay that more often typifies Napa. “Fred’s objective  was to produce Chardonnay that would do well after ten years,” says Laurie Taboulet, the estate manager since Gaylon Lawrence bought the estate in 2020. Jamie Motley came as winemaker from Pax Mahle.

The address on St. Helena Highway North is deceptive. The estate is actually an enclave within the Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park (the winery was founded before the park), several miles up a steep, twisting road to the winery, which at 800 ft elevation is in the center of the vineyards, which rise up to 1500 ft, all above the fog line. This may not be the most isolated winery in Napa Valley, but it’s certainly a contender. Soils have more clay around the winery, and become volcanic and quite ferrous as indicated by a redder color as you go up to the top. The woods were burned by the Glass Fire but the vineyards escaped.

The winery was originally built as a house for the McRea’s in 1952.

Long time winemaker Mike Chelini used short elevage and the wine was bottled the June after harvest. Wine was aged only in used barriques, and MLF was blocked. Jamie plans to use longer elevage and to age wines in a mix of demi-muids and foudres of Austrian oak from Stockinger, as well as some cement. New oak will remain light, but may be a bit higher during the transition period.

The style of the Chardonnay is distinctly reserved, more stony than mineral. The herbal edge of young vintages gives an impression of austerity. There isn’t much development in the first couple of years, but after about six years the style opens out, and the herbal character of young vintages segues into a sense of garrigue, releasing more mature flavors inclined towards a citrus spectrum, with a delicious delicacy. This for me is the peak. Flavor intensifies and the palate becomes more viscous for another few years, until the wine begins to tire.

The Cabernet Sauvignon (either 100% varietal or close to it) is an eye opener, one of the very few Cabernets in Napa where I might hesitate in a blind tasting as to whether its origins were New World or European. The first year was 2009. Even a young vintage such as 2017 shows a distinctly restrained style, silky and elegant (if I wanted to compare with Bordeaux, St. Julien would come to mind). Ten years after the vintage, the style of the 2010 shows the tension of mountain tannins without the aggression that characterizes many mountain Cabernets. These are very much food wines, and left me persuaded that Stony Hill has the potential to produce Cabernets that will rival its reputation of Chardonnay.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting Notes of a Chardonnay Vertical

2018 
Stony with austere impressions on palate. Very dry impression with just a faint lift at end. Flavor variety hasn’t started to develop yet, but there’s a sense of a coiled spring waiting to unwind. 13.5%   91 Drink -2030

2017 
Palate hasn’t really started to develop yet, acidity melds into hints of piquancy as it opens in the glass. The austere stony character really lives up to the name of the vineyard. A slightly nutty aftertaste promises complexity to come. 13.5%    92 Drink -2030

2015 
Fresh nose still offers some herbal impressions. Development shows as softness on palate, tending to salinity rather than minerality, with a real impression of delicacy. The palate has really come into balance now with mature citrus fruits and a faint viscosity. This is the perfect point of balance, retaining freshness but showing development. It’s the roundest of the vintages of the past decade. 13.0%    92 Drink -2025

2012 
Distinctly more golden color than younger wines. Greater sense of viscosity cuts the austere impression on palate, bringing more roundness with age, and a sense of the garrigue has come with development. Intensity picks up in the glass.    89 Drink -2023

Tasting Notes on Cabernet Sauvignon

2017 
Fresh herbal impressions on nose retain the familar house style from the Chardonnay. This impresses as a restrained Eurocentric style. Fruits are already showing flavor variety and are balanced by light silky tannins. I would not have difficulty in believing this smooth style came from Bordeaux.    93 Drink -2031 2010

 2010
Fruits show as more red than black on nose, with faintly piquant developed character. Silky palate shows maturing red and black fruits, showing the restraint and tension of mountain fruits but without the tension of mountain tannins. This is very much a food wine. 13.5% 91 Driuk -2033