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Mike Chelini is Longest tenured winemaker in the Napa Valley at Stony Hill Vineyard


Written by:

Joe Becerra

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Last week we toured three completely different Napa Valley mountain wineries. We visited Stony Hill Vineyard on Spring Mountain, Ladera Winery on Howell Mountain, and Nichelini Winery at the summit of Sage Canyon Road. This will be the first of three posts comparing these Napa Valley mountain wineries.

Stony Hill Vineyard on Spring Mountain is one of the oldest wineries in the Napa Valley and one steeped in tradition. Fred and Eleanor McCrea purchased the land in 1943 and released their first vintage in 1952. In 1972, young Mike Chelini began his stint as winemaker at Stony Hill and he continues in that position to this day. He loves his work, the land, and the owners. As he says “Life is good here at Stony Hill Vineyard.” When we asked Mike Chelini if he is the Valley’s longest-running winemaker, he says: “I think I am tied with Bill Sorenson over at Burgess.” Bill Sorenson began his stint at Burgess in 1972, so who knows who started first. Nevertheless, these are impressive careers for both these winemakers.

Winemaker Mike Chelini Stony Hill Vineyard
Winemaker Mike Chelini

The winery is presently in the hands of the McCrea’s son Peter and his wife Willinda, and they continue to run the winery with the same tradition, making wines year after year that are consistent. Notably, the main character of the wines is that they are fermented and aged in neutral oak barrels. Their flagship wine, the Chardonnay, is quite different in style than most of the Napa Valley Chardonnays. No oak, but roundness in the mouth with good fruit flavors. Gewürztraminer and Riesling round out the table wine offerings, and a dessert Semillon is also offered. With a northeast exposure, the sun departs early in the day behind Spring Mountain leaving their vines in a much cooler climate than the rest of the Napa Valley. It is the ideal environment for these white wine grapes. Most of the wines are sold to their mailing list members (started in 1952) and to several local restaurants.

1952 first vintage at Stony Hill Vineyard
1952 first vintage at Stony Hill Vineyard

Something new is on the horizon at Stony Hill, a Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cabernet vineyard, planted six years ago, is located on an area of Spring Mountain that dips down and then elevates. The vines receive much more sun and the hope is that within a few years Stony Hill will produce a beautifully-aged Cabernet. For this wine Mike Chelini plans to age the grapes in new French Oak barrels. All he needs is a little more time for the roots of the vines to grow deeper into the soil. They have bottled some of this wine and for the moment have labeled it as Red Table Wine. When the character of this vineyard develops and the flavors are right, Stony Hill will release this as Cabernet Sauvignon.

A look inside the stone winery is a step back in time. I’m sure it looks very much the same as the day Mike Chelini stepped into the winery in 1972. There is no fancy equipment or a modern day crush pad or anything that smacks of high tech. It is all done the old fashioned way.

Stony Hill Vineyards is open by appointment only and guests are received at the McCrea’s original home just adjacent to the winery. To get there, you must turn into the Bale Grist Mill State Park a few miles north of St. Helena. Don’t go into the State Park, but turn left and head up the hill and follow the signs to Stony Hill. The climb is beautiful, sweeping through oak woodland forests. When you visit the winery, ask if you can take a walk down to the winery. Be prepared for a step back in time.

view at stony hill
View from Stony Hill looking across the Valley
  • Joe Becerra

    Joe Becerra has been traveling to wine country and enjoying wine since 1965. He is a retired educator, and now have the time the opportunity to share his wine travel experiences through this Website.