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Tasting old whites from Stony Hill, plus a new red

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The conversation of whether California Chardonnays or Rieslings age or don’t age rarely happens, and for good reason: few do, and most people don’t care about aging white wines the way they do with reds. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “age.” Most any wine will last for a while before becoming utterly undrinkable, whatever that means. By “aging” we mean to indicate several qualities about a wine: that it becomes better (again, whatever that means) – that it becomes more interesting (but this is in the eye of the beholder) – that the connoisseur will appreciate it whereas a novice might not (but we have to be careful with such descriptors) – that it is worthy of respect to still be clean and drinkable at a great age – that it has transcended its fruity origins (primary) and achieved secondary or tertiary characteristics.

That long opening paragraph is meant to indicate some of the problems or issues involving older wines. Tasting an old wine that is, by some sort of common critical consensus, “properly aged” is not a simple matter, cut-and-dried, like determining whether or not milk is fresh or spoiled.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I can tell you about a tasting yesterday at RN74 in San Francisco of some wines from the famous Stony Hill Vineyard. In case you don’t know, Stony Hill is one of California’s and certainly one of Napa Valley’s oldest, continually-operated wineries, run by the founding family–in this case, the McCreas. Fred and Eleanor bought their property high up on Spring Mountain in 1943, and nine years later, in 1952, they produced their first vintage of Chardonnay. Riesling subsequently followed, and, in 2009, they made their first-ever Cabernet Sauvignon, released just a month or so ago.

(Trivia segue: Only three wineries in Napa Valley that were in business in 1952 are still owned and operated by the same families today: Stony Hill, Charles Krug [by the Peter Mondavi family] and–who’s the third? Guess. The answer is at the end of this post. First to get it right gets a free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com.)

Anyway, here are my notes. I’m not scoring the wines because in my judgment it’s harder to rate old white wines like these than younger ones since the perception of them is so varied. Besides, I obviously tasted them openly and that is not my usual tasting procedure.

2010 Chardonnay: Classic Stony Hill style, dry, minerally and citrusy, with little apparent oak. (The alcohol on all the Chardonnays is in the 13% range, give or take a little.)

2006 Chardonnay: Shy at first, then lemon verbena and mineral notes. Drying out a little. Somewhere between fresh and aged, indeterminate. Something mushroomy suggests wild mushroom risotto.

2001 Chardonnay: Spectacular. Roasted honey, dried lime, minerals, salt. Fruit fading into the background. Interesting and nuanced.

1997 Chardonnay: So clean and inviting. Really stands out. Honey, sweet cream, Meyer lemons, vanilla. Obviously no longer young, but fresh, tangy, vibrant.

1994 Chardonnay: Clearly an old Chard, but no trace of corruption. Nuts, sherry-like oxidation, dried fruits and honey. So dry, with mouthwatering acidity.

1982 Chardonnay: Botrytis shows in the sweetness. Impressive for 30 years in the bottle, but for me the sweetness is off-putting.

1978 Chardonnay: A touch of corkiness? Or just getting old? Whatever, it’s dry, creamy and nutty, with Meyer lemons, minerals and pears. Perfectly fine and complex. 38  years old and still kicking!

1992 White Riesling: At 20 years, such a wonderful wine. Off-dry, honeyed, brilliantly crisp, offering ripe orange blossom, green apple and mango flavors. Has at least 10 more years ahead.

1988 White Riesling: Has picked up an old gold color. Very pure aromas. Old, filled with tertiary notes, not for everyone. Dry, delicate, brittle, sweet toffee, grapefruit, lemon zest, salty. Some oxidation, like a manzanilla sherry.

2009 Cabernet Sauvignon: Their first Cab ever. Made in an old style: 13.5% alcohol, tight, tannic, bone dry, earthy, with sour red cherry and red currant fruit. Fans of ripe, opulent, high alcohol Cabs might not like it. Will age for many decades. I would love to taste this wine in 2029 and maybe I will.

Answer to trivia segue: Nichelini.

  1. The ’78 Chardonnay is only 34 years old.

    Interesting post. Me and the wife prefer our wines to have some age on them so this post grabbed my attention this AM. Thanks.

  2. I guessed Nichelini and Sutter Home so I guess I get two lifetime subscriptions to STEVE!

    Of course, that second subscription comes with an asterisk since the first Trinchero got involved in 1947 and there was a change of ownership (not sure what from my notes) in 1960. The Sutter Home brand is also apparently a creation of the early 1960s.

