by Karl H. Kazaks
Few winemakers can say, “When I had gone through 40 crushes, they threw a big party for me,” yet that’s exactly what Mike Chelini could — and did — say, remarking on a winemaking career at Napa’s Stony Hill that began in 1973.
Over that period, Chelini has maintained and strengthened Stony Hill’s reputation as a producer of classic wines, including some of the best Chardonnays produced in the U.S. The wines of Chelini’s legacy are enjoyable and easy to drink, yet at the same time are full of life and vibrancy. With age, many vintages develop a fine blend of complexity, balance and subtlety that reveal a clear sense of Stony Hill’s terroir.
At Stony Hill, Chelini said, the goal is to produce wines in a restrained, low-alcohol style whose hallmarks are fruit and minerality — a vintage’s particular expression of the quality of vineyard conditions — rather than flavors produced from techniques initiated in the cellar.
Though Stony Hill is best known for its Chardonnay (it makes between 2,000 and 2,500 cases per year), in recent years Chelini has been making red wines, quite successfully.
Chelini grew up in Sonoma County. “I was born and raised on Pagani Zinfandel,” he said. “Those were the days.”
Forty-five years ago Chelini was looking for a job in the wine industry. Sonoma had few wineries (though grapes were often found growing on diversified farms), so he drove over the Mayacamas Range and landed at Sterling. Chelini worked as an assistant to Ric Forman, Sterling’s winemaker. “He taught me a lot,” Chelini said. “I owe a lot to him. It was a pretty exciting time in Napa Valley. I was young and the wine business was just beginning to boom.”
At the same time Chelini was working in Sterling’s cellars, he was also tending the vines at Stony Hill, which had been founded in the late 1940s by Frank and Eleanor McCrea. The McCreas had planted only white varieties, primarily Wente clone Chardonnay — an unusual choice for the time, as there were only about 200 acres of Chardonnay growing in all of California.
Starting with his first vintage in 1952, Frank McCrea built a strong reputation for Stony Hill’s wine, selling much of his production from a mailing list. After more than 20 years, though, he realized it was time to look for a successor. Ric Forman suggested McCrea consider promoting his vineyard manager.
McCrea took the advice, and Chelini was named winemaker in advance of Stony Hill’s 1973 vintage.
“I was pretty nervous about making that wine,” he recalled. “I pruned the vines myself that year.” Normally Stony Hill’s vineyards yielded about two tons of Chardonnay per acre. When the harvest came in at four tons, Chelini said, “I thought I had overcropped.”
But McCrea was impressed with the resulting wine, and allowed Chelini to continue as winemaker.
The noted wine critic John Gilman has tasted many of Stony Hill’s older Chardonnays, including Chelini’s second vintage, 1974, which he called (in an article he wrote about Stony Hill in his newsletter, “View from the Cellar”), “magical.”
How do the Chardonnays of Stony Hill — those made by Chelini the past 40 years and those made prior to his arrival as winemaker — earn such high praise?
Part of the explanation is Stony Hill’s consistent approach to winemaking. “Wine is made in the vineyard,” Chelini said. “At the winery, I try not to get in the way, I want wines to move along and show their natural characteristics.”
To that end, Stony Hill does not use new oak.
“We’re still using 130 gallon puncheons we bought in 1973,” Chelini said. “We broke them in slowly,” so as not to introduce too much new oak character in the wines of that period.
“We had to buy a couple of barrels in 1980,” he added. He’s also added new hoops to many barrels.
Similarly, Stony Hill’s Chardonnays do not undergo malolactic fermentation. That’s how it was when Chelini took over as winemaker from McCrea.
“We haven’t changed anything except for the press,” he said.
The other part of the explanation for Stony Hill’s success, Chelini said, is the location and makeup of its vineyards. In particular, Chelini said, Stony Hill’s two original vineyards, at the base of the mountain, have a “perfect” northeastern exposure and still “make the best wine.”
The Chardonnay vines in those sites are Wente clone. Chelini likes how the Wente clone “sets a lot of hens and chicks,” grape berries of assorted sizes. Grapes from such clusters from those two prized sites, Chelini said, produce wines of “delicate power, with a lot of intensity of flavor,” wines that can stand up on their own (without new oak or malolactic fermentation) while expressing a fine balance of fruit and minerality.
“The wines go well with a lot of foods and a lot of moods,” Chelini said.
Stony Hill has other vineyards situated further up the mountain, and grows other white varieties, including Riesling and a small amount of Sémillon. All told, the winery has about 40 acres under vine.
At the top of the hill is a 10-acre parcel which, Chelini said, “has a completely different exposure” than the northeastern facing vineyards lower down. Eight of the acres on the top vineyard, Chelini said, face “exactly southwest.”
When grown on the top site, Chardonnay makes wines with ripe tropical fruit flavors, not what typically produces the best Stony Hill Chardonnays. So when the Chardonnay vines became afflicted with Pierce’s disease, Chelini replanted — with Cabernet Sauvignon.
The foray into red wine was a novelty for a winery which had been strictly a white wine producer and famed for its Chardonnays, but the location was a good fit for Cabernet Sauvignon, which likes the warmer temperatures and afternoon sunlight.
The Cabernet vines are the only part of Stony Hill’s vineyard which are irrigated — the remainder are dry farmed. Still, the reds are made in the Stony Hill style — restrained, allowing the fruit to come through, with subtle tannins.
“We want people to taste our vineyard, taste the differences in vintages,” Chelini said.
“The wine business is a great business to be in,” he continued. “I’m very fortunate. I do like to be in the vineyards and I still work in the vineyards. Sometimes I’m under a tractor, sometimes I’m on the road with a coat and tie on.
“Time flies when you’re having fun.”
Delicate power: Mike Chelini and the wines of Stony Hill
by Karl H. Kazaks