University of California Berkeley
Regional Oral History Office University of California
The Bancroft Library Berkeley, California
The Wine Spectator California Winemen Oral History Series
STONY HILL VINEYARDS:
THE CREATION OF A NAPA VALLEY ESTATE WINERY
With an Introduction by
An Interview Conducted by
Copyright (cT) 1990 by The Regents of the University of California
Eleanor McCrea at Stony Hill Vineyard.
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
April 2, 1991
. unmistakeably as the theme of
Eleanor Wheeler McCrea, co-' Beethoven's Fifth Symphony ,"she
founder of the Stony Hill Vine* 5 wrote
yards in St. Helena, died Thursday '
One of the first "boutique' win-
eries, Stony Hill produces Char-;
donnay, White Riesling, Gewurz-,
traminer and Semillon, marketing
about 4,000 cases a year mostly to
the "lucky people on the winery's;
carefully maintained mailing list,".-
as wine critic Anthony Dias Blue
Mr^ McCrea was haileVby anS
other Chronicle wine writer, Larry
Walker, as one of the "wine per- ,
sonalities" of the Napa Valley who v
had taken on "almost legendary /
status " '"'
Mrs. McCrea and her late bus-
band, Frederick, a San Francisco
advertising man, acquired their re- =
mote hillside in 1943 when the
property was known to locals as
Goat Hill. On her husband's death , :
in 1977, Mrs. McCrea took over the
vineyard. iBS>R'nvM '.inr.Ci'i n-f'J" " j h
They began calling it Stony Hill
when they put their vineyards in, *
and used it on their first vintages,
One of the vineyard's innova- '
tions was Semillon du Soleil, pro
ducing 50 cases a year from the
sun-dried Amarone grapes. But
Stony Hill was best known for its 1
Chardonnay, and Mrs. McCrea con
tributed a widely praised essay on
that grape to the University of Cal
if ornia-Sotheby Book of California
for music was one of the passions
of her life and Mrs McCrea and
her husba nd were longtime pa-
trons of the San Francisco Opera '
and the San Francisco Symphony. I
Sne was a member of the Napa
'Valley Vintners Assn. and a direc-
Survivors include a son, Peter
of San Francisco; a daughter, Mary
McNamara of Schenectady, N.Y.; a
twin sister, Mary McDougall
1W|eetap . of Santa R o S a; eight
grandchildren and five great
=' Funera , services will be ri .
vat and the famll reques ted do-
ti to the st Helena ub
Since 1954 the Regional Oral History Office has been interviewing
leading participants in or well -placed witnesses to major events in the
development of Northern California, the West, and the Nation. Oral history is
a modern research technique involving an interviewee and an informed
interviewer in spontaneous conversation. The taped record is transcribed,
lightly edited for continuity and clarity, and reviewed by the interviewee.
The resulting manuscript is typed in final form, indexed, bound with
photographs and illustrative materials, and placed in The Bancroft Library at
the University of California, Berkeley, and other research collections for
scholarly use. Because it is primary material, oral history is not intended
to present the final, verified, or complete narrative of events. It is a
spoken account, offered by the interviewee in response to questioning, and as
such it is reflective, partisan, deeply involved, and irreplaceable.
All uses of this manuscript are covered by a legal
agreement between the University of California and
Eleanor McCrea dated May 25, 1990. The manuscript is
thereby made available for research purposes. All
literary rights in the manuscript, including the right
to publish, are reserved to The Bancroft Library of the
University of California, Berkeley. No part of the
manuscript may be quoted for publication without the
written permission of the Director of The Bancroft
Library of the University of California, Berkeley.
Requests for permission to quote for publication
should be addressed to the Regional Oral History Office,
486 Library, University of California, Berkeley 94720,
and should include identification of the specific
passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages,
and identification of the user. The legal agreement
with Eleanor McCrea requires that she be notified of the
request and allowed thirty days in which to respond.
It is recommended that this oral history be cited as
Eleanor McCrea, "Stony Hill Vineyards:
The Creation of a Napa Valley Estate
Winery," an oral history conducted in
1990 by Lisa Jacobson, Regional Oral
History Office, The Bancroft Library,
University of California, Berkeley,
McCREA, Eleanor Winery owner
Stony Hill Vineyard: The Creation of a Napa Valley Estate Winery. 1990,
xiii, 64 pp.
Purchasing the property, 1943; planting and growing grapes; building the winery;
developing a clientele; wine production in the 1950s; business management of a
small winery: profitability, pricing, size of production, marketing the wine;
viticultural practices; tour of the winery and vineyards: vines, equipment,
Introduction by Jack L. Davies , Schramsberg Vineyards, California.
Interviewed in 1990 by Lisa Jacobson for the Wine Spectator California Winemen
Series. The Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of
TABLE OF CONTENTS -- Eleanor McCrea
INTRODUCTION, by Jack L. Davies v
INTERVIEW HISTORY vii
BRIEF BIOGRAPHY viii
I EARLY YEARS, EDUCATION, WORK, AND MARRIAGE, 1907-1942 1
Family Timber Business 2
Childhood in California, 1916-1924 3
Wellesley College, 1925-1929 4
First Jobs 6
Marriage to Fred McCrea, 1934 6
Fred's Career in Advertising 7
II STONY HILL VINEYARD, 1943 -PRESENT 9
Discovering the Property, 1943 9
Negotiating the Purchase 10
The War Years: Weekends and Summers at the Stony Hill Farm 11
McCrea Children at Work in the Vineyards 13
First Planting, 1948 15
Learning about Grape Growing 16
Development of Interest in Winemaking 17
First Winery Equipment 18
Learning about Winemaking 18
Selling Grapes 20
Developing a Clientele 21
SHV Label 22
Wine Production in the Fifties 23
Winemaking Philosophy 24
Grape Harvesting 25
Wine Tasting 26
Stony Hill Winemakers 27
Eleanor's Responsibilities 28
Profitability of a Small Winery 29
Restaurant and Club Placements 31
Entering Markets in New York and England 33
Pricing Philosophy 33
Size of Stony Hill Production 35
Semillon de Soleil 36
Viticultural Practices 36
Planting of Pinot Noir, 1972 38
Present Division of Winemaking and Management Responsibilities 39
Trips to French Wine Country 40
III TOUR OF WINERY AND VINEYARDS 42
Winery Tours 43
Problems with Deer 44
Scenic Vistas 44
Winery Equipment 46
Inside the Winery 47
Bottling Operation 49
Label Design 50
IV STONY HILL VINEYARDS AND WINE INDUSTRY AFFAIRS 52
Spirit of Cooperation 52
Waiting List for Stony Hill Wines 53
More on Label Design 54
Succeeding and Surviving in the Industry 55
Napa Valley Vintners 56
Wine Institute 58
Wine Industry's Greatest Problems 58
Wine Industry's Greatest Strengths 59
Long-term Nature of the Business 60
TAPE GUIDE 62
The California wine industry oral history series, a project of the
Regional Oral History Office, was initiated in 1969 through the action
and with the financing of the Wine Advisory Board, a state marketing
order organization which ceased operation in 1975. In 1983 it was
reinstituted as The Wine Spectator California Winemen Oral History Series
with donations from The Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation. The
selection of those to be interviewed is made by a committee consisting of
James D. Hart, director of The Bancroft Library, University of
California, Berkeley; John A. De Luca, president of the Wine Institute,
the statewide winery organization; Maynard A. Amerine, Emeritus Professor
of Viticulture and Enology, University of California, Davis; the current
chairman of the board of directors of the Wine Institute; Ruth Teiser,
series project director; and Marvin R. Shanken, trustee of The Wine
Spectator Scholarship Foundation.
The purpose of the series is to record and preserve information on
California grape growing and wine making that has existed only in the
memories of wine men. In some cases their recollections go back to the
early years of this century, before Prohibition. These recollections are
of particular value because the Prohibition period saw the disruption of
not only the industry itself but also the orderly recording and
preservation of records of its activities. Little has been written about
the industry from late in the last century until Repeal. There is a real
paucity of information on the Prohibition years (1920-1933), although
some commercial wine making did continue under supervision of the
Prohibition Department. The material in this series on that period, as
well as the discussion of the remarkable development of the wine industry
in subsequent years (as yet treated analytically in few writings) will be
of aid to historians. Of particular value is the fact that frequently
several individuals have discussed the same subjects and events or
expressed opinions on the same ideas, each from his own point of view.
Research underlying the interviews has been conducted principally in
the University libraries at Berkeley and Davis, the California State
Library, and in the library of the Wine Institute, which has made its
collection of in many cases unique materials readily available for the
The Regional Oral History Office was established to tape record
autobiographical interviews with persons who have contributed
significantly to recent California history. The office is headed by
Willa K. Baum and is under the administrative supervision of James D.
Hart, the director of The Bancroft Library.
The Wine Spectator California Winemen
Oral History Series
Regional Oral History Office
486 The Bancroft Library
University of California, Berkeley
CALIFORNIA WINE INDUSTRY INTERVIEWS
Interviews Completed by 1990
Leon D. Adams, Revitalizing the California Wine Industry. 1974
Leon D. Adams, California Wine Industry Affairs: Recollections and Opinions,
Maynard A. Amerine, The University of California and the State's Wine
Maynard A. Amerine, Wine Bibliographies and Taste Perception Studies. 1988
Philo Biane , Wine Making in Southern California and Recollections of Fruit
Industries . Inc. . 1972
John B. Cella, The Cella Family in the California Wine Industry. 1986
Charles Crawford, Recollections of a Career with the Gallo Winery and the
Development of the California Wine Industry. 1942-1989. 1990
Burke H. Critchfield, Carl F. Wente , and Andrew G. Frericks , The California
Wine Industry During the Depression. 1972
William V. Cruess, A Half Century of Food and Wine Technology. 1967
Jack and Jamie Peterman Davies, Rebuilding Schramsberg: The Creation of a
Califcrnia Champagne House. 1990
William A. Dieppe, Almaden is My Life. 1985
Alfred Fromm, Marketing California Wine and Brandy, 1984
Louis Gomberg, Analytical Perspectives on the California Wine Industry. 1935-
Joseph E. Heitz, Creating a Winery in the Napa Valley. 1986
Maynard A. Joslyn, A Technologist Views the California Wine Industry. 1974
Amandus N. Kasimatis, A Career in California Viticulture. 1988
Morris Katz , Paul Masson Winery Operations and Management. 1944-1988. 1990
Legh F. Knowles, Jr. , Beaulieu Vineyards from Family to Corporate Ownership.
Horace 0. Lanza and Harry Baccigaluppi , California Grape Products and Other
Wine Enterprises. 1971
Louis M. Martini and Louis P. Martini, Wine Making in the Napa Valley. 1973
Louis P. Martini, A Family Winery and the California Wine Industry. 1984
Eleanor McCrea, Stony Hill Vineyards: The Creation of a Napa Valley Estate
Otto E. Meyer, California Premium Wines and Brandy. 1973
Norbert C. Mirassou and Edmund A. Mirassou, The Evolution of a Santa Clara
Valley Winery. 1986
Peter Mondavi, Advances in Technology and Production at Charles Krug Winery.
Robert Mondavi, Creativity in the Wine Industry. 1985
Michael Moone , Management and Marketing at Beringer Vineyards and Wine World.
Inc. . 1990
Myron S. Nightingale, Making Wine in California. 1944-1987. 1988
Harold P. Olmo , Plant Genetics and New Grape Varieties. 1976
Cornelius Ough, Researches of an Enologist. University of California. Davis.
Antonio Perelli-Minetti , A Life in Wine Making. 1975
Louis A. Petri, The Petri Family in the Wine Industry. 1971
Jefferson E. Peyser, The Law and the California Wine Industry. 1974
Lucius Powers, The Fresno Area and the California Wine Industry. 1974
Victor Repetto and Sydney J. Block, Perspectives on California Wines. 1976
Edmund A. Rossi, Italian Swiss Colony and the Wine Industry. 1971
Edmund A. Rossi, Jr., Italian Swiss Colony. 1949-1989: Recollections of a
Third-Generation California Winemaker. 1990
Arpaxat Setrakian, A. Setrakian. a Leader of the San Joaquin Valley Grape
Elie Skofis, California Wine and Brandy Maker. 1988
Andre Tchelistcheff , Grapes. Wine, and Ecology. 1983
Brother Timothy, The Christian Brothers as Wine Makers. 1974
Ernest A. Wente , Wine Making in the Livermore Valley. 1971
Albert J. Winkler , Viticultural Research at UC Davis (1921-1971). 1973
INTRODUCTION -- Eleanor McCrea
Recollections about the McCreas and Stony Hill are warm and
easily come to mind.
Before we had ever made the decision to come into wine, we were
under the influence of Fred and Eleanor. I have the clearest picture
of the two of them at a tasting of the Wine & Food Society in the
Palace Hotel, sometime in the early '60s: Fred with that commanding
smile, always present courtesy, and clear thinking. And Eleanor
looking right at you and being concerned about what you had to say and
what was on your mind. We thought these would be marvelous neighbors!
Is everyone in the wine business like this?
And the wines! Stony Hill Chardonnay, from those lovely mountain
vineyards. How they helped open the way to what was possible. How
they appealed to the consumer and showed us that there were people out
there who cared. That's an overlooked thing. We make wine for
consumers. We need an audience. Eleanor and Fred always knew that.
Eleanor and Fred were an indomitable pair, and Eleanor remains an
indomitable lady. Fred was a fact-oriented man. Was this the right
way to do something? Was this problem overstated? Was that really
necessary? This, of course, led him to the earned reputation of being
careful with a dollar. But it was never an issue of being tight. It
was always the point of not being foolish. And he never was, to my
Eleanor has always raised the questions about whether this was
"right" to do. What are the bigger concerns? What's good for the
community, the environment? And she has always been among those who
have guided fools with no nonsense. Thank heaven for that. Over the
years Eleanor became my most reliable book buddy. She always had a
good book to pass along, and her taste in this regard is always just
right. (I don't mean politically, of course!)
