Food & Drink

The Grapevine: Stony Hill's cab a fine experiment

In a Napa Valley awash in cabernet sauvignon, Stony Hill Vineyard has always been something of an anomaly. This white wine icon in the Spring Mountain District just north of St. Helena has had a devoted following for its chardonnay for decades. Never mind that the Spring Mountain appellation is now much better known for cabernets from producers such as Barnett, Pride Mountain and Newton.

Stony Hill was established in the 1940s by the late Fred and Eleanor Mc-Crea, who planted chardonnay because they loved the white wines of Burgundy. They went on to plant riesling, gewürztraminer and a little semillon.

Stony Hill is now owned by Fred and Eleanor’s son, Peter, and his wife, Willinda. Winemaker Mike Chelini has been there for 40 years. Not surprisingly, the wines have been remarkably consistent over the years.

More recently, the winery has been experimenting quietly with red grapes. In 2004, a five-acre chardonnay block toward the top of the vineyard was replanted with cabernet. Unlike most of the Stony Hill vineyard, this block faced west, and Chelini says it got a little too much sun for chardonnay. The soils are stony, red and well-drained, and “looked so perfect for cabernet,” Chelini adds.

Making cabernet was a new experience for Chelini. For the first couple of years — the first crop was in 2007 — he kept enough for a few barrels, and the rest of the grapes were sold. Those barrels of 2007 and 2008 cab were bottled and sold for a modest price as “red table wine.”

Peter McCrea says the cabernet grapes “are just spectacularly good,” and with the 2009 vintage, the wine became more than an experiment. The Stony Hill team decided to push ahead and bottled a varietally labeled cabernet sauvignon. The 2009 Stony Hill Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) is structured and spicy, with dense, lively black cherry, spice, a hint of olive and firm tannins. It’s extremely well balanced, with a long finish.

Why would a winery revered for its whites want to venture into red wine territory? “We just thought that the world needed another Napa Valley cabernet,” McCrea jokes.

Getting more serious, McCrea says, “Our focus was to make a really oldfashioned Napa Valley cab,” a wine with modest alcohol that wasn’t a “fruit bomb.” Although he’s succeeded on the latter points, I don’t find the wine “oldfashioned” at all. It’s much more stylish and refined than that. The 2009 cab will be released this fall, and 250 cases were produced.

Stony Hill’s chardonnay is made with no new oak or malolactic fermentation, which results in a very lean, almost Chablis-like style that ages quite well. The 2009 ($42), with its firm acidity and notes of grapefruit and green apple, should develop nicely.

The winery also has an outstanding 2010 White Riesling ($27) that’s quite dry and fresh, with lime, lime zest and racy acidity.