Peter and Sarah McCrea

Peter and Sarah McCrea with winemaker Mike Chelini pulling a barrel sample of Stony Hill Chardonnay.  

Submitted photo

As they strolled down the old stagecoach road on Spring Mountain in 1943, it’s not likely that Fred and Eleanor McCrea thought of themselves as pioneers. As it turned out, though, the McCreas were on their way to becoming trailblazers in the Napa Valley wine industry.

During their walk, the McCreas came upon a rundown goat ranch on an 1890-era homestead. Central to the ranch was a large pasture area that had been cleared from the lush forest. An old house, barn and several outbuildings were scattered around the property.

It was love at first sight for the San Francisco couple that enjoyed visiting their friends living higher up the hill. The McCreas soon bought the 160-acre homestead as a weekend retreat and christened it “Stony Hill.” A few years later they planted vineyards and built a small stone winery. Then, in 1952, Fred made the first vintage of Stony Hill Chardonnay, which many consider one of the first cult wines of the modern Napa Valley wine industry.

“We never got a very satisfactory answer about whether they actually had ever intended to grow grapes and make wine when they bought the property,” said Peter McCrea, Fred and Eleanor’s son. “I rather think not.”

In 1943, McCrea said, the world was at war, resources were scarce and the Napa Valley and other wine regions were still bruised from the near-fatal blow of Prohibition. Except for a few homesteads and ranches, he said, Spring Mountain was pretty much isolated and wild.

“In those days there were no vineyards up there,” he said. “It was just brush. The only other vineyard on Spring Mountain then was Draper (La Perla Vineyard) which is now part of Spring Mountain Vineyard.”

For whatever reason, McCrea said, after the end of World War II his parents set their sights on planting a vineyard. The couple loved French white wines and wanted to grow chardonnay, a varietal that at the time was rare and untested in California.

“They would have planted the whole place in chardonnay,” McCrea said. “The interesting thing was that there was no chardonnay in the Napa Valley in those days. The only chardonnay vineyard was Mayacamas and it had just been planted. The university (UC Davis) was really pushing pinot blanc.”

The couple relented, McCrea said, planting pinot blanc, white riesling, gewürztraminer, and about six acres of chardonnay. The varietals, it turned out, were well suited to the site that slopes from 800 to 1,550 feet in elevation facing the northeast.

As the 13-acre vineyard grew, Fred, an advertising executive with McCaan Erickson in San Francisco, boned up on winemaking and made plans for the small winery on the property. In 1952 he used the estate’s chardonnay harvest to make the first Stony Hill vintage. After two years of aging, the ad man pitched his 1952 Stony Hill Chardonnay in a letter to friends in the Bay Area. The friends gave an “encouragingly positive response,” the wine sold and the McCrea’s annual letter became Stony Hill’s primary sales technique, Peter McCrea said.

Inspired by the white wines of Burgundy, Fred McCrea began making his chardonnay in a straightforward, hands-off style that produced a clean, well-balanced wine that celebrated the high quality fruit. It was also a chardonnay that had good structure and aged well. This style was quickly embraced by Stony Hill’s early customers and the adman-turned-winemaker never deviated, even after a different style of California chardonnay became immensely popular with the advent of malolactic fermentation and new-oak barrel aging.

“Fred made all of the original wines but when he got to about 80 he kind of slowed down,” said Mike Chelini, who came to Stony Hill as vineyard manager in 1971. Chelini was fresh out of viticulture school and had worked for a couple of years at Sterling Vineyards. Shortly after joining the winery, he became Fred McCrea’s assistant winemaker. But Chelini had been schooled in making a different, more contemporary type of chardonnay.

“The first wine I made here with Fred was in 1973,” Chelini said. “I tasted the wine and thought oh God, there’s not much to this. I thought that I’d messed everything up. When Fred tasted the wine he said ‘You got it right boy.’ Then he opened up some older vintages for me to try, to show me what happens (with age), and I said ‘oh, I get it!’”