When we first moved to Schramsberg, we didn't really know many
people. Eleanor called us almost at once and asked us over to dinner.
That was so knowing and welcome, and it made us feel quickly part of
things. It was the first of many evenings with the McCreas, sometimes
in their home, sometimes in ours, very often at the opera together in
the City. Fred was a super opera buff. He really knew his opera but,
as in all other things, had very clear views. "Opera is for the solo
voice. We really don't need the chorus lumbering around, or those
dancers cluttering up the stage."
Stony Hill has done many things for all of us.
Eleanor and Fred proved that lovely Chardonnay could be made in
Napa . They helped prove that consumers would pay a fair price for a
fine, personally made wine. They proved that one didn't need every
bell and whistle in the world to accomplish things. They proved that
one could maintain personal integrity, enjoy life, and keep the
checkbook balanced all at once. They proved that innovation and
experimentation are open for everyone.
And now Eleanor carries it on with the same vigor, discipline,
and humanity that have marked things on that mountain from the
beginning. Dealing with the visitors, guiding Mike Chelini and the
muchachos , getting out the orders, fighting the Wine Train, going to
tastings. Now she's even accepted computers! For God's sake, what
are things coming to?
The flag is flying high. Who could ask for more?
Jack Davies , Mananging Director
INTERVIEW HISTORY -- Eleanor Wheeler McCrea
Eleanor Wheeler McCrea was interviewed in three sessions in her
lovely home overlooking the Stony Hill winery, vineyards, and Napa
Valley. The interview documents the evolution of Stony Hill
Vineyards, a Napa Valley estate winery recognized by many as the
epitome of the extremely small, fine wine producer. Mrs. McCrea and
her husband, the late Frederick McCrea, began their enterprise in 1948
when they first planted grapes on their 160-acre property. "A dozen
California winemakers were feeling their way towards quality in the
late '40s and early "50s," wrote Hugh Johnson in Vintage: The Story
of Wine, including Stony Hill Vineyards- - "an estate that was to become
a miniature jewel, a secret first growth for white wines."
Stony Hill Vineyards' production of approximately 4,000 acres is
sold in select restaurants and to those lucky enough to be on the
winery's mailing list, for which the waiting list is four years long.
Mrs. McCrea discussed viticultural practices, merchandising,
winemaking, and small winery management. Always one to credit others
for their help and advice, Mrs. McCrea made particular note of the
cooperative spirit that characterizes the California wine industry.
The third interview includes a walking tour of the winery, vineyards,
and grounds .
Mrs. McCrea carefully reviewed her transcript and was most
helpful in providing photographs for inclusion in this volume.
Regional Oral History Office
486 The Bancroft Library
University of California at Berkeley
Regional Oral History Office University of California
Room 486 The Bancroft Library Berkeley, California 94720
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I EARLY YEARS, EDUCATION, WORK, AND MARRIAGE
[Interview 1: March 13, 1990 H/// 1
Jacobson: Why don't we start at the beginning with where and when you
McCrea: I was born in Buffalo, New York, on the 9th of December, 1907.
And I'm a twin. My twin sister is still alive, too. She lives
in Santa Rosa.
Jacobson: What was it like growing up with a twin?
McCrea: Wonderful! You always have somebody to play with your own age.
It's hard on the other siblings in the family, though, because
you are always a unit. It was particularly hard on our older
sister, because she had been the first grandchild on either
side of the family, so she was Madame Queen. Then to have the
two babies --and, you know, they're really quite dramatic when
they're little. [laughs] It was fun, though. My sister and I
lived together always, even at college. We went to college
together, and we lived in the same room. One year, our junior
year, we decided that it was foolish and soon made one room
into a bedroom and one into a study.
Jacobson: How many brothers and sisters did you have?
McCrea: We had an older sister and a younger brother, both of whom are
now dead. Just Mary and I are left.
symbol (#//) indicates a tape has begun or ended.
the tapes , see page 62 .
For a guide to
Family Timber Business
Jacobson: You spent your childhood, then, in Buffalo?
McCrea: We lived there until I was ten. My father's family were in the
timber business. They came from a little town in western New
York, right where it tapers down and is above Pennsylvania.
It's on the Allegheny River. They timbered the lumber in that
part --you know, it's hard to believe there were lots of trees
back there, but I guess there were- -and also in Pennsylvania in
the early days. They used to make them into log rafts, and
they would float them down the Allegheny to the Ohio to the
Mississippi, and all the way down to New Orleans, and sell the
lumber down there. Then they would buy a horse down there and
Jacobson: You must have gone for long periods of time without seeing your
McCrea: No, no. This was long before my dad. My father was a lawyer
in Buffalo. The older members of the family followed timber
across the country, and eventually my father was sent out here
to take charge of their timber interests in California. So we
moved to California in 1916.
Jacobson: How did the business move to California?
McCrea: They bought timberland. Except in New York and Pennsylvania,
they really didn't do much milling; they just owned timberland,
and then they would sell it to interests who wanted to use it
Childhood in California. 1916-1924
McCrea: We spent a lot of our childhood, after we moved out here, going
with our father up to the timber that they owned in California
and Oregon, which was fun. They don't have any more timber
interests, but in those days they had lots in both Oregon and
It was a very interesting childhood. It was so hard in
those days to drive. The only way to get around, up the coast
and into Oregon, was to drive. Compared to the way cars are
now- -you were always having to stop and fix a flat tire and
things like that. It was kind of horrendous. My mother really
didn't like the outdoors very much, and I've always thought
back to it that she was really a heroine, the way she went
along on these trips [laughs].
Jacobson: Did you develop a great love for the outdoors?
McCrea: Well, I guess so. You just do. You're used to being outdoors
a lot. My father was really a lawyer, but we were outdoors a
lot. We lived in Piedmont and went to a private school there,
but we were outdoors a lot.
Jacobson: Did you learn how to repair cars?
McCrea: Oh, no. I don't think my father was very good at it, either.
We usually had to go find somebody to do it.
Jacobson: You went to a private school in Piedmont?
McCrea: Yes--Miss Ransom's and Miss Bridges' School for Girls--known
always as Ransom's. It's not there anymore. It was a nice
school, and a really good school. We got good training.
Jacobson: Was it very small?
McCrea: I can't remember how many people there were in our class. I
would think maybe about thirty-six in our graduating class, so
there were two or three hundred people in the school. It went
from kindergarten through high school, and the high school part
of it was about half boarders. We had a lot of boarders from
Southern California, and also there were quite a few people
from Portland and from Seattle. It was a WASP school.
Jacobson: What sorts of interests did you have, growing up?
McCrea: Athletics a lot. We had our own tennis court. We rode horses
a lot. In those days there was a stable in Piedmont, and the
guy who ran it, Joe, used to arrive at our house on Saturday
mornings with three or four horses behind him, and we would all
get on and ride around in the hills right behind where we
lived. Because there weren't any houses up there then, or down
in Trestle Glen, where it's all built up now.
Our house in Piedmont, on Crocker Avenue, was the first
house on that block. There was one house in the block behind
us, and everything else has been built up since then. It's a
lovely area now, but the main thing you notice --even more than
the way the houses have gone up --is the way the trees have
grown up. That's one of the things you notice here [Stony
Hill], too. You don't expect the trees to change the landscape
the way they do. But over a period of thirty years, they do.
Jacobson: Has it changed considerably?
McCrea: Yes. We have to keep at it all the time to keep the brush
We mostly lived a restrained, old-fashioned, ladylike life
when we were kids, because that's the way you did in those
Welleslev College. 1925-1929
McCrea: Then we went to college. Both my mother and father were
easterners, you see- -my mother came from Ohio- -so it never
occurred to them that we could get a decent education at the
University of California, for instance. We had to go East to
school, so we went to Wellesley- -my twin sister, my older
sister, and I.
Jacobson: Were you happy to go East?
McCrea: Oh, yes, we loved it. Of course, in those days it was quite
different from the way it is now. My two grandchildren are
back East in college now, and goodness, they come home about
three times a year between September and June. We never came
home between September and June. You couldn't do it, because
the only way to come was on the train and it took too long,
besides being expensive. So we left home in September and came
home in June. They didn't have things like family weekends and
stuff like that. You were really on your own, as soon as you
left until you go home.
Jacobson: Did you ever get homesick?
McCrea: I don't ever remember being homesick, actually. Wellesley's a
lovely place, and we had good friends. We spent a lot of our
Christmas vacations, particularly, in Buffalo, where we'd been
brought up originally. We spent one summer vacation while we
were in college on Lake Erie, right across the lake from
Buffalo, with Mother and Daddy's friends, really, but their
children were good friends of ours. We had a good time. And
we always had a good time on the train, coming and going,
because you always have to change trains in Chicago- -and you
still do; there's no way you can go through without going to
Chicago. The people we knew from Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley,
would all meet in Chicago and come out together on the train,
so we had a very fine time.
Jacobson: A great way to see the country, too.
McCrea: It really is. The only other thing that I've ever seen that
made you have a feeling of what the whole country was like,
like going on the train was that- -you probably never saw it,
but they had a perfectly wonderful movie that was taken from an
airplane, but flying very low all the way across the country.
They had it at the 1939 World's Fair, and it was just
wonderful. Ordinary flying, you're just flying above the
clouds most of the time, so you don't get that feeling of the
vastness of the country, and how different it is from one part
Jacobson: What did you study in college?
McCrea: I was very eclectic. I did a little of this and that. I
really wanted to go to medical school, but I didn't concentrate
entirely on science courses. I took a lot of philosophy and
history, and obviously you had to take zoology, chemistry, and
physics. Then I didn't go to medical school because I got sick
the summer after my junior year in college, and I didn't go
back to school until so late that I got way behind and couldn't
finish up my pre-med courses. Which was probably fortunate,
because I graduated in 1929, just before the stock market crash
and just before the Depression, and we really didn't have
enough money by then to send me to med school. We just went to
work right away when we got out of school; we were lucky we got
McCrea: This is how different it was in those days. It just about
killed my father that we had to go to work, because it never
occurred to him that his young ladies should go to work,
[laughs] My grandchildren just take it for granted that they're
going to go to work. So it's different. It's better, too.
Jacobson: Did you enjoy working?
McCrea: Yes, I did. Except for a short time on the first job I had,
when I worked in the chamber of commerce, and a short-term job
I got working on a political campaign as a paid stenographer,
the rest of the time I was working I worked in two different
law offices as a legal secretary. I really enjoyed that,
because they were small offices where you got to really know
what was going on. It was really interesting. I liked it very
But then I met my husband [Frederick Hoyt McCrea] , and it
never occurred to him that I should go back to work [laughs],
even though we really didn't have very much money. But he had
a good job, and it was right at the end of the Depression when
nobody had very much money. We had a wonderful time. We
really enjoyed our early years, and all our years together.
We lived in San Francisco for a couple of years, and then
we built a house down the Peninsula and lived down there until
after we bought Stony Hill. When we bought this place, we came
up here every weekend, and it was just that little extra too
far to go, to go down the Peninsula, besides the fact that we
had almost an acre of garden. You couldn't be away from it
every weekend and keep it up the way you wanted, so we moved
back to San Francisco.
Marriage to Fred McCrea. 1934
Jacobson: How did you meet your husband?
McCrea: [laughs] It was really kind of interesting. I went up to Tahoe
for a summer vacation when I was working at a law office in
Oakland, and it was really pretty lonesome, because I was all
by myself. Some way or other up there, I ran into one of the
best clients that we had in the law office, and she took me
under her wing, took me back up to Tahoe Tavern. Other people
that she was seeing up there were very good friends of Fred's,
and they kept talking about him all the time: "Oh, you've got
to meet him. He's in Hawaii now, but when he gets home, you've
got to meet him. "
They followed through on it and had us to dinner together,
and that was all they had to do [laughs].
Jacobson: You hit it off immediately?
McCrea: Yes. Well, we played bridge that first night. My husband was
a very good bridge player, and I really didn't know how to play
bridge at all. But nobody had such good cards as I had that
night. Then I didn't play with him again until after we were
engaged [laughs]. He was very nice about it after we were
married. He sent me to a wonderful teacher to learn to play,
and I did. I really was pretty good for a while, but I'm not
any more because I don't play very much.
Fred's Career in Advertising
Jacobson: You husband was in the advertising business?
McCrea: Yes, he was with McCann-Erickson in San Francisco. He was one
of the few people in the advertising business who, for his
whole career, worked for the same firm.
Jacobson: What was it like for him, working in the advertising business?
McCrea: It's a very interesting business to be in, if you're doing the
plotting and planning. Fred wasn't the manager of the office
when I married him, but he wound up being the manager of the
office, so he had all the managerial end of it to do. It's
kind of a unique business that way, because it uses all of your
creative talents as well as your managerial talents. I think
it's pretty cutthroat now, compared to what it was in those
days. I know it is, because, for instance, in those days it
was frowned upon to name your competitor. You couldn't say,
Fred McCrea at Stony Hill Vineyard.
"Ford cars are better than Chevrolets because--." You just had
to say, "Fords are the best." The nasty things they say about
each other now- -that was not the way we did it in those days.
It was much more fun in those days, I must say, but everything
was smaller. There weren't so many people in the world.
It was interesting, and you knew an awful lot of bright
people. I guess maybe that was thing that was the most fun
about it. There were a lot of awfully bright people in the
business, and they were interesting people to be with.
Jacobson: How did the Depression affect the advertising business?
