The sale of Stony Hill, a unique corner of Napa Valley

Sales of wineries are the jet fuel for the wine news that let’s them drop their news bombs and if there’s one specific type of sale more fuel-y than others, it’s a small winery in a famous region being sold. It’s for this that the last two days, the wine news echo chamber has been vibrating with a fevered pitch about Stony Hill in Napa Valley was sold to Long Meadow Ranch.

Sadly, such transactions aren’t much of a shock. Duckhorn, Schrader, and Heitz have all sold recently and the sales have been generally viewed with a skeptical eye as it’s quite obvious they’re just for investment and in the case of TSG Consumer Partners, the private equity firm who bought Duckhorn, probably to “flip” at a later date. These are private companies so they’re free to do what they want and I can’t blame owners in Napa or Burgundy or Bordeaux or wherever wanting to cash out as owning a winery is super taxing.

The difference seems with the Stony Hill sale is that it’s to another local (albeit much larger) winery in Napa Valley. As Kelli White, author of Napa Valley Than & Now put it, “Sad to see the winery leave McCrea hands, but if there had to be a new owner, I’m personally glad it’s Long Meadow Ranch.” And this seems to be the general line of thinking by most in that the winery needed investment beyond the means of their current production levels so fingers crossed for the future.

So Napa yet not

Earlier this spring I visited the winery at their invitation and was shown around by granddaughter of the founders and president until now, Sarah McCrea. What immediately strikes you upon arrival is that despite it being very much a Napa Valley winery (and one of the older ones having been founded in 1943), it’s very much not. It’s in a corner of Napa that I feel few know as most stay in the valley floor where glammy tasting rooms, sloshy wine tour buses, and winery staff pushing Popcorn Chard on you are the norm.

The narrow road, while well-signed, winds and winds to get up to their vineyards as you snake along the side of valley to find yourself in the Spring Mountain District AVA. To me, this is the source of some of Napa’s finest fruit, it’s just a pity that so many of the other wineries you find from there slather the shit out of it in the cellar and will do two years of new oak aging, but that’s another discussion.

The winery is a modest affair which lends to its charm. There’s a house there that Sarah told me various members of the family have tried to live in, but given that it’s also a working winery, there’s just no separation and so they’ve been using it for their very private tastings. I should note that the tastings are $45 which is a number that I could tell Sarah didn’t like as she also finds it high, but it’s the going rate and for a private visit and tasting and is actually on the “reasonable” side such as Napa has become.

True Cellar

Do an image search of “napa valley cellar” and you’ll most likely come across some pretty fancy kit like the modern installations of Opus One or Far Niente. This is most definitely not what Stony Hill is and it harks back to a much different time, which I caught the quickly-disappearing, slithering tail of when I started working in the region at the end of the 1990s.

Stony Hill has a simple barn with old barrels and just the amount of equipment to get the job done. I was a bit surprised to see the barrels marked for volume in gallons as I thought everyone in wine used Metric these days but I was wrong. As they were 60 gallons, not 59, it means that they were using a traditional Burgundy size, not Bordeaux. This shouldn’t come as a shock as the winery was started by Sarah’s grandparents, Fred and Eleanor who loved Burgundy wines and wanted to replicate this in Napa terms. Turns out, they were on to something.

But that’s really it for the cellar. Little has changed, including the winemaker, Mike Chelini who is about to start his 45th harvest. This is where the need to sell the winery started to arise as I don’t doubt they’re able to produce their wines without an issue in the equipment at hand, but modernizing some aspects could definitely lend some help, especially going into the future. Also, there are the vineyards where they’ve had the need to replant certain plots as well and it appears that Long Meadow Ranch wants to convert to fully-organic production, so I take me hat off to that.

What’s in a wine?

During my visit, Sarah was gracious enough to sit down and taste through the wines with me. It was immediately clear what has been so unique about Stony Hill in that they produce Napa Valley Chardonnay that I actually a) admire and more importantly b) very much want to drink. It holds subtlety, complexity and you can taste the source as, because of the old barrels in the cellar, it’s not slathered in oak nor over the top, buttery malolactic conversion. Additionally, there’s the climatic aspect of Spring Mountain where you have a cooler, largely east-facing orientation to the vineyards.

I had to ask Sarah at one point, “What happens when people taste this? It’s just so completely different from what one expects ‘Napa Chard’ to be.” She replied, “I think people almost just view it as a different wine, like there’s one Chardonnay and then there’s another which is what we do.” I can only think that other wineries such as Cain who make lighter, very terroir-driven Bordeaux blends in Spring Mountain or Lagier Meredith who are in Mt. Veeder must be viewed as this “other Napa” by most people and to some extent makes them harder to move as they break the mold. The wine trade however, laps them up.

On some level it’s probably good that they produce only 5,000 cases or 60,000 bottles. For a European winery, that’s mid-range territory. For Napa, this is very small and very boutique. They’ve sold the wines directly and again, the sale of the winery is to aid in distribution as well. I think the main crux to this sale is that Long Meadow Ranch has said they absolutely do not want to change anything about the style of the wines and in that, we all hope it will stay the course and continue to be this lovely little pocket of the valley.

Gewürztraminer 2016
Light rose petal, lime peel, sweet and perfumed in the nose despite being fully dry. Crisp, medium acidity, medium length, fresh and full on the palate, doesn’t have the astringent pucker of Old World. Tannins way lower, more citric lime in the finish.
12% $30
** 90

White Riesling 2016
Light, creamy citric lime, spring flowers. Sweet brioche and lightly floral in the mouth, falls off a touch in the finish but full palate overall. Partially-sourced fruit.
12.5% $30
* 88

Chardonnay 2015
Pineapple, mango, tiny touch of coconut, lightest touch of old wood, and still very, very closed and needing more time. Crisp and linear in the palate, breathy toasty touches but still at least three years from peak if not five.
13% $48
**+ 92

Chardonnay 2008
Toasty and brioche, light fruit more lemon peel notes, dried mandarin blossoms, papaya. Full evolved mouthfeel, crisp and lively, no oxidation (learn from this, Burgundy…)
12.5% $68
** 92

Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
Dark cherry, marmalade and buttery notes, cured fruit, graphite, mineral clay notes, light cedar. Wealth of red cherry and crisp notes to the palate with balanced, boosting tannins.
14% $70
** 90

Semillon de Soleil 2015
Honeycombed, light apple blossom, cured red apple. Rich and full in the mouth, caramelized orange peel. Fresh finish. Sourced fruit due to old vineyard giving up.
14% $30
* 89