  3. Does David Fulton Winery count?

  4. I don’t know if David Fulton counts.

  5. george kaplan says:

    I’d add that when aged wines are at their best there’s a kind of everything-comes-together savoriness that can’t be done(yet) without a decade or 2 or more of slow chemistry.

  6. Steve,

    Rumor has it that Stony Hill made its first ever red wine because it couldn’t sell off its Cab fruit in 2009… and they managed to turn it into a great PR story.

    Do you know who they used to sell their grapes to? And were reds produced in 2010 and 2011?

  7. David White: Interesting. I had a slight thought of that, but didn’t follow up. Unfortunately I do not know who they sold their fruit to, although I could find out with a phone call. I do not know if reds were produced in 2010 or 2011, as I did not ask. You have the soul of a journalist!

  8. Too bad, Steve, that they didn’t include any of their Semillon de Soleils. That passito wine ages incredibly well, also.
    Tom

  9. Steve, it was great to have you at the tasting on Monday and thanks for sharing your notes! Regarding our motivations for producing the Cab, our intentions were certainly pure. We planted the vines in ’04 and sold all of the grapes for the first couple of years. In ’07, we began keeping some for ourselves and experimenting with making our own wine. We bottled it as Red Table Wine in ’07 and ’08 and shared it with family, friends and winery visitors. By the ’09 vintage we felt the wine was ready to share more broadly, so we officially launched it as our first Cabernet Sauvignon. And although we’ve produced larger quantities with each vintage (with 2012, we’ll be up to about 500 cases), we continue to sell a portion of the fruit each year.

  10. “Only three wineries in Napa Valley that were in business in 1952 are still owned and operated by the same families today”

    1. David Fulton does not count – although its still same family (wonderful family and historic vineyard property). There were many decades they were not making wine commercially.

    Per proprietor, Fulton Mather, they are the “oldest continuously owned and operated family vineyard in California”

    2. Good call on Sutter Home – with the * being mentioned

    3. Madonna Estate – the Bartolucci’s have been making wine for many years – but the question is were they making wine commercially in 1952 (they certainly were before then in the 1930′s) and they’ve changed winery locations of course.

    I’m still working on this list but as best as I can figure, these are some of the older Napa wineries/producers still in business.

    Napa wineries with *first vintages* dating from various decades (still operating) – all had first vintages in each listed decade, some may not have yet had a physical bonded winery, and others may have resurrected ghost wineries under new names – or started producing wine again after not making wine for a period of time.

    1970′s (41) — Total by 1979 still active, (58)
    Burgess 1972
    Chateau Montelena 1972 (Resurrected)
    Clos du Val 1972
    Diamond Creek 1972
    Franciscan 1972
    Rutherford Hill 1972
    Silver Oak 1972
    Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1972
    Stags’ Leap Winery (1972) (Resurrected)
    Conn Creek 1973
    Cakebread 1973
    Domain Chandon 1973
    Mt. Veeder 1973
    Trefethen 1973
    Joseph Phelps 1974
    Ritchie Creek 1974
    Raymond 1974
    Caymus 1975
    Tulocay 1975
    V Sattui 1975
    Green & Red 1977
    Grgich Hills 1977
    Smith Madrone 1977
    Steltzner 1977
    Buehler 1978
    Duckhorn 1978
    Flora Springs 1978
    Markham 1978
    Pine Ridge 1978
    Rubicon Estate 1978
    Robert Pecota 1978 (now Atalon)
    Shafer 1978
    Summit Lake 1978
    William Hill 1978
    Calafia 1979
    Casa Nuestra 1979
    Chateau Boswell 1979
    Opus One 1979
    Far Niente 1979 (Resurrected)
    Hagafen 1979
    Prager 1979
    Sky 1979
    Tudal 1979

    1960′s (9)
    Heitz 1961
    Schramsberg 1965 (Resurrected)
    Robert Mondavi 1966
    Chappellet 1967
    Mayacamas 1968 (Resurrected)
    Sterling 1969
    Cuvaison 1969
    ZD Wines 1969

    1950′s (1)
    Stony Hill 1952

    1940′s (1)
    Sutter Home 1948 (current owners)
    Charles Krug (Resurrected)

    1930′s (1)
    Louis Martini 1933

    PRIOR to 1930′s (5)
    Beringer
    Beaulieu Vineyard
    Madonna Estate
    Nichelini

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