McCrea: By the time I got married, the Depression was beginning to be
over. I have no means of knowing how it was during the worst
part. The office that Fred was in was always thriving when we
were married. He was the account executive for the packing
corporation, Del Monte. That was a big account in those days.
His office also had Standard Oil and three or four other big
accounts. It was fun. [doorbell rings; tape off]
II STONY HILL VINEYARD, 1943 -PRESENT
Discovering the Property. 1943
Jacobson: Why don't we turn to the story of how you discovered this
McCrea: We were living down the Peninsula during the war. During the
war, one of the tough things was getting enough gasoline if you
wanted to go out of town over the weekends . We had an old car
that Fred had had before we were married, and we kept it up
here. So we got extra gas rations because we had two cars. We
didn't use the one up here very much, but we sure used the
Because of being so difficult to get gasoline, nobody went
very far for vacations. There were fourteen of us at the
Greenfields', on the top of Spring Mountain, with our children,
just sort of half-way camping out. They had made a really
quite habitable, nice, one great, big room with a couple of
little rooms off the sides, out of the old winery that was up
there. We were all there together. The men were putting a
roof on the shed; there were lots of chores to do, so we had a
We had several friends who had places up here: John
Gantner, the Greenfields- -they were the ones we were staying
with- -and some others. We just loved this valley; we always
Jacobson: Had you taken vacations up here with your family prior to the
McCrea: No, but Fred and I did a lot of our courting up here. We used
to come up here and just drive around. We had great affection
for this part of the world, and we just liked the idea of
having a country place, so we cane down. I told you we came
down twice --the road from here. Actually the road that comes
down here, Bale Mill, was the road that came from Sonoma to the
mill, you see. I think it was there before Spring Mountain
Road was built. It's just a rough dirt road now, but it must
have been the main road over the mountain. The road going over
on the other side is only about that good now; it's not very
We came down and just absolutely fell in love with this
place. Our friends had said, "You can go down and look at the
old goat farm if you want to, but you feel just as if you're
falling off a cliff." That's the way they felt about it. We
sat up on the top flat up there twice, and just fell in love
with it. So we came down and talked to the people who owned
it. It was an elderly gentleman and his sister who lived here,
and they decided that they were getting too feeble to live here
alone, so they wanted to sell it. They absolutely fell in love
with our little boy, Peter, who was an enchanting little boy.
Negotiating the Purchase
McCrea: We did always think that we would grow grapes here, because we
had Herman Hummel, who was a good farmer up on Spring Mountain,
come over and look at it and see if he thought it would be good
grape land. He did, and he told us he did. But he brought his
cousin (they were both Germans) , who was known as Big Herman,
with him when they looked at it. In front of the people who
owned the place, they said in German to each other, "Well, if
Mr. McCrea doesn't buy it, you buy it." But the man who owned
the property understood German, so he heard them say it, and he
told us that.
They wanted $7,500 for it, and I guess Fred offered them
$6,000 or something, and they wouldn't take it. So then Fred
said, "Maybe we better wait until after the war."
McCrea: He was just so morose afterward that he had given up living
here, that I finally said, "That's absolutely ridiculous; you
know we have the money. Why don't you just write them a letter
and tell them you'll take it?" He sat down and wrote the
letter, and I. took it and put it in the mailbox. If he hadn't
mailed it that day, he wouldn't have gotten it, because
somebody else made him an offer the same day. They really let
us have it because they loved Peter so much. [laughs]
The War Years : Weekends and Summers at the Stony Hill Farm
Jacobson: When you first bought the property, did you make any changes to
McCrea: There wasn't anything you could do during the war. You
literally couldn't get any machinery or anything to work with,
so all we did was to have a caretaker on the place so that it
wouldn't get burned up or anything. There wasn't anything on
it at all, except there were a few peach trees up on the top
flat, and there were about four apple trees in this area here
[demonstrates]. It had been a diversified farm; they raised
fruit, and in the field that's down to the right of the cattle
guard where you come in, they had raised wheat. We found this
out, how it had been. There wasn't anything on it when we
bought it; they raised a few goats and a few chickens, and that
When we were up here one of the early summers , and out on
the terrace- -we used to live in the little house further down
the hill, which was a lot littler than it is now- -we saw
walking up the road this absolutely wonderful looking, great
tall Norwegian woman. Her name was Mrs. Cedargreen, and she
had lived up here in the early days, and she told us what it
was like. They evidently lived here for quite a long time.
She was the one who told us where different things were
planted. She came back several different summers, and then she
stopped coming, so I guess maybe she died. She was an awfully
nice lady. She never even let us take her back down to the
highway. She came up on the bus, got off at the bottom of the
road, and walked up the hill. She'd walk off down the hill.
She was wonderful.
Jacobson: She was the one who told you about the wheat?
McCrea: Yes. And that house down below originally used to be out here
under the eucalyptus trees. She told us that they moved it
down to where it is, and you cannot imagine moving a house in
those days, when they had no kind of power except horses. But
they did it, and they did it because there's a bank of clay
that goes across toward the bottom of this hill right here, and
they couldn't get through it in the winter with horses when it
was raining. So they put the house on the other side of where
the clay was.
Even when we first came up here, the road wasn't paved,
obviously, and we just automatically stopped in St. Helena and
put chains on if it was raining, because you couldn't get up
the hill without them.
Jacobson: You had a caretaker who was taking care of fruit trees--?
McCrea: He really was just living on the place because we wanted
somebody to be here. He had uses- -he used to light fires in
the house before we came up on weekends so the house would be
warm, and that kind of thing- -but it was mostly just to take
care of things.
We were the city slickers that the country bumpkins liked
to fool. We got stuck with absolutely the worst pair of
plowhorses. [laughs] They were wild! We thought it was a good
idea, because we could plow up some of the land. During the
war, we did have a cow up here, and we raised some sheep and
chickens, because you needed to do it for food. If you had a
place, you raised a lot of food, and we needed to plow up some
of the land to make a garden. So we got. the horses, but they
were not very successful, believe me.
Jacobson: How often did you come up during the war years?
McCrea: Well, we came up every weekend that we could, but of course we
were limited by the amount of gasoline we had. I cane up in
the summer with the kids as soon as school was out, and stayed
all summer. That was another reason for having a caretaker on
the place, because Fred didn't want to leave me alone. He came
up weekends, and once in a great while he came up once during
Until the war was over, it was a little bit- -I can't ever
remember being lonesome, because I was too busy. If you cook
on a wood stove, and you have kerosene lamps, and you have two
kids to look after, and no electricity, it keeps you busy. But
it was fun. My two sisters used to come up. They were both
See also pp. 44-45.
working, but they'd come up weekends a lot. And we had friends
up here. It was always pretty gay over weekends. Somebody
would have a barbecue or something like that.
McCrea Children at Work in the Vineyards
Jacobson: Your children must have loved it.
McCrea: They really did--they still just love it. I remember we
replanted that field right over there [demonstrates] about two
or three years ago, and Peter said it made him gulp when he
first saw the vines being pulled out, because he had helped
plant them. We had two older boys, Wally and Don, who were my
husband's nephews who came to live with us after their father
and mother died, and they fitted right on top of our family.
All three of the boys worked in the summers up here.
Nowadays, when your vineyard is in pretty good running
shape, there really isn't an awful lot to do in the middle of
the summer, but in those days, when we were planting, it was
busy in the summer. We had a vineyard foreman who planted the
vineyard and then looked after it, and the boys used to work
for him; Fred just turned them over to him. We have a daybook
of everything that's been done on the place ever since we have
Jacobson: You must have huge records, then.
McCrea: Mike [Chelini, the foreman] carries his around with him.
They're regular diaries. There's a whole shelf of them in the
library, and there's another shelf of them over in the lab.
They just noted down every day what they had done, and what the
temperature was, whether it was raining, and who worked that
day. When the boys were young they used to be graded- -whether
they were "A" workers or "B" workers- -because they got paid
according to how well they worked.
Jacobson: Who decided what grade to give them?
McCrea: The foreman.
Jacobson: Who was the foreman?
McCrea: The first foreman we had was Frank Martin, and then Ed Bernard,
who became quite a figure in the valley before he got through.
He was very good at trading property, and he really wound up
with quite a bit of property here in the valley. He died quite
a while ago. Charlie Thompson was after Ed, and then Jim
Pavon, who had been one of the vineyard foremen for Beaulieu
for many years and then had gotten into some kind of dispute
with them about one of the vineyards, and they let him go.
Right then was when Charlie Thompson decided to leave. All our
friends, like Joe Heitz, who had worked at Beaulieu, said, "Oh,
get Jim Pavon. He's just what you need." So he worked for us
for about twelve years .
Jacobson: When did he come on?
McCrea: He started in 1970. When he died, Mike took it over, and Mike
has run it ever since.
Jacobson: Did the grading system really encourage the boys to work
McCrea: I don't know, I think it made them hate Ed [laughter].
Jacobson: Were some of the managers tougher taskmasters than others?
McCrea: I think Ed was. He was the one the boys worked for the most,
because by the time his time was over they had pretty much gone
out doing other jobs, and they were away at school. But Peter
and Don still just absolutely love this place. Don lives down
in Southern California, in the Malibu Mountains, and he told me
it took him about fifteen years before he found what he wanted
down there, because he wanted it to be a little bit like Stony
Jacobson: That's a tough thing to try to replicate.
McCrea: He did surprisingly well. He really did. It isn't really like
this at all, but it has little things that remind you of it.
It has a running stream that goes through it, and it has a
knoll of oak trees like the one out there.
Jacobson: Did your daughter Mary work in the vineyards?
McCrea: No. She mostly rode horses and swam.
From left, Peter, Eleanor, and Fred McCrea at Stony Hill in
First Planting. 1948
Jacobson: When did you first plant grapes?
McCrea: We started our planting in '48.
Jacobson: So that was a few years after the war had ended.
McCrea: Yes, because you couldn't get any equipment. We finally got a
tractor from Fred's boss, who parted with it when he got a
bigger one. It was a little bitty Caterpillar.
Jacobson: Was Fred's boss also--?
McCrea: He had a big cattle ranch over in Sonoma, that now has grapes
on it- -Kenwood.
Jacobson: Did many of Fred's colleagues in the advertising business have
summer properties away from the city?
McCrea: I don't think so, no. They all thought we were kind of crazy,
but they used to like to come up here [laughs].
Jacobson: So once you got your first tractor- -
McCrea: In the meantime, we'd gone up to [UC] Davis and talked to them
about what kind of grapes to plant, and gotten them to come
over and look over the situation here. They all agreed that it
was going to be a good place for grapes, but they didn't want
us to do what we wanted to do, which was to plant the whole
thing to Chardonnay. You know, Chardonnay was not a very well
known commodity in those days. There were only 225 acres of
vineyard that were planted to Chardonnay in the whole state!
They said, "Oh, you might have a total crop failure, and you
couldn't survive that, so you better spread your risks a little
Originally we planted some Riesling and some Pinot blanc ,
as well as the Chardonnay, and we had a little bit of Semillon.
Later we planted some Gewurztraminer .
Jacobson: How much later did you plant the Gewxirz?
McCrea: It seems to me we planted it in 1959, 1968, and 1969.
Jacobson: And the other three you started off with right away?
McCrea: Yes, I think so. We pulled out the Pinot blanc eventually and
replanted it to Chardonnay. You see, we sold practically all
our grapes, to start with. We sold the Riesling to Lee Stewart
at Souverain, and the rest of the grapes we sold to Christian
Brothers for many years. [laughs] Then Fred asked Brother
Timothy to pay us a little bit extra for mountain grapes , and
he wouldn't do it, so we sold them to Joe Heitz.
Learning about Grape Growing
Jacobson: How did you go about learning about grape growing?
McCrea: One of the things that was really wonderful that they had
around here in those days was the Soil Conservation
[Department] people. I guess they still do operate. But they
came up here and laid out the vineyards for us --told us what
direction to plant them, and actually surveyed the terraces.
They were very helpful. They told us there were areas where we
shouldn't plant, and they were quite right, we shouldn't have,
but we did anyway in some places.
The big fields had all been cleared for farming before, so
generally speaking, all we did was to push the edges out.
There are a lot of things that we now probably would have done
differently, that we didn't know enough about. Like which
varieties would do best in which places, and this field out
here [demonstrates] should have had drain tile in it- -things
like that. But neither did anybody else know a lot of the
things that we know now, either.
One of the things that's almost unique about this business
is the way people love to share their knowledge. They really
are wonderful about it. And it intrigued the older guys, like
Louis Martini, Sr., and Herman Wente , and those people, that
there was somebody who was just going to have a little, tiny
winery and do what they wanted with it themselves. Because
both of their operations were big, you know, and were pretty
much controlled by the demand for the wine, and, I'm sure, what
the banks told them to do. Of course, there are a whole lot of
little wineries now, but this was the first one ever in this
Jacobson: Did the people at Davis tell you to plant Pinot blanc,
Riesling, and Semillon with the idea that those would be the
grapes that would grow best, or with the idea that they would
Both. Actually, they've all done very well, too. The Semillon
is the one that was planted where it is because it was a very
hot spot. It was too hot for the others.
Development of Interest in Winemakine
Jacobson: How did your interest in wine develop?
McCrea: Well, when you live in the middle of a whole bunch of people
who talk about wine all the time [laughs], and you drink a lot
of it, you naturally get interested in it. Then after while-
nobody could have made a better Riesling than Lee Stewart did,
but you begin to think that it would be fun to see if you
couldn't make it that good. After we saw what happened to our
grapes- -not at Lee's, and not at Joe Heitz's, but when you sold
it to Christian Brothers or to Charles Krug, they just dumped
all the white grapes in together. It sort of hurt your pride
that your babies weren't being treated with a little more
respect, so you began to think that maybe you could do it
We started really slowly. My remembrance is that you had
to make fifty cases to put your wine in the state fair (maybe
it was a hundred), so we must have made that many in- -I know we
got a gold medal in '55, and we got a gold medal another year
 . We had to have gotten up to that much by then. We
sold most of the grapes and just kept enough to see what we
could do with it.
