Stony Hill’s new leadership team, from left, Renee Berkus, Michaela Louise Kelly and Jaimee Motley, on the terrace of the…

By Eric Asimov

The New York Times

Through almost 70 tumultuous years of California wine history, one thing seemed never to change: Stony Hill Vineyard, a pioneer of California chardonnay since its first vintage in 1952 and perhaps Napa Valley’s first cult wine producer.

As fashions came and went, Stony Hill clung to its old-school methods and austere style of chardonnay, seemingly taking little notice of the extravagant, oaky and alcoholic styles that gained popularity in the 1990s (and fetched far higher prices) or the accelerating Napa red wine culture growing around it.

Then, in short order the ground began to shake and the firmament shifted. The McCrea family, owners of Stony Hill since Fred and Eleanor McCrea bought the 168-acre Spring Mountain property in 1943, sold the winery and vineyard in 2018 to Long Meadow Ranch, another family-owned Napa winery. A year later, Mike Chelini, the winemaker and vineyard manager, retired after 45 vintages.

In December 2020, scarcely after Long Meadow began converting Stony Hill to organic viticulture, it turned around and sold Stony Hill to Gaylon Lawrence Jr., an agricultural magnate from Arkansas, who, with his chief executive, Carlton McCoy Jr., has put together a portfolio of historic Napa properties, including Heitz Cellar, Haynes Vineyard and Burgess Cellars.

McCoy then made an unconventional but inspired choice: He named as the winemaker Jaimee Motley, whose experience was in the vanguard of young California producers, not the typical Napa Valley pipeline.

Motley was known for her small label, Jaimee Motley Wines, based in Sonoma, which made fresh, savory wines from grapes that she purchased, including a wonderful mondeuse, a grape originally from the Savoie region of France, and a terrific cedar-scented cabernet sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains. What would be the result of this combination of youthful, forward-pointing energy and this historic Napa estate?

I had pondered this question for more than a year when finally, in late March, I was able to drive up the winding hillside road to Stony Hill for a visit with Motley and two other members of the new Stony Hill team, Michaela Louise Kelly, the estate director, and Renee Berkus, the cellar master.

It felt a bit surreal to enter Stony Hill’s headquarters, the ranch-style residence that had housed members of the McCrea family for decades, with no McCreas present. I had never met Fred, who died in 1977, or Eleanor, who died in 1991. But I knew their son, Peter, and his wife, Willinda, and Fred and Eleanor’s granddaughter Sarah McCrea. Their presence still seemed to suffuse the property.

Longtime fans of Stony Hill might be disquieted to learn that major changes are afoot. The cellar is being completely rebuilt, much of the vineyard is being replanted and a conversion is underway to biodynamic and regenerative viticulture, promoting soil health and a permanent cover crop rather than tilling or plowing. Even the wines will be changing, though not stylistically.

Stony Hill will continue to make chardonnay, along with small amounts of excellent riesling and gewürztraminer, as it has always done. But after the replanting, the vineyard will include 14 acres of cabernet sauvignon, and 8.5 acres of chardonnay, far less than the roughly 20 acres of chardonnay in 1990, much of which had been pulled for various reasons before the new ownership arrived.

The vineyard will also have 5 acres of cabernet franc and smaller amounts of riesling, malbec, merlot, syrah, gamay, gewürztraminer and petit verdot. Stony Hill, the longtime bastion of white wines, will soon be a red-dominant producer.

This should not be entirely shocking. Stony Hill has been making small amounts of cabernet sauvignon since 2009 in a restrained, classical style that I love. Fred McCrea had always grown some red grapes for family consumption — pinot noir and zinfandel — in a small plot, called Fred’s Reds, outside his bedroom window.

“Transitioning to cabernet just makes sense with climate change,” Motley said. Chardonnay and the other whites, which don’t do as well as cabernet in the heat, will continue to grow in cooler sites at Stony Hill, which rises on a hillside from 600 feet to 1,600 feet, nestled among redwoods and firs.

