AWG Correspondent

Tom Riley

Stony Hill Vineyard Photos

Stony Hill Vineyard Review

Regions: Napa Valley AVA, Spring Mountain District AVA, California

Reviewed: June 17, 2016 by Tom Riley
Published: September 21, 2016

The next time I hear somebody complain that Napa is too commercialized, too touristy, I know what my response is going to be. Two words: Stony Hill.

Want to shed some of the creeping cynicism that’s starting to cloud your appreciation of the Napa Valley? A visit to Stony Hill will take you back to a Napa that existed before the clutter and the crowds, the glitz and the glamour. There is a timelessness to Stony Hill that might be just what you’re looking for.

And, when you get there, you’ll have a chance to enjoy wines that have been among America’s finest since the McCrea family gathered their first harvest in 1952.

Tucked a few miles back among the pines in Napa’s Spring Mountain District, high above Highway 29 between St. Helena and Calistoga, Stony Hill’s dry-farmed vineyards sit between 800 and 1550 feet, and have been planted since 1948 to chardonnay, riesling, and semillon. A few years later gewürztraminer joined the lineup, and, in 2004, five acres were replanted to cabernet sauvignon.

When you make the appointment required for a visit, the winery will send you directions, with the caution that relying on a GPS device instead of the proffered map will be a big mistake. They’re not kidding. But once you find the Stony Hill entrance near the Bale Mill State Park north of St. Helena, the hustle and bustle of the valley quickly fades. After that, most of what you’ll hear is the chirps and tweets from bird-filled trees and the buzzing and clacking of insects hiding in the tall grass.

At the top of the long driveway, pavement being one of the few concessions to modernity the McCreas have made over the years, you’ll arrive at what looks like a family home. Because you have. Apart from an unattached office building and a small parking canopy, things are much as they were for years when the McCreas still called the winery home.

I was greeted by Sarah McCrea, granddaughter of Fred and Eleanor, Stony Hill’s founders, and the winery’s president. Despite the popularity of their wines over the years, the McCrea clan has kept the winery small, production low, and operations as simple as possible. No sense trying to improve on success, or fixing what isn’t broken. After a pleasant welcome and brief chat, she led me around to a side patio where Galen, the winery’s direct-to-consumer sales director, was waiting for me with a glass of cool, delicious gewürztraminer.

As we strolled the property on our way to the winery building, Galen regaled me with stories of Fred and Eleanor McCrea’s early days, their love for white Burgundy that spurred their own vision and style, and how Stony Hill has been a sought-after label since its very first harvest. Much of that has to do with the McCrea dedication to a particular vision of elegant simplicity, as well as the family’s refusal to follow trends or be distracted by the cacophony of popular criticism.

The winery building itself looks like something from another age, and it might as well be. Apart from the addition of a new press in 1980, operations at Stony Hill, under the sharp and steady eye of long-time winemaker Mike Chelini, now in his 43rd vintage, have changed very little since the McCreas’ first harvest. Chelini joined the McCreas in 1972 as vineyard foreman and took over as head winemaker in 1977 upon the death of Fred McCrea. The wines are fermented in neutral oak, with most barrels older than 10 years, except for riesling, which ferments in stainless steel. The wines are racked off the lees and never undergo malolactic fermentation. These decisions lead to wines that are crisp, clean, acid-driven, and full of pure fruit flavor, and capable of extensive aging. Annual production hovers around 3500 cases, with the majority dedicated to chardonnay.

Our tour of the winery finally brought us back to the residence and to the flagstone patio behind the house, which overlooks the valley below and across to the western slopes of the Vaca Mountains. There, Galen walked me slowly through the current releases, which included, in addition to pours of gewurztraminer, riesling, and cabernet sauvignon, a fun comparison of the 2010 and 2012 chardonnays, and the alluring Semillon de Soleil, a late-harvest wine that balances amazing sweetness with crisp acidity. I’ve been to many tasting rooms in Napa and Sonoma, and I’m not sure there’s a better place to enjoy good wine than sitting outside on the McCreas’ back porch.

At Stony Hill you won’t find a shop cluttered with knickknacks, nor will you get strong-armed into joining the wine club or leaving with unplanned bottles. You’ve come to the visit the McCreas and taste their amazing wines. You’re a guest, but it’s hard not to feel a bit like family.

A visit to Stony Hill gives you the feeling that you’re now in on one of wine country’s best-kept secrets, and that’s because you are. Don’t be afraid to share it with some of your friends. Just not too many of them.

Address & Contact Information: 3331 St. Helena Highway North St. Helena, California 94574. Telephone: 707-963-2636, email:, website: Tasting Hours: By appt. Mon-Sat 10:00-3:30.

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