We built the winery in '51 so that we had a place to do
it. It was '53 that we put it in the state fair the first
time. In those days, that was the only place where there was a
competition. We never have put it in anything else, and we
don't do that anymore, now.
First Winery Equipment
Jacobson: What kind of equipment was in your winery when you first
started it in '51?
McCrea: One thing you find is that somebody is always wanting to
discard his equipment for something a little bigger, so that if
you're little, you get discarded small things. We had a basket
press, and we had a crusher made for us over at Rafanelli's
Foundry up in Healdsburg. It was very primitive, but also very
efficient; it worked very well. We had the crusher on a
platform and dumped the grapes into it, and they came down by
gravity into the basket press, which, when we first got it, was
a hand press; we did it by manpower. Then we eventually had a
hydraulic cylinder put on it, and eventually it gave up. I'm
sure that somebody probably is still using it. When we began
to get bigger quantities of grapes to put in it, we had to get
a bigger press, but we still use the same crusher, except that
it has a bigger hopper added to it. But the crusher is the
Jacobson: What about barrels?
McCrea: In the days when we first started, barrels were hard to come
by. That's one of the things that's really different now from
what it was in the early days . You had to hunt around to find
things, and we used barrels that we got from a barrel importer
down at San Francisco. The first big casks that we have down
there are Yugoslavian. Then we began to get French oak
barrels. I guess the first time we got those was around 1958.
We got them ourselves over in Bordeaux.
Jacobson: Were you making trips to France or Europe during this time?
McCrea: No. The first time we went over was in '58. As a matter of
fact, I guess the first time we went to Bordeaux was in '62.
I'm not sure whether the first French barrels we got were ones
we got ourselves or whether we got some here. I really don't
Learning about Winemaking
Jacobson: How did you learn about winemaking?
McCrea: Fred went up to Davis. One of the things they do up there
that's wonderful is that they have what they call "short
courses" that are very intensive. They used to put them on
when the students weren't there, like in spring vacation and
times like that. Both Fred and I, and Peter and his wife later
took the course.
I think Fred probably learned more by going and working with
Lee Stewart and Joe Heitz.
Jacobson: Was it an open invitation to him?
McCrea: Well, I'll tell you- -Lee, his wife, Glenn, and Fred and I kind
of lived in each other's pockets for several years --many years.
Because they bought their place the same year we bought ours.
We just kind of worked things out together. Of course, Joe
didn't have his place till quite a bit later, because he was
working for Beaulieu when we first came up here. After that,
he went down to Fresno for several years. My guess is that he
bought his place in the sixties, but I'm not sure.
You know, it was so different in those days, because there
really weren't a lot of wineries. It wasn't until the middle
seventies that the mad enthusiasm for wine and grapes happened.
This valley was very diversified farmland when we first came up
here. There were walnut orchards, prune orchards, chicken
farms, horse ranches, and cattle. It wasn't until maybe ten or
fifteen years ago that the actual agricultural income for this
valley wasn't more from cattle than it was from grapes.
Jacobson: How did you and Fred envision your winery when you first
started in '52?
McCrea: We built our winery in '51. It was '52 when we got our bond;
you can't produce anything to sell without a bond, but you can
play with your winery [laughs] as long as you wanted. In those
days you could build anything you wanted, as long as you had
five acres of land so that you weren't bothering anybody else.
Of course, now you can't turn around without getting a permit.
We couldn't add to our winery now without getting a permit, but
we didn't have to have one when we built it.
Jacobson: When you first did build it, did you have a particular vision
of what Stony Hill would be?
McCrea: Maybe Fred did. If we'd thought a little harder than we did,
we should have done it quite differently, because it's right
over there in the trees. The only possible place that we could
have put a reservoir is right there, so it probably would have
been smarter to have had it someplace else. But it just seemed
like the natural place for it, so that's where we built it.
I don't think that Fred had any idea, really, that Stony
Hill would achieve the reputation that it has. It was all the
work that he did, and the care that he gave it, and the
philosophy of winemaking that he put into it that made it have
the reputation that it has. But was really after he died that
it began to get so famous.
[Interview 2: March 15,1990]##
Jacobson: Before you built the winery, when you were selling the grapes
that you grew, how did you establish prices for the grapes?
McCrea: I'll tell you [laughs], in the early days everybody got the
same for all their grapes, and it was $40 a ton. Isn't that
incredible? Now, this year both Chardonnay and Cabernet in the
Napa Valley averaged out to about $1,450 dollars a ton.
Jacobson: At that time, most of the grapes were blended.
McCrea: That's right. They didn't really make varietal wines until a
little later than that. Of course, when they began to make
varietal wines, you got more for the Chardonnay, and more for
the Riesling, too. All the varieties that we grow are known as
"shy bearers"; you don't get enormous tonnage per acre. We get
about two and a half tons to the acre up here in this rocky
soil, and down on the floor of the valley they get between five
and seven, from the same varieties.
It's kind of hairy, trying to make ends meet, at first.
That must have had something to do with our decision to make
wine, because we really couldn't make ends meet, just selling
the grapes. The money's in the wine, not in the grapes.
Developing a Clientele
Jacobson: Once you had built your winery, then you started crushing all
the grapes and selling wine?
McCrea: That's right, just to individual people. I noticed one of the
questions on your outline was how did our mailing list grow.
Actually, we served it to all our friends. We were young, and
we used to entertain a lot, and we'd serve our own wine. Our
guests would say, "Oh, can we buy some?" Then they would serve
it, and their guests would say, "Can't we get some?" That was
really the way it grew. There's literally nobody on that list
who hasn't asked to be on it. So that's the way it started.
Jacobson: This was from the fifties on?
McCrea: Yes. I have the original old order books, right from the very
beginning, of who ordered what. Quite a few of the people who
are on the original order books still buy wine from us.
Jacobson: Did you establish any sort of policies about minimum amounts of
wine that had to be bought? Or were there any limitations?
McCrea: Actually, we had so little wine that it was inconvenient to
ship less than a case. We still don't ship lers than a case,
but we'll sell less than a case, if people come up here to get
it. The same thing- -you can't sell a mixed case where the
bottle sizes aren't the same. Riesling and Gewurztraminer are
bottled in what are called "hock" bottles that are tall, skinny
bottles, and the Chardonnay is bottled in Burgundy bottles.
They don't match in size; they match in content size, but not
the shape of the bottles, so that you can't mix them in a case
for shipment. You can if people come and pick them up.
Jacobson: Were you also selling the wine as bulk wine to other wineries?
McCrea: No, no. We've never sold bulk wine.
Jacobson: So always, from 1951 forward, it was completely your own
McCrea: Oh, yes. It is truly estate bottled wine, because it's all
right from here.
McCrea: The one variation on that is that for the last two years we've
made a second label Chardonnay, called SHV, and we've bought
the grapes from across the valley from Bancroft Vineyards . But
we had to do it for financial reasons, so we could keep the
cash flow going while our new vineyards came into bearing.
Jacobson: Oh, so you've planted more vineyards?
McCrea: Well, we planted some more, and we've had to pull a lot out
because they were getting too old. Last year and this year--
what was the '87 and '88 vintages --we had such a small amount
of our own Chardonnay that we really had to have something else
to sell. So we've been making a second label wine, which a lot
of people do. It's interesting, because it's quite different
from ours. It's Chardonnay, and it's made the same way, but it
comes from a much more assertive fruit over on Howell Mountain.
Did you search for a vineyard that would have grapes most
closely to yours?
There isn't anybody, really, right near here who grows
Chardonnay. We did buy some Riesling this year- -this past
harvest- -from our neighbor, Smith Madrone , whose property
adjoins ours up on top. We picked that on purpose because it
is very much like ours, and we blended it with our own wine.
Is this the first time you've gone to others to get more wine?
Yes, except that we tried twice before. I guess both times it
was with Gewurztraminer . When you buy some outside grapes, you
ferment them separately so you can see how they're going to
come out. When they were all through fermenting and we were
ready to bottle, we put together what you call a triangular
tasting, which had two glasses that had all Stony Hill, and the
third glass had the mixture in it. You could pick the mixture
out every time, so we just sold it separately.
Jacobson: Under a different label?
McCrea: No, that we really did sell bulk wine. I'd forgotten that.
That was one time that we did sell bulk wine.
Jacobson: You mentioned a second instance.
McCrea: We were trying to do the same thing in another year.
Jacobson: Was it a case of not having enough grapes that year?
McCrea: We never did have very much Gewurztraminer . We wanted to have
more, but it just didn't work, so we abandoned that idea and
just got along with a small amount.
Wine Production in the Fifties
Jacobson: What was your production like in the early fifties, both in
terms of volume and by varietals?
McCrea: We grew Chardonnay, Pinot blanc , and Riesling, but we sold the
Pinot blanc, and we sold most of the Riesling. We made
probably between 100 to 200 cases of Chardonnay, and maybe 150
cases of Riesling. We really didn't ever make an awful lot.
We didn't make all of our own grapes into wine until 1962, when
we came up here to live.
Jacobson: The other grapes you were selling all along?
McCrea: Yes, to Lee Stewart as long as he was there (I've forgotten
when he sold out), and to Joe Heitz.
Jacobson: They had to find other sources after '62.
McCrea: Oh, yes, but they understood. There were getting to be more
and more vineyards planted, too, so it wasn't as hard to find
Jacobson: Were the prices still fixed through '62?
McCrea: Oh, no. They began to go up- -I'd have to research that in the
books to see how much they went up. They didn't really get to
be at all high until the late seventies.
Jacobson: Did they begin to be distinguished by variety?
McCrea: Yes, by '62 we were making all varietal wines.
Jacobson: And the pricing, therefore, was differentiated?
McCrea: Yes. [laughs] I have all the old price lists in there
someplace; I could look them all up for you.
Jacobson: Why don't we talk about the evolution of the Stony Hill
winemaking style and philosophy?
McCrea: You know, I think that Fred's whole idea was to make the wine
taste like the grapes as much as possible. We really were
lucky that we just happened to find a piece of property that
made Chardonnay so distinctive. One of the amazing things is-
it's got to be the soil that does it, because all the different
varieties of grapes are totally distinct from each other, but
they all have this underlying Stony Hill quality about them. I
really can't describe it. You recognize it right away, but I
can't describe it; it's so subtle. I think that's the thing
that enchants people about our wine.
If you have a very small place like this, your wines do
vary from year to year, because you have nothing to blend them
with. In a winery the size of Joe Heitz, for instance, the
Chardonnay is made out of grapes from a whole lot of different
vineyards. They probably ferment them all separately,
originally, and then if there's one that they don't like, or if
there's one that doesn't match up with the others, they can
discard it. But they can blend them together and sort of blend
out a poor one. You can't do that if you've got a little tiny
vineyard; you've just got what you got that year.
So they do vary from one year to another, but they have
that underlying Stony Hill flavor about them. Last summer the
International Wine and Food Society of Marin County had a
tasting where they tasted Stony Hill wines from 1962 to 1986.
It was absolutely amazing how they had held up. One of the
funny things is- -you know, when you have a vertical tasting
like that, everybody votes on which ones they like the best--
they never all like the same one the best. It's a totally
subjective thing. It was a lot of fun.
Jacobson: Have you, or has anyone ever been able to describe what the
Stony Hill flavor is?
McCrea: I don't think you can put words to it. The best wine writer
that I know, as far as doing that kind of describing of flavor,
is Hugh Johnson, the British wine writer. He somehow gets the
flavor of wine onto the page better. But it's a very hard
thing to do, because wine is awfully complex. There are so
many different little components- -it tastes differently in
different parts of your mouth, and the way it goes down your
throat. One thing that's very distinctive about Stony Hill
wines is that they have a very long finish. And if they don't,
then that year hasn't been a good one!
Jacobson: Are there certain qualities each year you use as a yardstick to
measure other years by?
McCrea: The principal thing that you start out doing is trying to get
the balance right in the beginning. That's one of the things
that is an advantage to having all your own grapes , because you
can pick them exactly when you want to. You go along, starting
in about the first part of August, and you taste them and also
measure the sugar and acid in them. The acid goes down all the
time, day by day. The sugar goes up, but in fits and starts,
depending on the weather. So you can't just say that if the
acid is like this on this day, the sugar will meet it on that
day. You have to keep track of it every day when it's getting
toward the end, and you pick them at exactly the moment that
you like their balance. That's one of the real advantages of
having estate wine.
Lots of times we've begun to pick- -when you just make a
little test, it isn't always accurate, but when you begin to
get boxes in and put them in the press and measure the juice
that comes out, if it's not the way we want it, we'll stop
picking until it gets the way we want it. That happens quite
Jacobson: You really do it in stages.
McCrea: Quite by luck- -this was not good management; it was just by
luck. For example, just as you come in, the field on the
lefthand side of the cattle guard is Chardonnay . And there's
some up here at this level, and there was some right across
from Mike's house, which is pretty well gone now. We have it
planted at different levels, so it gets ripe at different
times- -just subtly different, so that you don't have to pick it
all in one day. That is a tremendous advantage.
Did you use the gradual picking approach when you first started
Jacobson: Did you have any models of wines that you thought were made
that particularly reflected the taste of the grapes?
McCrea: We were very fond of White Burgundy, but really we didn't have
any other models. We didn't really try to make it like White
Burgundy; we just tried to make the best wine we could out of
our own grapes. We weren't trying to imitate anything. It
turned out to taste quite a lot like Gorton-Charlemagne, but
that was incidental.