Clusters of fire-scorched trees still dot the property, a legacy of the wildfires that threatened Spring Mountain vineyards and devastated properties in 2020. Many have already been taken out, and more will go. The team is also installing a new training system for the vines, and changing the pruning method from spur pruning to cane pruning, all intended to promote vine health and even ripening while protecting the grapes from the warming climate.

Many of these changes were necessary. The McCrea family recognized this, which precipitated the initial sale.

“The infrastructure needed a ton of work and I’m glad they are able to make investments we were not able to make,” Sarah McCrea told me in an email. “We had many dreams about improvements, and it makes me happy that someone wants to keep the place vital.

“Experimenting with new farming techniques, new varieties, and shifting the percentage of reds is the kind of creativity that I hope will keep Stony Hill alive and well,” she continued. “As much as I would have loved for it to stay as it was forever, I know that wasn’t possible.”

Most important, of course, are the wines. The Stony Hill chardonnay was one of a kind, lean and subtle, yet full of energy and character. As California chardonnays were becoming softer, oakier and more ponderous, Stony Hill’s never changed. They could age and evolve for years.

The chardonnay was made idiosyncratically, without malolactic fermentation, a process in which tart malic acid is converted by bacteria into softer lactic acid. This was the old California style until winemakers in the 1970s began to adopt the methods of Burgundy, chardonnay’s native land, where malolactic fermentation is encouraged.

Motley is hesitant to make major changes. She will continue to use big, older barrels, rather than the smaller barrels of new oak that became a signature of California chardonnay, but she said the 2021 chardonnay had gone through malolactic fermentation.

“They wanted to go through malo,” Motley, who has always made wine without overt intervention, said of the wines. “It would have taken a lot to block it — cold aging, lots of sulfur dioxide.”

I tasted a rough blend of the 2021 — the final wine had not yet been set — and it was fresh and savory, energetic with herb and mineral flavors. As a longtime fan of the Stony Hill style, this was lovely.

“There’s so much tradition and history, it would have been easy to do the same thing,” said Kelly, the estate director. “I admire Jaimee for listening to the grapes and feeling where they wanted to go. It’s not a new recipe.”

While Motley’s elevation at Stony Hill may have been surprising, she said she had long revered the wines. When she came to California to work her first harvest in 2011, she made time to visit Stony Hill.

“When I think of Napa and what inspires me, it’s the wines of the ’60s and ’70s,” she said. “I’ve had them, and they always resonated, the elegance and restraint, with the kind of wines I wanted to make.”

With the vineyard replanting currently underway, Motley said 2021 did not yield enough riesling and gewürztraminer to make varietal wines. She is instead experimenting with what she calls a heritage blend, the two varieties mixed with a little chardonnay. The blend I tasted was pure, expressive, refreshing and dry, with pretty floral aromas.

The 2021 cabernet was also not finished, but the very young sample I tasted was fresh, savory and balanced, very much in keeping with a 2010 cabernet that we also tasted, dry with aromas and flavors of red fruits and herbs. The ‘21 is 100% cabernet sauvignon, but Motley plans to add other Bordeaux varieties as the vines mature.

Beyond her attraction to the history and the wines, Motley said she is thrilled to be able to dedicate herself to one site.

“I really wanted to work at one vineyard, day in and day out, to walk the vines and see all the nuances as it changes through the season,” she said. “I hadn’t had the opportunity with my brand.”

McCoy told me he knew Motley was the right choice after he tasted her wines, particularly two vintages of her Santa Cruz Mountains cabernet.

“Those wines contain so much purity and energy and life without sacrificing density and pedigree,” he said. “I knew that the marriage of Jaimee and the terroir of Stony Hill could equal magic.”

For her part, Sarah McCrea said she was thrilled to see Stony Hill in the hands of a team of women.

“They have a lot of talent and hopefully their youth means they will stay for many years and continue the tradition of longevity,” she said. “I hope their version continues to be heartfelt and does justice to this amazing place, which is far more interesting than any of us humans who pass through.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Recommended for you