Mike Chelini began making wine at Stony Hill Vineyard in 1972 and has never looked back. Mike is one of Napa’s old guard, a member of the G.O.N.A.D.S.,* and a throwback to another time and era in the Napa Valley’s wine history. I visited Mike Chelini with my friend Mike Beltran, who was working retail for a San Francisco wine shop many years ago when he’d first met Mike Chelini. If you want stories about the Napa Valley, then Mike Chelini is the man. I heard at least a dozen good ones as Mike and Mike reminisced about the old days of the Napa Valley.
In a sense, things at Stony Hill are about the old days. There is nothing fancy here that smacks of modern innovation in the wine world. In the winemaking room, you won’t find a cutting-edge crush machine or jacketed, temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks or rows of brand new barrels. Quite the contrary, everywhere you turn, the winery has that old-fashioned look. Mike Chelini keeps track of all his winemaking data in a notebook. Why use the computer when a notebook has worked just fine over the past 36 years?
One thing that is new at Stony Hill is Cabernet Sauvignon. Three years ago, the winery ripped out an old vineyard and replanted the plot with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The Cabernet Vines on the sunniest location of the Spring Mountain property. It won’t be a while until the vines are ready for a robust harvest, but you can expect the Cabernet to be in the style that has given Stony Hill wines its reputation for producing food friendly and easy drinking wines.
Chardonnay has long been the flagship wine for Stony Hill. The wine is aged in neutral oak and without malolactic fermentation. These wines are quite the opposite of much of the Chardonnay favored these days, buttery and creamy on the mouth and full of oak. The winery has a huge following for this Chardonnay and their other white wines, a dry Riesling, and a Gewurztraminer. Their mailing list has grown so sufficiently over the years that they are able to sell much of their wines to those on the list.
The winery is one of Napa Valley’s hidden gems and certainly one where you can avoid the crowds that are typical along Highway 29. To visit Stony Hill make an appointment and then travel on Highway 29 north past St. Helena. Turn left at Bale Grist Historic State Park entrance. Continue on the road that leads up the mountain. The road is narrow and the signs quite small, so pay careful attention. Bring a camera for some beautiful views of the Valley and the Stony Hill Vineyards. The wine tasting is in the home of Peter and Wellinda McCrea. Peter is son of the founders of Stony Hill, Fred and Eleanor McCrea. On your way out ask about taking a look at the winery, and you will likely meet up with winemaker Mike Chelini, a legend in his own time.
* G.O.N.A.D.S. stands for the Gastronomical Order for Nonsensical and Dissipatory Society. The GONADS are a somewhat exclusive group of Napa Valley vintners who have been getting together monthly for lunch since the early 1980’s. Reportedly there are 12 members, including Mike Chelini, Bob Trinchero, Koerner Rombauer, Stu Smith (Smith-Madrone), Dan Duckhorn and Carl Doumani (Quixote Winery). According to sources, these lunches can be a rather ruckus affair. To become a member of the G.O.N.A.D.S., you have to be invited to one of the lunches. Being invited back means you’re in.