Jacobson: What about wine tasting: did you take courses?
McCrea: Oh, yes, we did. The wine library up here in St. Helena--!
guess they still do it- -gives wine tasting lessons in the
summer. The one that Fred and I went to was extraordinary,
because almost all the people in it were people who made wine
up here. Dr. [Maynard A.] Amerine taught it. We had a fine
time. The little schoolhouse you can see down there, off Lodi
Lane --that's where they had them, and it was lots of fun.
I'm not really a very good taster. Fred was wonderful.
Mike is wonderful; Mike has just a wonderful palate. I'm not
really that good. I belong to a ladies' tasting group where
all the people are connected with the wine business in one way
or another, and I find that they can taste things in wine that
I can't taste at all [laughs].
Stony Hill Winemakers
Jacobson: How did you and Fred share in the responsibilities for the
McCrea: He really did practically all of it. From the time we really
were starting making wines, Jim Pavon was our vineyard man. He
knew quite a bit about making wine, too, because he'd worked
down at Beaulieu, and he helped Fred in the vineyard. First we
had high school kids, and then it dawned on us that, because
Davis didn't start until October, we could get a senior in the
wine school at Davis to come and help, and they loved doing it.
We paid them, of course.
Do you want me to give you their names? It really is kind
of exciting, I think, when I look at it. Jed Steele, who is
now the head winemaker at Kendall-Jackson; Greg [Gregory]
Bissonette, who is not any longer in the wine business, but he
used to own Chateau Chevalier; Rick Forman, who is known up and
down the valley as one of the really good winemakers; Hank
Wetzel, who is Alexander Valley Winery, up in the Alexander
Valley; John Scharffenberger , who is over in Mendocino, makes
champagne and is now partners in the French Bellinger; John
Konsgaard, who's at Newtons ; Casey McComish, who's a friend of
ours (he's not in the wine business any more; I think he sells
insurance or something now); and Bruce Streblow, who has his
own winery up here on Spring Mountain. Some of them worked for
us for two years, and some of them just for one year, but it
was quite a group.
Jacobson: You were lucky to get them.
McCrea: And I think they all learned a kind of integrity of winemaking
from Fred that really was kind of the basis for their own
winemaking, because it kind of shines through in the wines they
Jacobson: What were their responsibilities?
McCrea: In a very small winery like this, everybody does everything,
except that Fred was the boss. Fred was telling them what to
do. There's an awful lot of pumping and moving things around
and tasting, and a tremendous amount of washing [laughs]. They
did most of the dirty work, I'm sure.
Stony Hill winery interior.
We're very lucky now. It was 1962 when we hired Bruce
Rogers, and he was here for about two years, I guess. Mike
came to work for us, actually as the replacement for Jim Pavon
in the vineyard, when Jim died. Mike had been living in the
house that he's living in now. When Jim died, we were going to
have to have that house back, because we needed a house for our
foreman. Mike was working in the cellar at Sterling
[Vineyards], and he decided that he wanted to come and work for
us. So he ran the vineyard, and Bruce helped with the
winemaking. Actually, they all three did, you know. During
the harvest there isn't anything to be doing in the vineyard,
so everybody works at the winery.
When Bruce quit, Mike took over both the vineyard and the
winery, and he's been here every since, which I'm sure is a
record for the wine business. Next year will be his twentieth
harvest. He was making wine with Fred for five years before
Jacobson: From '72 until 1977.
McCrea: Fred died in the first of January, 1977, so '77 was our first
year to do it without Fred- -and Mike's little boy was born that
day! That's a day I will never forget [laughter].
Jacobson: Did you work in the winery?
McCrea: Not very much. I really didn't work in the winery very much.
Until Fred died, I really didn't do an awful lot of work except
cook and entertain people, and that kind of thing. I didn't do
an awful lot with the winery- -except the tasting; we used to
always taste everything together, and Mike and I still do that,
only it's enlarged now. My son and his wife, and Mike and his
wife, and I all sit around the table and taste the wines before
we bottle them. Because there are things you can do. You can
add acid to the wine at the end if you feel you need to, so you
make samples of different levels of acid. We taste each
variety blind, and everybody writes down adjectives that they
think describe them, to help write the mailer. The last two
years my daughter-in-law has written the mailer, and she's
really good at it.
Jacobson: You were always involved in tastings before bottling, and in
writing the mailers?
McCrea: Well, yes, and I did some of the office work. But Fred really
loved to do it [make the wine], so it was his baby, really,
more than mine until after he died.
Profitability of a Small Winery
Jacobson: When did you turn to the wine business full time?
McCrea: In '62, because he retired from the advertising business. He
was sixty-five then, so he had to retire. That's when we came
up here to live full time.
Jacobson: So he's had two careers, and very different ones.
McCrea: Oh, yes. It was just wonderful that he did that, because he
just enjoyed it so much. Most of the big capital expenses were
taken care of, you see, before we came up here to live. The
winery was built, the house was built, the vineyards were all
planted. Of course, we've had to do a lot of replanting
lately, and this is really hideously expensive. But aside from
that and buying new equipment for the winery and things like
that, we haven't really had huge capital expenses. We don't
make a lot of money, but we make some; you know, we get by.
And we support two other families and five individuals, plus
Sally in the office. It's well worth doing, and it's a
wonderful way of life.
I think, beginning next year, in '91, we'll really begin
to make a lot more money, because we have enough more of our
grapes coming into bearing so that it's really going to pay off
in a big way, I think. Not in a big way- -not as Donald Trump
thinks of it [laughter].
Jacobson: There's a rule of thumb that when you start out in the wine
industry, it takes about ten years before you break even. Does
that rule of thumb apply to your situation?
McCrea: I would think easily it was at least ten years. I'd have to go
back and look it up in the books --which we have, all of them
but it's a terrible job.
Jacobson: It may be harder to measure in your own mind because you
started off so small.
McCrea: That's right. We've just built it up so gradually. But we
never owed any money; we did it all on what we earned, so we
never borrowed any money to do it. That's such a controlling
factor in so many people's business. We've just been lucky
that we haven't had that to cope with.
Jacobson: Because it had all been paid for before Fred retired?
McCrea: That's right. And we've always gotten along from one year to
another. It's really not comparable to most people's business.
Jacobson: Did Fred ever compare in his mind the world of advertising and
the world of wine?
McCrea: Oh, yes, he did, indeed. He really didn't enjoy a lot of the
advertising business. A lot of it he did, but a lot of it he
didn't. He didn't like a lot of the people he had to deal
with, and he just enjoyed his relationship with the people in
the wine business very much. I think that if this were a lot
bigger place, and he had to go traveling around selling his
wine, the way a lot of people do now, he might not have liked
that very much. On the other hand, he was a very good
merchandiser. Actually, the way we sell wine grew out of his
knowledge of merchandising. I never really had to think very
much about it. Although we now make a lot more wine than we
did before Fred died, I just went on with it the way it was,
and it worked. So I'm not about to change it if I don't have
Jacobson: Can you describe for me the way he set up the merchandising?
McCrea: Just by word of mouth, really. I think he must have realized
that he had a product that made its name, and that's really
what it all goes back to, you know. People come up to see me
all the time and discuss how they should sell their wine, and I
really can't tell them, because the situation is so different
now than it was then. There really weren't very many wines,
and we were lucky that a small but choice number of restaurants
and clubs asked if they could buy our wines. That in itself is
a wonderful way of making contact with people. But we didn't
have to go around and peddle it to them; they called us up and
asked us if they could have it.
But this is no longer true if a small winery starts. You
really have to go in person with your wine and get them to
taste it, and ask them to put it on their wine list, and hope
that they'll reorder. It's loads harder to break in. You have
to go to Liquor Barn or Safeway. A lot of people have
wholesalers or brokers who theoretically get it into the retail
stores that you want it in, but unless you keep some control
over the stores that it gets into, the wines don't always get
into the stores you wanted.
In a very small way, we have a small problem that way. We
pick out the restaurants and clubs that we want to be in very
carefully, because we want it to be comparable in class to what
we think our wine is. There is a certain gray market- -or black
market, if you want to call it that; it's against the law,
actually, for individual people to go into a place like John
Walker's, for instance, with a case of wine under their arm and
sell it to them. You're not supposed to sell wine if you don't
have a license, but they do it all the time. So sometimes it
gets into stores where you wish it weren't, but there's nothing
you can do about it. And you particularly wish it weren't
there because they charge terrific prices for it.
We do have a distributor in New York, but he understands
and he gets us into exactly the places we would pick ourselves .
Restaurant and Club Placements
Jacobson: What percentage of your revenue comes from restaurants or
McCrea: I would think about a third, maybe.
Jacobson: Were these restaurant owners who happened to have tasted your
McCrea: The very first one that approached us was Trader Vic [Victor
Bergeron] . He probably did more to put California wines on
restaurants wine lists than any single person, because he
believed in California wines long before most restaurants did.
He sought them out, and he pushed them. He said, "These are
California wines, and they are The Best." He was wonderful.
Another one of our restaurants is one I'm sure you've never
heard of. It's called the Imperial Dynasty, down in Hanford,
near Fresno. They called us up and wanted to have our wine,
and they've bought it every since. It's a Chinese restaurant,
but it has a French side to it, too. I have never managed to
get there, but it's the kind of place where people go out of
their way to go to, and Hanford surely is out of the way
Jacobson: How did Trader Vic find you?
McCrea: I honestly don't know. He may have just have seen that we got
a couple of gold medals at the fair. In those days, getting a
couple of gold medals at the fair was very helpful. I don't
know how helpful it is now, because there are too many
competitions now. We don't go into any of them anymore. We'd
rather sell our wine than waste it on them [laughs], because
you have to send them quite a lot.
Jacobson: When was the last time you entered a fair?
McCrea: Oh, I don't know, way back in the sixties sometime.
Jacobson: What are some of the other restaurants that you have wines in?
McCrea: We don't have them right at the moment, you understand, because
this last year and this year we aren't selling any wholesale
wines because of the situation in the vineyard. We're keeping
it all for our retail customers. But it's in the Bohemian
Club, the Pacific Union Club, the Carnelian Room at the top of
the B of A [Bank of American Building], Stanford Court, and
Trader Vic's. I guess that's all in San Francisco. Down in
Los Angeles it was in Scandia; Peppone , which is a restaurant
out in West Los Angeles; the California Club; and the Los
Angeles Country Club. I guess we've sold some to the Menlo
Country Club, down in Menlo Park, too.
Jacobson: Was Fred a member of--
McCrea: Funny enough, he wasn't a member of any of those clubs, though
lots of his friends were. I don't know, he didn't join clubs.
He was quite the opposite from our son, who is a great
Entering Markets in New York and England
Jacobson: How did you decide to go into the New York market?
McCrea: Actually, Mr. [Mario] Daniele came to us. He comes out here on
a buying trip every year- -I guess twice a year he comes out.
Wonderful, wonderful guy; he's just darling. He was just
tickled to death when we said we would send him some wine. He
gets it in just absolutely marvelous places in New York. It's
at the American Place, and the place that I love the best is
the Oyster Bar, because whenever we went to New York, the first
place we lit out for was the Oyster Bar. I thought that was
neat, that Mario put it in there. And it's in Windows on the
World, Four Seasons, River Cafe. I don't know all of them,
because it varies from one year to another, I'm sure.
And it's in the French Laundry up here in the valley, and
I guess Knickerbockers has a little, too.
Jacobson: You're also in England.
McCrea: Only one year. Mr. Ronald Avery, whom I met at lunch at Belle
and Barney Rhodes' , persuaded me to send them a couple of
cases. It's a terrible nuisance to ship anything into the
Common Market because you have to have different labels, a lab
analysis, and so forth. Unless you're doing it all the time
and in a big way- -the way Robert Mondavi does, for instance- -
it's too much bother to do it with just a case or two.
Jacobson: How did you decide how to price your wines?
McCrea: Oh, I don't know, we've tried very hard to keep it down as much
as we could. I felt it was really quite unfortunate that we
had to raise it this last time, but we had to do it, just to
keep going the last few years. Also, there's the fact that
comparable Chardonnays were selling for quite a lot more than
ours. You can't get too far behind your competition, or it
looks as if you don't have much pride in your product. But I
have always hated to raise it, partly because we have this list
of old, old customers that we've had for a long time, and for a
lot of them it's their one big treat of the year, and I do not
want to price them out of the market.
I'm sure we could sell our wine- -our Chardonnay, anyway- -
for $25, but it gets in the wrong hands then, as far as I'm
concerned. I like to have it go to people who really just love
that wine. The minute you make it too expensive, you then get
it in the hands of wine snobs, who really buy it by price, not
by the wine. So we try to keep it as low as we can, and still
not look as if we were denigrating our own wine.
Jacobson: Sometimes I would imagine that gets hard, because the price of
Chardonnay, in particular, has just--
McCrea: Oh, yes. Can you imagine this, now? Joe Heitz reluctantly
gave a taste of his '85 Cabernet Sauvignon to a wine writer,
who was not supposed to say anything about it because it had
not been released. But he did, and he said it was absolutely
super wonderful. His salesroom is down past Louis Martini's.
I just happened to be at the bakery across the way on a
Saturday, the day that they released it, and there was a line
about four blocks long down there! It was selling for $50 a
bottle, and if he'd been selling it for $100 a bottle it would
have been just the same line. They were just people who were
bound that they were going to get that wine.
There is a demand among a certain group of people who have
a lot of money. They literally will pay anything for something
that they think is exclusive and special.
Jacobson: Is that a problem for the industry?
McCrea: It's a small problem for a small bunch of really good
winemakers. But it's really a small problem. The things that
they put at such terrific prices, there never is very much of.
