Thursday, May 17, 2007

Napa: A Day of Contrasts, Part Two

Afternoon session – Stony Hill Vineyard:
Following our morning visit at Oakville’s Harlan Estate and a reasonably tasty yet uncharacterful lunch at St. Helena fossil Tra Vigne, we headed up the valley for our afternoon appointment. Character abounds, we would find, at Stony Hill Vineyard. Heading north out of St. Helena, turning left up the access road for Bale Grist Mill State Park and then left again onto the private road which leads to the winery, we quickly found ourselves in an atmosphere that would have provided fodder for the tales of Poe or Tolkien. A forest of small, gnarled trees – dark red bark mottled by lichen, limbs intermittently draped with a local moss – lends an eerie aura to the narrow dirt road that winds its way up the mountainside.

Making the last sharp turn up the incline and crunching to a stop in the gravel parking area at Stony Hill, we were greeted first by an enthusiastic little wire-haired terrier and then, our presence announced, by office and site manager, Mary Burklow. After a round of introductions, Mary led us on a path along the ridge of the hill, straight through the vineyards and directly into the estate’s tiny winery building. As soon as she thrust the door open, a blast of cold, damp air rushed out to meet us. Welcome to Stony Hill’s barrel room…. With little ado, Mary pulled a barrel sample, poured us each a splash from the pipette and asked us to guess. Knowing that they produce one of Napa’s few Tocai Friulano (from old-vine fruit grown at neighboring Larkmead Vineyards), and sensing a faint floral, peachy hint lurking behind the yeasty aromas of fermentation, I guessed – and was wrong. It was their 2006 Gewurztraminer, light, bone dry and misleadingly crisp and un-spicy.

Five or six barrel samples later, we’d learned a bit about Stony Hill’s winemaking practices. The barrels themselves first jumped to attention. In stark contrast to the uniform ranks of gleaming new cooperage at Harlan, many of the casks here, bowing and graying though still obviously airtight, showed signs of serious age. Mary explained that the barrels, mostly barriques with some larger casks and tonneaux, are anywhere from 14-50 years old. That’s right, 50, almost as old as the winery itself. Kept sanitary from year-to-year, these relics go right on doing their work, providing a neutral environment for Stony Hill’s backward wines to come to life. New barrels are introduced only when a member of the older generation finally gives up the ghost.

Fruit is bladder pressed, the juice settled and then inoculated. Primary fermentations are carried out in wood in most cases, followed by a racking off the lees. Their Riesling is fermented and aged half in steel, half in barrel and then blended prior to bottling. The Gewurztraminer and Tocai are barrel aged until April following the harvest; Chardonnay and Semillon stay in wood until June. Malolactic fermentation is avoided for all wines, a practice necessitating a wee bit of sulfur but kept relatively natural by the incredibly cool cellar conditions. In their own words, “Malolactic fermentation both destroys the acid structure of the wine and introduces extraneous flavors not borne from the grape itself.” Given this admirably stoic approach, I was a bit surprised that primary fermentations are not left up to the wild yeasts; Mary explained that native yeasts do play a role but are often not strong enough to ensure a complete, steady fermentation.

Since 1973, Stony Hill’s wines have been made by Mike Chelini, who originally joined as vineyard foreman and was quickly promoted to winemaker. Mike’s approach is as old-school as I’ve come across just about anywhere, much less in the heartland of ultra-modern California wine country. The wines are grown naturally in the vineyard and brought to life in the cellar. They speak of both. The concept of terroir at Stony Hill clearly reflects not just the hillside environment but also the feel, taste and smell of their old, stone barrel room, a trait that reminds me very much of a past visit to the caves of Prince Philippe Poniatowski in Vouvray. Like there, the wines are meant to taste of the place and they’re built to last.

If it hasn’t already become obvious, Stony Hill is one of the few estates in the Napa Valley that rests its reputation solely on the production of white wine. They’ve been at it since 1947, when original owners Fred and Eleanor McCrea planted Chardonnay in homage to the great whites of Burgundy. At the time, only 200 acres of Chardonnay were planted in the entire state of California but the McCrea’s sensed that their little kingdom, perched on the hillside 400-800 feet above the valley floor, was a special place. Their commitment to the potential of Napa Chardonnay remains today, as it represents over 75% of their overall vineyard area of 39 acres. The balance of their land is planted to Riesling (10 acres) with Gewurztraminer and Semillon rounding things out at three and one acre, respectively.

The only wines of color produced come from a small plot of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – planted as a pest control device along a property line bordering on a stream – and from a ¼ acre plot of Syrah planted only five years ago as part of the family garden. At present, all 100 or so cases – two reds and one rosé – are destined for staff consumption and entertainment only; not a bottle of any is sold. Current owner Peter McCrea, son of Fred and Eleanor, described the rosé – a saignée of the Cab/Merlot blend – as “swimming pool wine.” Mary more colorfully called it a classic PD wine. If you’re scratching your head like I was, “PD” is code for panty dropper…. Peter confirms that the estate does not plan to market anything other than whites in the future.

Coincidentally, as at Harlan, annual production at Stony Hill runs around 3,000 cases. And nearly all of the wine is sold directly to mailing list customers, with just a small percentage going to local restaurants and to a few detail-minded distributors in key urban markets. With a 60-year history though, Stony Hill Vineyard is one of Napa Valley’s pioneering estates. And their wines top out at $35 per bottle.

Stony Hill Chardonnays and Rieslings have earned a reputation as being among the most age-worthy dry whites produced in the Napa Valley. Thinking back to those barrel samples pulled for us by Mary, even the 2006 Gewurztraminer and Tocai, wines meant for early enjoyment, showed uncommon structure. Still in steel, the Riesling was too impenetrable to assess. The 2006 Chardonnay, however, held serious promise. It smelled a little of cellar must on the nose but, loaded with stony minerality and vibrant acidity, hinted at a long future.

Back in the McCrea’s dining room toward the end of our visit, tasting the current releases of Stony Hill Chardonnay from bottle reinforced our earlier impressions and spoke volumes about good work in the vineyard. The 2003 Chardonnay, product of a drought year in this part of St. Helena, was atypically rich and fleshy for Stony Hill yet still tasted young, fresh and clean. The 2004, though, really spoke to the potential for these wines. Tight on the nose, very Chablis-like in its aromas, bright, racy and steely on the palate, it’s a wine I’d love to drink in another ten or even twenty years.

That was just about it for our visit. We followed Mary down the grade to the bottle storage barn to pick up the handful of ’03 and ’04 Chardonnay we’d purchased. As I packaged the bottles for a safe ride back East in the airline baggage compartment, Mary disappeared for a moment. Upon her return, she handed us a bottle of their White Riesling, vintage 1992, and made us promise to have it with dinner when we got back to Monterey that night. Paired with a simple plate of sautéed snapper and roasted Jerusalem artichokes, it was a delicious reminder of our visit – hinting at the mellowed edges and mineral tones that come with age, tasting very much alive and finishing with a touch of sweetness.

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