Saturday, May 24, 2014

Stony Hill Napa Riesling

Unbeknownst to many, Riesling had great success and a much longer history than Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa. The dominating presence of German immigrants in the California wine industry by the second half of the 19th century had a lot to do with it. These California wine pioneers from Germany included: Jacob Gundlach, Emil Dresel, the Beringer Brothers, Jacob Schram, Charles Krug, Gottlieb Groezinger, Claus Schilling, Frederick Schweitzer, John Thomann, William Scheffler, Gustav Niebaum, George Husmann, and many more.

Napa’s “Great Wine Boom” during 1880s were led by the founding fathers of Napa  wine, mostly German immgrants like Niebaum, Krug, Beringer, Schram, Groezinger, and Thomann. During this time Napa became known for its superior wine quality among California wines mainly because of increased plantings of classic European varieties, especially Riesling. During a tour of Napa in 1892, the famous industrialist Andrew Carnegie was so impressed with the1888 Beringer Riesling that he said it was one of the best wines he’d ever tasted and placed a larger order the following month.

However, Riesling proved to be a difficult grape to grow in Napa Valley, where the climate was generally warm. The exceptions were the cool western hillsides, like Diamond Mountain above Calistoga, where Jacob Schram was confident Riesling would do well. Schram, originally from the Rheinhessen, knew that Riesling favored steep hillside slopes. California wine historian, Charles Sullivan, wrote that at an 1891 dinner for President Harrison at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, Schram’s Riesling was the only Riesling and the only Napa white served.

By the 20th century, Riesling had almost disappeared in Napa as many wineries closed because of Prohibition and as red grapes such as Zinfandel and Bordeaux varieties became more dominant. Against this unlikely backdrop, Stony Hill Vineyard started in 1952, the first Napa winery to be established since Prohibition. The vineyard situated on the slopes of Spring Mountain was planted with all white grapes, mostly Chardonnay, followed by Riesling, then a little bit of Gewurztraminer and Semillon. Today, more than 60 years later, Stony Hill Vineyard has hardly changed. In fact, it has become legendary mainly because of its iconic Chardonnay. But its White Riesling from vines planted in 1948 is just as revered by long-time fans.

When I sipped the 2011 Stony Hill Vineyard White Riesling recently, I tried to imagine how elated Andrew Carnegie and President Harrison felt when they drank a great Napa Riesling like this Stony Hill during Napa's "Golden Age" in the late 1800s. Believe me it was easy to realize why.

Napa Valley White Riesling, Stony Hill Vineyard 2011 $27.00 (order)
A lovely dry Riesling from vines dating back to 1948 (22 to 63 years-old) on the hillside slopes of Spring Mountain. The dry-farmed (non-irrigated) vines are planted on stony soils in the cool microclimate producing a precise, vibrant Riesling with excellent acid balance and delicious depth of flavors that gradually open in the glass. This exudes the energy and elegant character of Stony Hill wines. Refreshing to sip on its own or with smoked trout and grilled asparagus. Vinified and aged in stainless steel. 12% alcohol. Only 330 cases made.

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