So it's a problem maybe for a few weeks, and then it goes away.
Then your problem is selling the rest of your wine [laughs].
Jacobson: The prices at the upper end don't necessarily drive up prices
in the middle range?
McCrea: No. If anything, they tend to keep them down, because there's
just too big a lake of what you might call non-premium wines.
Those are the ones that people have trouble selling, and it's
all over the world. There are just an awful lot of extra wines
floating around in Italy, Chile, Spain, France, Australia- -
everyplace. The premium wines are not really difficult to
sell; it's the middle class ones that are.
Size of Stony Hill Production
Jacobson: Did you and Fred every think about expanding?
McCrea: There's really no place we could expand. The last big vineyard
we planted, we planted since Fred died. It's over on the other
slope. We did it with great trepidation, because it faces
northwest, and all the rest of the vineyard faces southeast,
you see. We weren't really sure it was going to make
comparable tasting wine. The first year that we got any grapes
off of it, we were almost scared to taste it, but it tasted
like Stony Hill; it's lovely. It really has been very
successful. But that will be the last place we can plant
anything, I think, because this is really very rugged land, you
know. Even that vineyard is very steep.
Jacobson: By how many cases would that vineyard increase your entire
McCrea: Let's see. We got twenty tons off of it last year, and I don't
think we'll ever get very much more than twenty tons off of it.
Oh, me [ figuring] - -you get about 150 gallons per ton, and there
are roughly two and half gallons in a case. It makes about
1,200 cases, so it isn't a tremendous amount.
Jacobson: What's your production now?
McCrea: It's right up about 2,500 cases of Chardonnay. I think we have
about 800 cases of Riesling, and we have less and less Gewxirztraminer
because a lot of it has Pierce 's Disease and we've had to pull
it out. We haven't figured out a place to replant it yet.
Hopefully, we'll keep it going a little while. This last year
we only got 22 cases of Semillon, because it's in a rugged
place and it's gradually dying out- -not from any diseases; just
getting old. We haven't decided whether to replant it or not.
We really just make it because we like it. It's one little
wine that you might say really is a hobby, because we've never
made money on it; it doesn't even break even.
Semillon de Soleil
Jacobson: How did the Semillon come to be?
McCrea: When you come up the road where the Stony Hill sign it, it's at
the very bottom of that field. It's terribly hot down there;
it was too hot for Riesling, so we just planted some Semillon
in there. We just picked it and sold it with the rest of our
grapes, originally. Darrell Corti was up here one day [in
1971], and he said, "Why don't you make straw wine out of it?"
It's a dessert wine, but what we do with it is to pick it at
about 26 sugar, and then we put it on prune trays in the sun,
out in the driveway, and raise the sugar to about 36. Then we
stop fermentation when it's about 8 percent sugar, and it's
Jacobson: Does that get onto your mailing list?
McCrea: Not any more, really, because we have so little of it. I said
to Mike, when he told me there were only 22 cases, "Maybe we
better divide it three ways: you get one third, Peter gets one
third, and I get one third." There are a few people we know
who really love it, so we just let them have it. I don't know,
it just sort of gets sold by itself. Originally we made the
whole thing for Corti Brothers in Sacramento. That was why we
made it, and we used to sell it to them. Then they decided
they didn't want it any more; I guess they didn't have as much
luck selling it as we did.
Jacobson: Did they ask for such a product?
McCrea: Oh, yes. Well, Darrell 's a good friend. He was the one who
suggested it. They've always carried our wine, too, up in
Jacobson: Have your viticultural techniques evolved or changed over the
McCrea: Yes, I'm sure they have. We had about three years that were
very lucky years for us; when we were awfully busy in the
winery, Mark Oberschulte took care of the vineyard for us. He
had taken care of vineyards up at Sterling. He planted
Sterling's mountain vineyards, so he knew about mountain
vineyards. He really helped the vineyard a lot, and in a way
taught Mike a lot. But then Louis Martini hired him away from
me. Well, we couldn't say no to it, because the Martini's have
vineyards all over, you know- -they have them in Sonoma and so
forth- -and he wanted Mark to be head of their vineyard
operations in Pope Valley, which was a big job, and he got a
Jacobson: You were saying that Mark got a house and a truck- -
McCrea: And just about double the salary, so you couldn't very well
stand in his way. He is a wonderful guy.
One of the things that's wonderful about this valley is
the way all the young guys know each other so well, and they
exchange enormous amounts of information. Mike has several
sources of really good knowledge about the vineyard, and he
gets people to come over and look at it when he thinks he'd
like to know a little more about something. He's very good at
this. So I think our viticultural practices have changed quite
My son works for Chevron, and he wound up being in charge
of all the fertilizer department, so he's gotten very
interested in it, too. Between them, I think they probably
have changed some of our viticultural practices.
One of the things that we can't do, because we don't have
enough water, is irrigate up here. So this is all dry farming.
Jacobson: Have there ever been years when it hasn't rained enough, where
McCrea: Well, this is the fourth year, now, with a lot less water than
we'd like to have. Though, strangely enough, we got by very
well last year, and I think we probably will this year. While
the rain hasn't been good for the general water supply in the
state, it's been very good for the farms as they stood because
it all sank into the ground, instead of a lot of it running
off. If you have what is referred to as a "gully washer"
around here- -a long, steady, three or four days of rain- -by the
end of the second day, it's all running off, so it doesn't
really do an awful lot of good to the immediate place. The
rain has come very well that way this year, so I think we'll
get by all right- -as long as our well doesn't run dry.
Jacobson: Have you ever experimented with drip irrigation?
McCrea: You have to have the basic water supply for drip irrigation.
We do drip irrigate the new vineyard when we plant a new
vineyard. We can do it for a short time, but we can't do it
all summer long, the way they do down on the floor of the
valley. That's one reason we get a small tonnage, but it's
also one reason why our grapes are so concentrated in flavor.
Jacobson: Have you discovered better places to plant certain varietals
that deviated from your original plan?
McCrea: Gradually, while we are doing the new planting, we have
switched some of the vineyards, but it's largely been to try
and get the Chardonnay away from areas that were susceptible to
Pierce 's Disease more than any other reason.
Planting of Pinot Noir. 1972
Jacobson: There was one year, 1972, I believe, when you planted Pinot
noir--your first experience with reds.
McCrea: [laughs, pointing] That's it, right down there. We only have
four rows of Pinot noir and four rows of Zinfandel down there.
We make one barrel of Pinot Noir Blanc, and one barrel of red
Pinot Noir, and a couple of barrels of Zinfandel, but we don't
sell those. The Pinot Noir Blanc is our swimming pool wine; we
all drink it all summer. It's like a nouveau- -it' s good when
it's young- -and we drink it all summer, and it's gone by the
end of the summer. The other two, I don't know, I guess Mike
and the Mexicans and Peter drink it, because I never get any
[laughs]. When we bottle it, I just pay the tax on it right
then, and then we don't sell it.
Jacobson: Did you ever try to sell it?
McCrea: No. We haven't got enough.
Jacobson: Why did you decide to plant the red grapes?
McCrea: I'll tell you: Mike is of Italian ancestry, and he needs a
certain amount of red wine in his diet [laughs].
Jacobson: Was it Mike's idea, then?
McCrea: Pretty much, yes. I noticed that when they planted that field
where you come around the corner there, he planted about four
rows of Cabernet in there, just to see what they would do. You
know, you get interested in seeing what things will do.
Present Division of Winemaking and Management Responsibilities
After your husband died, you resumed more responsibilities.
What were they?
Well, I had to run the office. The government keeps your
office quite busy with reports and correspondence of all
different kinds. Before Fred died I had started doing all the
reports because he didn't like doing stuff like that, and I
didn't mind doing it. And you have to keep track of the books.
We do have a bookkeeper, but I don't know, it seems to me that
either most of the morning or most of the afternoon I spend in
the office, even with a girl helping me.
We now have a computer, so a lot of the stuff is on it.
We didn't particularly want a computer, but we store our wine
in the Wine Service Co-op, down in the village, and they went
over to a computer, so we had to, because you had to give them
your orders by computer. It works very well, except that I
can't see well enough to read the screen, so I have to have
somebody do it for me. That kind of irks me some of the time,
because I can't find things when I need them
calls up and asks if he has paid his bill, I
the computer, and I don't know how to do it.
have to look in
Before Sally went
away this week, she made me
paid [ laughs ] .
a list of all the people that I had
Did you become more involved in the winemaking itself?
No. Maybe I drop a word of advice here and there. When it
comes to making decisions about new equipment and things like
that, Peter really does a lot of it now. He's a big help. He
comes up here, oh, at least every two weeks and spends the
weekend. He and Mike always go all over the vineyard together
and discuss any problems. I think, in a lot of ways, it's
easier for Mike to talk to him than it is to me, though Mike's
and my relationship is wonderful. But I think Peter is a help,
too. After all, he's had an awful lot more managerial
experience than I have.
Jacobson: Working at Chevron?
McCrea: Yes. He worked in Arabia for three years, and then he worked
in Holland for three years. He's worked his way up the ladder
in Chevron. He's now the head of all the agricultural products
that they make. He was just fertilizers, but now I think he's
in charge of all those things that say Ortho.
Jacobson: What about the actual winemaking? Is that all Mike's?
McCrea: That's really all Mike's. Peter's hardly ever even up here
during the harvest. It's pure luck whether he can get up here
during the harvest, because he really works very hard and
travels a great deal.
Trips to French Wine Country
Jacobson: I forgot to ask you about your trips to France, particularly
the one you made in '62.
McCrea: That was the longest trip we made. We were over there in '58,
'62, and we took our daughter over there before she was
married. That must have been in the seventies. I think we
went to London in '76. I think we were over there the summer
before Fred died. I think we've been over there four times.
Jacobson: Did you go over there with the view to learning more about
McCrea: Well, we had a lot of fun. One of the things that's wonderful
is that if you get letters from your friends, like Dr. Amerine
and various other people that have connections over there, you
really can just get handed on from one winery to another. When
we were in Bordeaux, it was actually one of our own personal
friends who got us started there. He had family there, so he
gave us a letter to his family, and we just went from one
chateau to another. It was just wonderful. Naturally, you
learn a lot. That was very rewarding,
went to Bordeaux .
It was in '62 that we
We left here after the harvest, in the first part of
November. We were in Bordeaux, with one of the professors from
Davis who was a good friend, Dinny [A. Dinsmoor] Webb, who was
over there on sabbatical. We just happened to be having lunch
with him that day, and we looked at each other and said, "Today
is Thanksgiving!" When we went to Chateau Yquem it was after
Thanksgiving, and they still had this real old-fashioned,
enormous hydraulic wooden press, and they still had the
pressure on it. About once every five minutes a drop would
come out. [laughs]
Jacobson: Did Fred learn things in particular from that trip?
McCrea: You just always absorb stuff, you know. He was a great
learner. That was really a great trip; we had a wonderful
Jacobson: You started out with a crusher which you still have today?
Yes, we still have the crusher, but we have a different press
Jacobson: What kind of press do you have?
McCrea: We have a Howard press. It has two steel plates on a screw
that come together and squeeze the grapes. I should take you
over there to see those.
See p. 46.
III TOUR OF WINERY AND VINEYARDS
[Interview 3: March 28, 1990 ]##
McCrea: [walking through the property] This is among the first
plantings that we did. I think this was planted in '48.
We started planting from up above there, and came down
this way. I guess it was probably the second year that we were
planting that we did this field. Everything above here we had
already planted, and then the ones down below we did a little
at a time.
Jacobson: How many acres is the top field that you planted first?
McCrea: I don't know, because we did about four or five acres a year.
We're right in the middle of replanting now. There's a field
that goes from over behind those trees to way over behind those
[points] that is the biggest Chardonnay field. It's almost ten
acres. Then there's another one over the hill --see the way you
can see it through the trees along there? It's behind there,
and there are ten acres cleared. We planted that about four or
five years ago. We're now getting grapes off of it. The one
over there, where the terraces are, was replanted- -this is its
third leaf, I think, so we'll get a little off of it this year.
These have not been replanted yet. This is Riesling, up
to the place where there's kind of a break in the hill up
there. From there, up over the top, is Gewurztraminer .
Jacobson: Are you planning to replant this area?
Eventually, yes. Gradually they just go downhill after a
while. You keep getting a smaller and smaller crop, and as
they get old they also get very susceptible to disease. You
can see where there are blank places, where there aren't any
vines. Usually, if a vine dies you replant it right away, but
we stopped replanting this field- -filling in- -because it was
getting too old.
How many acres to you replant at a time?
of four or five acres?
Is it at increments
No, not particularly, because we just take a field and do it.
We've just done one at a time, and when we do it we try to push
it out a little bit and get maybe a few more vines in it. We
bud it to our own budwood, and select what we think are the
best vines to take the budwood off of, so theoretically it
ought to get better all the time. They usually come out in
Jacobson: Do you walk down to the winery daily?
McCrea: By this time of year it's usually at least daily. I think
we've had visitors every day this week.
Jacobson: You take visitors by appointment only, right?
McCrea: That's because I_ take them around, and you can't just drop
everything you're doing. You have to know ahead of time when
they're coming. The most aggravating thing they do is make an
appointment and then not tell you that they're not coming. You
hang around and wait for them, and then they don't show up.
Oh, I wanted to show Mike something over here, if he
Jacobson: Hopefully it doesn't happen too often that people don't show
McCrea: Surprisingly, it happens quite often.
Problems with Deer
McCrea: There, that's what I wanted to show him. That's a deer track,
and it was wet yesterday. If there's a deer in here, we want
to get rid of it. They may have gotten rid of it; I heard
somebody shooting up the hill a few days back. Maybe I should
go back and show him that. No, I can tell him. [humming]
Jacobson: What kind of damage do deer do?
