The Story of California Chardonnay – part 2

See part 1 of this four-part account of California’s most-planted grape. 

The building of California Chardonnay: the 1950s to the 1970s 

It was in the Stony Hill vineyard, at between 1,000 and 1,600 ft (305–490 m) elevation in loamy volcanic soils, that the first Chardonnay was knowing planted in Napa Valley. The first wines were released from the 1953 vintage after an unfortunate mishap with contamination of the first, 1952 vintage. The McCreas were friends with many Napa Valley winemakers and so learned how to make wine from their neighbours. Although it was the wines of Europe that inspired them, there was little communication between wine producers in Europe and California and so there was little knowledge of, for example, Burgundian winemaking techniques. Varietally specific winemaking was not yet developed so the approach they took to making Chardonnay was consistent with what was simply white winemaking.

In 1972, Mike Chelini (above right) became first the Stony Hill vineyard foreman, and then also winemaker alongside Fred McCrea. When McCrea died in 1977, Chelini took the lead in both roles. Currently Chelini is both the longest-tenured winemaker in Napa Valley, and also the longest tenured Chardonnay winemaker in North America. Just this month Stony Hill announced that at age 70 Chelini is retiring after the completion of the 2018 vintage. During my interviews with Chelini, he explained that he has consistently made Stony Hill Chardonnay exactly as McCrea taught him, and that McCrea also claimed never to alter the approach. The equipment even remains largely the same. On further questioning, Chelini admitted the one thing that has changed is that he has  reduced his sulfur usage.

Having remained largely unchanged, Stony Hill Chardonnay stands as an important window into the history of California winemaking. According to Chelini, the style was meant to offer very little flavour to the wine in its first few years. Instead, McCrea believed the wine began to show itself after around 10 years in bottle. The fruit was harvested at around 23.5 ºBrix in the interest of preserving natural acidity. After harvest, the Chardonnay was run through a crusher and directly into the press. (Originally this choice would have been largely logistical, depending on the equipment available at the time, and was common throughout the region.) As the juice came in, sulfur was added to keep the juice from oxidising, and then after settling the juice went to old barrels and/or wooden tanks (depending on what was available in the winery) for fermentation. The wine was kept there for 10 months before bottling through sterile filter, without either bâtonnage or malolactic conversion (ML).

As Peter McCrea explained, it was common for wines of the region in the 1970s not to ….

To keep reading, head on over to JancisRobinson.com where the article is free-for-all to read. Part 1 of the piece appeared Monday of this week, also free-for-all. Part 3 will appear Thursday. Here is the direct link to this portion, part 2: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-2

Happy Holidays!

Part 1: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-1

Part 3: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-3

Part 4: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-4

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