After release of the first vintage, Stony Hill Chardonnay grew steadily in popularity among those on the McCrea’s mailing list and the Spring Mountain property became more than just a relaxing getaway for the family.

“We used to spend all of our weekends up here,” McCrea said, “my sister and I and we had two cousins who came to live with us. We were pretty much the labor force for a while.”

Fred and Eleanor built a newer house beside the vineyard and, after Fred retired in 1962, the couple moved to Stony Hill full time. When Fred died in 1977, Chelini became winemaker and has lived on the estate with his family ever since.

Before Chelini’s arrival, Stony Hill had been selling its riesling, gewürztraminer and pinot blanc grapes to other wineries. When he began making wine with Fred, he convinced his mentor to produce a batch of estate white riesling.

“I couldn’t stand it that we’d grow the grapes then give them to someone else to make the wine,” Chelini said. “The first year that we made our Riesling people really liked it. After that we didn’t sell any of the riesling (fruit).”

Chelini later expanded the lineup to include an estate Gewürztraminer plus a Semillon that includes some fruit purchased from Two Dog Vineyard in Calistoga. The winemaker also recently added a cabernet sauvignon produced from a west-facing vineyard on Stony Hill estate.

All Stony Hill white wines are 100 percent varietal and, Chelini said, made in the same, hands-off fashion handed down by Fred McCrea.

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“When I got here,” Chelini said, “we did everything pretty much the way he had always done it. It turned out the wines were perfect.”

Entering Stony Hill’s charming, 60-year-old winery, Chelini gestures to the dozens of old barrels resting in the small, stone-walled structure.

“We don’t have a lot of new oak here,” he said. “It’s not really our forte. We like to have you taste our vineyard and our soils instead of oak and creaminess.”

This, Chelini said, is a big part of what separates Stony Hill from most California chardonnay wines that, during the last 30 years, have become characterized as buttery and oaky. The result of malolactic fermentation and, in some cases, overly aggressive oak aging, many of these wines mask the true nature of the chardonnay grape, Chelini said. Responding to a backlash of many wine drinkers yearning for a cleaner chardonnay, many producers have cut out oak altogether, aging in stainless steel and frequently producing bland, indistinguishable “naked” wines.

Stony Hill, Chelini said, approaches chardonnay and its other varietals differently. By using old, well-seasoned oak barrels and the estate’s high-quality fruit, Stony Hill wines are structured, well-balanced and a true reflection of the varietal.

“We’re lucky because we have this particular characteristic in our grapes that people like,” Chelini said. “The grapes tend to have just a small amount of fruit. I also believe in holding the natural acidity. We don’t go through ML (malolactic) fermentation. That keeps our wine from getting kind of flat and creamy. This way, with natural acidity the wines have a chance to age somewhat better and we hold the fruit that it has without masking it.”

A family project to begin with, Stony Hill Vineyard remains a McCrea legacy. After the death of his mother Eleanor in 1991, Peter, his wife Willinda, daughter Sarah and son Frederick became the winery’s proprietors.

“When my parents started making wine,” Peter McCrea said, “there were ten wineries in the Napa Valley. Interestingly there are only three (of those 10) left that are owned by the same family … Krug, Nichelini and Stony Hill.”

McCrea attributes the success and longevity of Stony Hill to a combination of high quality, consistency and a commitment to keeping things simple – a philosophy adopted and handed down by his father.

“This, it turns out, is a very nice economic unit here,” McCrea said, gesturing toward the vineyard sweeping up the Spring Mountain hillside. The vineyard has gradually expanded from the original 13 acres to about 40 today. “Mike can run the whole place and make all of the wine. We can sell all of the wine with two or three people. It’s just a nice, comfortable operation.”

“The other thing is,” he continued, “we’ve got a mailing list of between 2,000 and 3,000 people and this is the kind of wine that they want. So we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot if we kept changing wine styles and everything all of the time. This is what we’ve come to be known for.”