McCrea: The buds are just about to come out, and they're just tiny,
fragile things, and the deer love them. They're just like
caviar to them, and just one deer can clean a field like this
in an hour. Usually you then get another shoot that comes out,
but it doesn't have any fruit. So this time of year is the
worst time to get a deer in.
Jacobson: You just have to keep your eye out for them?
McCrea: It's all fenced off, so theoretically they can't get in.
Everybody thinks that they jump over the fence, but what they
really do is to go underneath, or to find a hole in the fence.
Usually somebody patrols the fence all the way around at the
beginning of the spring to rock it in at the bottom if it's
washed out, or to mend any holes there are in it.
Jacobson: It's almost hard to imagine deer scrambling underneath a fence.
McCrea: But you should see them do it! I've seen them do it. There
was a place right down here- -see, the fence is just on the
other side of the driveway there, back in the trees --where you
could see the way they worked, just the way a feisty little dog
will do. They work a hole in gradually, and once they find out
they can do it, then the whole group comes in. They're not as
big as they look when you see them, and they can slide through
the most amazingly small holes.
McCrea: Isn't that a heavenly view? Isn't it just lovely? This is
where the house was, originally, evidently. You see, this was
a homestead, and the original homesteader's house was right
here. They moved it down to where Mike lives; part of Mike's
house is the original house. They moved it down there because
there's a band of clay that goes across between here and there,
and they couldn't get through it in horse and buggy days in the
wintertime. So they moved their house on the other side of it.
But can you imagine moving a house down this hill, with no
modern mechanical equipment at all? I don't know how they ever
did it. But I'm sure they did, because the lady who lived here
at the time that they did it, came up and told us about it.
We used to live down in Mike's house before we built this
one, and one day up the road came this very striking, tall
Norwegian lady. She came on the bus and walked up the hill.
Jacobson: Which is about two miles?
McCrea: Yes. Oh, I've done it lots of times. I can't do it anymore,
but I have done it. She told us about living up here. It was
a subsistence farm. She told us that they had wheat in that
field that's to the right of the cattle guard down below. When
we bought the place there were remnants of apples up here, and
then up on top, where the Chardonnay field is, they had
peaches. In between they had vegetable gardens and animals and
Jacobson: How does what was planted here before affect your vineyards?
McCrea: I don't think it affects it at all. There hadn't been anything
for a long time. After the Cedargreens moved out, I think it
probably was a Prohibition hideaway, because it kept changing
hands during Prohibition, all with kind of mafia- sounding
Jacobson: Do you swim in the pool here?
McCrea: Oh, yes. It just got cleaned up this weekend. We have a lot
of young people around here. Mike has three kids, and I have
two grandchildren who live in San Francisco who bring all their
friends up here.
Jacobson: The deck is wonderful.
McCrea: You can't really see where it was now, but we added all of this
part and the benches from the lumber that we got when we
cleared the new field up above. We weren't allowed to clear-
cut it at that time; they wouldn't give us a permit to clear-
cut it and sell it, so we moved a mill in and used the lumber
McCrea: This is the scene of the action during the crush. You can see
where that hopper has been added to- -the cornucopia part; that
was the original one down below, and we just added to make the
hopper bigger. In the old days we used to just dump boxes into
it. It was up on a platform, and we used to dump boxes into
it, and then the grapes came right down into the press from
where they were up high. We've only done it one year like
this. We now pick into those large plastic bins --that's upside
down, of course. You can pick it up with a forklift. The
workmen pick into what look like small washbasins, and then
they dump them into those bins.
Jacobson: How many grapes can that hold?
McCrea: It holds half a ton. We bring two of them down on a little
trailer behind the truck, and then pick them up with a forklift
and put them into that contraption up high that fits into the
hopper- -and then they turn it, and it up-ends and goes into
there. You can't see exactly how it works, because part of it
isn't there. There's a device that comes out to guide the
grapes , and they go into kind of a sump pump that pumps them up
into the press.
Jacobson: This is a new press?
McCrea: Actually, we've only used it one year, but we had one just like
it for three or four years that was smaller. It works just
fine. It has two round steel plates that are just as big
around as that cylinder, and they come together and squeeze the
grapes. Then it relaxes- -it ' s programmed so that it lets go--
and the whole cylinder turns over, and then it does it again,
as many times as you want it to. We're very pleased with it.
The juice comes out all those little slots into the pan
underneath. You can see that there's a hose bib on the end of
it, and that goes into that little door there in the back of
the winery, and that's the way it gets in the winery.
Obviously this would not work with red wines, because you have
to leave the skins on the red wine. This is, for all intents
and purposes, just a little bit more pressing than free-run
Jacobson: What equipment did your husband use when he was making Pinot
McCrea: When we made Pinot Noir we'd just do it in a plastic container,
or a stainless steel barrel. You have to leave the skins on
the red wine , so then you keep pushing them down and
recirculating the juice over them. But you don't have to do
that with a white wine, thank goodness.
After the juice has been in the setting tank inside the
winery overnight, we pump the Riesling and Gewurztraminer , and
about two thirds of the Chardonnay back out to the refrigerated
tanks and ferment them out there. Two thirds of the Chardonnay
we do in the winery.
Jacobson: Have you had the tanks from the beginning?
McCrea: Oh, no, they've been added. As a matter of fact, that fat one
we just got- -we haven't used it yet- -to get ready for next
Jacobson: What were you using before?
McCrea: Just the barrels in the winery. It didn't matter so much when
you didn't have very much, you know, but as soon as you have a
fairly big amount of wine it builds up an awful lot of heat
during the fermentation. With the Riesling and Gewurztraminer ,
particularly, you don't want it to do that because their
bouquet is so delicate that it kind of boils it off. The
Chardonnay, on the other hand, you want to ferment cold, but
you don't want it to get so cold that it gets stuck, which it
does very easily.
We've always fermented the Chardonnay in the winery. But
except for the last two years, since we haven't had as much as
we wanted, we've had too much to do it all.
Inside the Winery
McCrea: This is it! [opens door to winery]
Jacobson: I always love the smell of wineries.
McCrea: Have you ever been up here during the crush? That is when it
smells just wonderful. The whole valley smells of grapes.
The juice comes in through that little door, right behind
that little barrel, and it comes into here, and also into here,
overnight, just to settle out the--
You have both an oak container and a stainless steel one?
Yes, but that doesn't really make any difference at that point.
It's really only when it's aging that it matters. I know that
fermenting it in new oak makes a lot of difference, but we
don't do that because we don't like it. You pick up too much
oak too fast.
How often do you change your oak barrels?
You can see that some of these have been here
We've had those since way back in the sixties
are the ones that we change more often. Some
original ones that we got. The first ones we
I think, or maybe it was in '58. We ordered
in Europe. Those dear things used to be $50
they're close to $400. Those are all French,
are French, too. These are Yugoslavian, and
ones like this in the adjoining room that are
for a long time .
The little ones
of those are the
got were in '62,
them when we were
apiece, and now
and these four
there are four big
When you get a brand-new oak barrel, do you ferment in it for
only a short period of time?
I think we used it for fermenting some wine. Fermentation
doesn't take very long, anyway; it only takes about ten days to
two weeks. If you ferment it in any of the newer barrels, Mike
would take it out of them right away when the fermentation was
over and mix them with something that had been fermented in one
of these neutral barrels. Eventually, it all gets mixed
together. How he does this, I have no idea. It's just a
miracle to me. He keeps a recordhis book isn't here; it's
usually under his arm- -of where every single drop has been, and
he knows which ones are in which barrels now, where they've
been before. He really does do all of it in his head until the
very end, when he's trying to figure out how to make the blend
and have it ready to be bottled, because you can't bottle it
all in one day. I'm sure that in the big wineries they do this
all mathematically, but it just comes out of Mike's head.
It's like a game of Concentration, where you're trying to
remember where the last card was.
McCrea: You're absolutely right. That's the nearest thing I've ever
thought of. [laughter]
We built this room first. It was the only room we had,
and there was a bench along this side that was the lab. I
guess there weren't any barrels along this side, but gradually,
over a period of time, as we changed the amounts of wine that
we have, we had to add barrels and whatnot. We added another
one over here. The original winery was built in '51, and I
don't remember when this adjoining room was built. It used to
be really spectacular. We keep our Chardonnay for a year after
it's bottled, in the bottle, and that whole wall used to be
binned bottles , so that when you opened the door and came in
here it was really smashing. It was just beautiful. But we
needed the extra room for tanks .
McCrea: We used to do all our own bottling in here [the adjoining
room] ; we'd move all these center barrels out and do the
bottling right in here. We can use that stainless steel tank
for a mixing tank- -which we still do. But now we bring in a
mobile bottling line that parks outside and does all the
bottling. It does the bottling and the labeling all at the
same time. We used to do the labeling after the year was up.
We then candled every bottle to see that it didn't have any odd
bits in it, and then labeled it.
Jacobson: That's a painstaking process.
McCrea: Oh, I know it. The widow of the first vineyard foreman that we
had, Jim Pavon--her name is Lorenza--has labeled every single
bottle of Stony Hill wine. I feel just terrible about it now,
because we're really depriving her of half her income by having
the labeling done automatically. But you can't combine the two
things- -well , I guess you could. It's a whole lot cheaper and
more efficient to do the whole thing at once, so I have to
think of other ways of taking care of her, by doing things like
paying for her automobile insurance and her health insurance,
and all that kind of stuff.
Jacobson: When did you get the automatic bottling operation in?
McCrea: The bottling line? We've only done it two years. This will be
the third year. It works awfully well. It would take our guys
about two weeks to do the Chardonnay, and they do it in about
three days. The same guys will be working- -they all work on
it- -but only for three days, and then we can use them for
Jacobson: How did you come up with the design for the label?
McCrea: Long before it became fashionable, which it is now, to use
dead- leaf green bottles for Chardonnay- -they didn't make them
in this country; that's what they use in France. That's where
it got its name; it's called feuille morte in France. We used
to get the scavengers in San Francisco to save the bottles from
the clubs and hotels.
McCrea: The label was originally designed to go on that color bottle.
I'll show you what it was like. Fred was in the advertising
industry, and there are artists all over the place in an
advertising office, happy to do odd bits like that for you,
especially if you're the boss [laughs].
Jacobson: You said the scavengers collected the bottles from the clubs in
McCrea: They did that for, I suppose, ten years.
Jacobson: How did you manage to get them to do that for you?
McCrea: Oh, they sold bottles on the side. But we got them to separate
out the ones that we wanted. Oh, they made a regular business
out of it.
Last year, maybe a little bit later in the year than this,
when I was walking along here, I watched a snake come out of
the wall. It was evidently just surfacing for the spring. It
took him a long time to pull himself out.
There are fantastic birds around this place. Have you
ever seen a pileated woodpecker? They're the only ones that
Grown, produced and bottled 600 feet
above the floor of the Napa Valley by
Stony Hill Vineyard, St. Helena, Calif
ALCOHOL 1 3 % BY VOLUME
Grown, produced and bottled 600 feet
above the floor of the Napa Valley by
Stony Hill Vineyard, St. Helena, Calif.
have a crest. They're about that [about a foot and a half]
long. When you see one, like up on the telephone pole, they're
just huge. They're just gorgeous birds. There are a lot of
them around here. They must have nests up in the canyon.
Jacobson: Are they noisier, being bigger?
McCrea: They're terribly noisy! They clatter! That's how you first
notice them, because they clatter so. You run out to look and
see what goes on. I didn't see any last summer. I hope
they'll be back this year.
We got snowed in once. When you come around the turn down
there , that part of the road never gets any sun in the
wintertime. It had frozen first, so there was ice underneath
it, and then it snowed about six inches. It just wasn't safe;
you didn't dare try and do it. Eventually Mike got the jeep up
to it and made ruts, and after that it was all right.
IV STONY HILL VINEYARDS AND WINE INDUSTRY AFFAIRS
Spirit of Cooperation
Jacobson: One of the things you talked about was the spirit of
cooperation in the industry, and how that really typified your
experience. I'm assuming it worked both ways --where you
received help and you gave help. I was wondering if you could
give some examples of that.
McCrea: I suppose the two people who really helped us the most, as far
as learning to make wine goes, were Lee Stewart, who started
Souverain, and Joe Heitz. It was just incredible how happy
they were to share their knowledge. They were such good
friends, too. Then one time, when Ambassador Zellerbach died,
Joe bought all the white wine that was in barrels --in other
words, all the Chardonnay that was in barrels. He didn't have
any place to put them, so he put them in our winery, and we
bottled them together.
Fred had a heart attack right after that, and Joe bottled
all of our Riesling; everything was all set up, so he just went
ahead and bottled it. But that's the kind of thing that people
do for each other all the time up here.
I remember one time when- -this doesn't have anything to do
with Stony Hill- -some place was going to do some bottling for
Schramsberg because he [Jack Davies] didn't have the equipment
to do the bottling. It just happened that the feds- -the BATF
people --came by, and they heard somebody say that those grapes
were being delivered for Schramsberg. He said, "I hope he
knows you can't put a vintage label on the bottle unless it's
bottled at your own premises." By the next morning everybody
had gathered together enough equipment so that Jack could do it
on his own premises,
So that's the kind of thing people do all
Jacobson: Did Fred's experience in advertising ever come in handy to
others in the wine industry?
McCrea: Yes. I had totally forgotten this, but Joe Heitz reminded me
of it not very long ago. I was talking to somebody else in
his presence about the fact that he'd done so much to help us,
and he said, "Well, don't forget that Fred's merchandising
ability helped me an awful lot, too." I had forgotten that
Fred used to write his mailers and brochures and things for
Jacobson: As the wineries have become more competitive, has that spirit
of cooperation eroded at all or changed?
