Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Stony Hill Vineyard

Stony Hill Vineyard is a great example of a wonderful, small, family run winery that can be found up on Spring Mountain making some of the best wines in all of Napa Valley.  It is also an unusual winery for Napa Valley because they make mostly white wines in a valley that is noted for its reds, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.  But these are mountain wines grown in an entirely different climate and soil than down in the valley.  Grapes grown on Spring Mountain have a much different character than grapes grown elsewhere.

There is a distinct nostalgic charm to Stony Hill.  From the wonderful tour and tasting offered by Willinda, to the lovely, intimate setting and the purity of the wines, this winery offers an experience that cannot be found in most Napa Valley wineries.  It is a reminder of the old days when tradition, culture, family and commitment meant more than chasing wine rating scores or optimizing profits.  Stony Hill, like some other small wineries on Spring Mountain, remains true to the original spirit of Napa Valley.  They offer an earthy sensibility combined with a warm personal experience that is a welcome relief from the hectic commercialism of some of the big business wineries.

Stony Hill is just off Highway 29 at the entrance to the Bale Grist Mill State Park.  Check the directions before you go there or you will end up calling on your cell phone to ask for directions.  This is the only Spring Mountain winery that you approach directly off Highway 29.  From the park entrance there is a narrow, long winding road that takes you up to the winery.

Stony Hill is still owned by the family that first bought it as a goat farm back in 1947.  Their winemaker, Mike Chelini, arrived there in 1972.  They make some very good white wines and are now branching out to Cabs, although they only make about 3,400 cases of wine total per year.  Stony Hill uses oak barrels to store and age their wines but they do not use new barrels to add oak to the wine.  Older oak provides a subtle difference from stainless steel, but does not overwhelm the varietal characteristics of the wine.  I’ve always thought that Cabs could handle oak (especially big Napa Cabs) but that Chardonnays were often ruined by too much oak and did better with little or none.

The current releases include the Stony Hill 2009 Chardonnay ($42) that is not subject to malolactic conversion or oaking.  It has more minerality, complexity and balanced acid than most Napa Valley chardonnays.  If you like white Burgundies, then you should like this Chard.  The main difficulty with a very dry Chardonnay like this, without all the butter and oak, is that the varietal characteristics are naked, no wine maker tricks can be used and the grapes need to be the best quality.  There is nothing to cover or camouflage the grape.  Really good grapes must be used and it must be very well balanced. This is an outstanding Chardonnay.

The Stony Hill 2011 Gew├╝rztraminer ($24) is also quite dry with the spiciness and acid perfectly balanced with the fruit.  It reminds me of the very nice, very dry Gew├╝rztraminers that use to be made in Alsace back in the 1970s and 80s, when minerality and balance were all important.  It is the perfect wine for much Asian food.  This is one of the best, possibly the best, U.S. Gewurtztraminer I've tasted.

The Stony Hill 2010 White Riesling ($27) is off dry rather than dry.  You can taste a little sweetness.  But it is perfectly balanced with the acid, fruit and Riesling varietal characteristics in total harmony with the slight sweetness.  With a lovely nose and well-balanced palate, this is one of the best Rieslings made in the U.S.

The final wine we tasted was the Stony Hill 2009 Semillon de Soleil desert wine with 7.5% residual sugar.  This is an easy to drink, pleasant desert wine without the acid, body, botrytis or price of French Sauternes.  It is $30 for a half bottle.  Those who like dessert wines should try it.

Stony Hill also has a Stony Hill 2008 Red Table Wine for $25, which has some cherry on the nose, with cherry and chocolate on the palate, and a nice balance with good tannins.  It is a Cabernet Sauvignon that is called red table wine because they are just beginning to make Cabs.  It is a lighter style wine than most Napa Cabs and seems like it would be food friendly.  Next year this wine will be made as the Stony Hill 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon.  If you want to try their Cab, we would recommend grabbing some of this 2008 at this price.

Tours and tastings are by appointment only but this can easily be made by phone or over the Internet.  There is a $25 nominal fee that it is applied to any purchase.  Since you will certainly want to purchase some of their excellent wine, the tasting will end up being complimentary.  If you like really good white wine and small, charming, family wineries, then Stony Hill should be near the top of your Napa Valley wineries to visit.

Note 2/6/14: My camera was not functioning at the time of our visit. It is a truly lovely place, and I wish I had photos.  I inquired twice in 2013 about revisiting the winery for an updated review and photos, but never received a reply so it appears this will be our only review of Stony Hill Vineyard.  They are an outstanding winery, however, and well worth visiting.

Stony Hill Vineyard
3331 Saint Helena Hwy N
Saint Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-2636
Date of visit: January 25, 2012

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