McCrea: I don't think so. One reason that I don't think so is that the
group of guys who are Mike's age and at Mike's level in the
business exchange information and help each other all the time,
just the way we did. So I really think it persists.
Waiting List for Stony Hill Wines
Jacobson: Leon Adams has a theory about wineries that he thinks are
successful. He says that the way to be successful is to have
customers come to you. How well does that theory hold when you
think of your experience, and then when you think of the
experiences of other small wineries?
McCrea: That's certainly been our experience. I told you the way we
built up our mailer, and I don't suppose a day goes by that we
don't get either a letter or a telephone call or something,
asking to be put on the waiting list. It's a four-year wait
Jacobson: Have you always had a waiting list?
For mentions of help given to Heitz by the McCreas, see Joseph E.
Heitz, Creating a Winery in the Napa Valley, an oral history interview
conducted 1985, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library,
University of California, Berkeley, 1985.
McCrea: Oh, no. Originally we didn't. We've only had one for about
the last five years, and it keeps getting longer and longer.
We only take off people who don't pay their bills, people who
die, and people who don't order for two years we just assume
have lost interest or have died. The dying business doesn't
work anymore, because their children call up and say, "Hey, we
want Dad's wine." [laughter] So really only the other two
work. Sometimes the reason they haven't ordered for two years
is because we find that an awful lot of times when people move
they forget to let us know. Then they haven't gotten the
mailer, so they can't order. But we have no way of finding
them unless they call us, which they frequently do, and of
course we put them back on again.
Jacobson: Do you do tastings when people come for a winery tour?
McCrea: No. The way we're listed in all the tourist things is
"visiting by appointment only, no tasting." We do sell them
wine if we have it, but most of the time we don't have it.
Right now we have some of our second label wine, the SHV, but
More on Label Design
McCrea: I was going to show you our label. They did this to get the
color on the label to match the color of bottle. After a while
it just got to be a real pain in the neck, because it was so
hard to get the colors right. As you can see, it was four
colors, so that meant it had to go through the press four
times. It's simplified down now, and this is the way it looks.
Jacobson: It's still very nice, and goes with the bottle.
McCrea: I like it. I think it's good, too. That's one advantage of
having somebody in the advertising business [laughs].
Jacobson: I see here on the label it says, "Grown, produced and bottled
600 feet above the floor of the Napa Valley."
McCrea: Yes, we've always had that. That's the only thing that's
different about our SHV label. Instead of having Stony Hill,
it says SHV, and you have to leave the "grown" off; it has to
just say, "Produced and bottled," because if you say, "Grown,
produced, and bottled," it has to be 100 percent your own
Succeeding and Surviving in the Industry
Jacobson: What do you think it takes to survive and succeed in the wine
McCrea: Making good wine, I guess. I don't think you could ever really
stay in business very long if your wine wasn't very good. I'm
sure you couldn't. But there's also a lot of luck in the
timing of when you got started and that sort of thing. I'd
absolutely hate to start a winery right now. I think there's
still plenty of room for small wineries, but if you went into
the wine business with the idea that you were going produce
something big- -it boggles my mind that people do this still.
But look, there are at least four or five wineries that started
just this last year in the valley that I would call very good
Jacobson: What's a very good size?
McCrea: Probably 100,000 cases. I don't know where the exact break
even place is that makes it difficult, but I would say that if
you're very small, I would say up to 10,000 cases, if you
really work hard at it, you probably could do it- -granted that
you always make good wine. I think the people that have real
difficulty now are the ones that make between, say, 25,000 and
50,000 cases, because they don't have enough wine to generate
enough money to have their own distribution system, or do any
very expensive advertising, or anything like that. They really
have to go out and personally sell it, which is very expensive
to do. When you get up into the size of Beringer or Beaulieu
or Mondavi, or anything like that, you really can have your own
distribution system, and you can do a lot of advertising.
They're big enough so that they can do fine. It's the in-
between people that have a hard time.
Napa Valley Vintners
Jacobson: Have you had a membership in Napa Valley Vintners?
McCrea: Oh, yes, always, from the beginning.
Jacobson: How was that a valuable organization?
McCrea: In the really early days it was nothing but a men's marching
and chowder society; they had lunch once a month and had a good
time together. It was very small, and even after Fred died
there were maybe fifty people in it- -not any more than that,
anyway, and maybe less. I think probably less. They let me
come. Actually, I think Carolyn Martini broke the ice, because
she was running Louis's operation. He was still running it,
but she managed the office and managed most of the selling and
whatnot. She's the president of it now. She had come to some
meetings, I think, before I was thrown into it.
They made me very welcome. Well, they were all old
friends, mostly. Now it's so big; I know there are well over a
hundred members now. I walk in and I don't even know three-
quarters of them. It's more of a trade association now, and it
needs to be. One of the things that's very important about
what they're trying to do is to make our joint necessities
known in local politics, and in the county, and in state
politics, and in Washington. One person just can't do that,
but a group of over a hundred people working together can.
This doesn't help me very much, but it helps that group of
people that I was talking about- -in the middle number of
producers: they do a lot of promotion, and they have joint
trips, two or three a year, that anybody who belongs to the
Vintners can go in on. They don't pay all your bills, but they
make all the arrangements for it. Those are very valuable
things that they do.
Jacobson: How did the Napa Valley Vintners function before it became more
like a trade association?
McCrea: [laughs] They just used to have lunch together once a month.
And they did talk about their various problems and whatnot, but
now they have a paid manager and a couple of secretaries, and
they run the auction. Actually, the auction is run by a
separate group, but they're under control of the Vintners.
It's just different, but the whole ambience of the business is
different now. There's so much money involved in it now, and
so many people involved in it, that it's not just a clubby
little group, the way it used to be.
Jacobson: What are the most critical issues that the Napa Valley Vintners
McCrea: The thing we've been agonizing over for, I suppose, three years
is the Napa County Board of Supervisors- -this is a long,
complicated situation. They control what we do unbelievably.
One of the things they wanted was to have a definition of a
winery, and it took them three years. The vintners and the
growers and the Board of Supervisors' staff just haggled over
this for three years. They finally passed the new ordinance
just in the last month or two, and it has unbelievable
restrictions on the wine business. We fought, bled, and died
over it, but we really didn't win.
The whole floor of the Napa Valley is an agricultural
preserve, which is just an ordinance that is put in by the
supervisors. We really fought, bled, and died to get that in
about twenty years ago. If we hadn't, it would be like around
Santa Rosa. The growers aren't the least bit cooperative with
the vintners. You would think they would be, because, after
all, the vintners buy what they grow, but they aren't. They
got up on their hind legs --one thing that is part of the
agricultural preserve is that you cannot have any business that
isn't agriculturally oriented, and they didn't like the idea
that the wineries were having all these extraneous things like
concerts and big tastings and culinary schools, and all that
kind of stuff, on the side. But actually, that was one of the
tools for selling their wine, and you could not get this over
to the growers . "What good is it going to do you to cut back
on this, as long as it doesn't bother anybody?"
I think what started the whole thing was that all of a
sudden- -you wouldn't believe how quickly, probably within nine
months --that corridor of Highway 29, between Oakville,
Rutherford, and going up about to Whitehall Lane, was just
suddenly lined with wineries. That all happened within a year.
I think it really bugged everybody that there were too many
wineries too close together. And, of course, there isn't any
question about it that it brings an awful lot of tourists to
the Valley. The tourism bit is a whole lot at the bottom of
Anyway, that's the main battle we've had for a long time,
and it's not over, believe me.
Jacobson: Did the Definition of a Winery committee come up with a
solution that was fair to both small and large wineries?
McCrea: Yes. What we wanted was fair to both of them. I think,
myself, that it's a little tough on small wineries now. It
doesn't affect me at all, practically, but it affects the
people who are trying to break into the business. What they
really did was to kind of grandfather in everything that
everybody was now doing, but they made the rules really strict
for new wineries and also for anybody who wanted to add to
their winery. That's where we're going to get caught--if we
ever wanted to add to our winery.
Jacobson: So it really divided between the established and the new.
McCrea: That's right.
Jacobson: Have you held membership in the Wine Institute?
McCrea: Oh, yes, everybody belongs to the Wine Institute.
Jacobson: Have you found that a valuable membership?
McCrea: Well, I suppose so. I think it's valuable for the industry; I
don't think it's particularly valuable to me as an individual -
to Stony Hill as an individual winery. But anything that's
good for the wine business is good for us, too. The Wine
Institute has done yeoman service in Washington. They really
are the effective voice in Washington.
Wine Industry's Greatest Problems
Jacobson: What would you say are the greatest problems facing small
McCrea: The greatest problem facing the wine business, per se , right
now, is this unbelievable neo-Prohibitionist , anti-alcohol
stuff that goes on and on and on. It's all these terribly
conservative fundamentalist people, and they make absolutely no
distinction between alcohol and the abuse of alcohol. It's
bound to have an effect on the wine business, even if it
doesn't go as far as real prohibition, the way it did before.
The sale of wine has gone down, except for premium wines like
ours. The sale of ordinary table wine has gone down a lot.
That, and the new phylloxera bug are the things that hang
over our heads. Those two things, really- -two big "p's".
Jacobson: Should premium wine be differentiated by regulatory agencies
from low- end wines?
Wine Industry's Greatest Strengths////
Jacobson: What would you say are the wine industry's greatest strengths
today, and how have small wineries contributed to those
McCrea: I think the wine industry's greatest strength is that they're
making better and better wine. It's loads better than it was
when we first went into the wine business. I think that's
probably one thing that the small wineries helped on. Just as
a matter of competition, they were making such good wine that
the big guys said, "If they can do it, we can do it." And they
can; there's nothing inherently better in a small winery. In
fact, there are lots of things a big winery can do that a small
one can't, because they can afford more delicate equipment. If
they're big they can blend out a mistake, or some grapes that
didn't get harvested at the right time, or something like that.
They can conceal them in a big batch of wine, which you can't
do in a small winery. If we make a mistake, we made a mistake.
Jacobson: What do you do with the wine?
McCrea: If it's really terrible, you throw it away. You certainly
don't sell it under your own name. If it's only not quite up
to your standard, you can always find somebody who will buy it
as bulk wine, and they would blend it in with something else.
Not so easy to do now as it used to be, because there used to
be so little Chardonnay that you could always get rid of it.
We never have gotten rid of it, but I know it's easy to do.
You don't get them around this time of year, but around harvest
time you get requests, asking if you have any bulk wine for
sale, so there's still a market for it.
Jacobson: Is there equipment that you would like to purchase for your
winery that you haven't been able to?
McCrea: No, I don't think so. We're perfectly satisfied with what we
have. Well, we would like a new tractor [laughs]. You have to
allot your capital pretty carefully. Especially we're having
to, this year and last year, because we've had so little
Chardonnay for two years, and we still have re -planting to do.
Long-Term Nature of the Business
Jacobson: There's really a lot of long-range planning that you do.
McCrea: That was the trouble- - that we didn't plan it quite long enough
ahead of time. That was why we planted that big new field,
because we knew we were going to have to, but we should have
done it two or three years before we did. Then we would have
come out all right. But we'll make it.
Jacobson: Do you think the newer wineries understand what a long-range
business the wine industry is?
McCrea: I don't think that very many people in this country understand
about making a long-range commitment to a business. They
expect to make money right off the bat. It takes a long time
before you make any money. I think that's probably one reason
banks are so reluctant to lend to the wine business, because
they know what a long time it takes to get the money back.
Jacobson: Are there things you have learned over the years that you wish
you had known starting out?
McCrea: Oh, yes, of course there are. But that's really part of life.
You always know you made mistakes that you wish you had known
more about. We've been awfully lucky, I must say, but the
first time we really stubbed our toes was the planning ahead on
the replanting, which I don't suppose there was any way of
knowing about. We really didn't realize that we were going to
have to replant that soon. I was talking to Bernard Portet,
who's French. He runs Clos du Val down in the valley, and I
was complaining to him about having to replant so soon. He
said, "That's par for the course. You know you're going to
have to, especially up in such a hard place to grow grapes as
yours is." The vines just have to work too hard; they get
Bob Travers at May acamas- -which is right down at the other
end of these mountains, at about the same elevation that we
are, but clear down back of Napa--is replanting now. Their
vines were planted just about the same time as ours were,
because Jack Taylor used to own that property at that time, and
they were good friends of ours.
Jacobson: Thank you very much for this interview.
Transcriber and final typist: Judy Smith
TAPE GUIDE -- Eleanor McCrea
Interview 1: March 13, 1990
tape 1, side a
tape 1, side b
tape 2, side a
tape 2, side b not recorded
Interview 2: March 15, 1990
tape 3, side a
tape 3, side b
tape 4, side a
tape 4, side b not recorded
Interview 3: March 28, 1990
tape 5, side a
tape 5, side b
tape 6, side a
tape 6, side b not recorded
INDEX -- Eleanor Wheeler McCrea
Amerine, Maynard A., 26, 40
anti- alcohol movement, 59
Avery, Ronald, 33
Bancroft Vineyards, 22
Beaulieu Vineyard, 14
Bergeron, Victor, 32
Bernard, Ed, 13-14
Bissonette, Gregory, 27
Cedargreen, Mrs. [Napa Valley
neighbor] , 11-12, 45
Charles Krug, 17
Chelini, Mike, 13, 14, 26, 28, 36
37-38, 39-40, 44-45, 48, 53
Christian Brothers, 16, 17
Common Market, 33
Corti, Darrell, 36
Corti Brothers, 36
Daniele, Mario, 33
Davies, Jack, 52-53
Forman, Rick, 27
Gantner, John, 9
Greenfield family, 9
Heitz, Joseph, 14, 16, 17, 19, 23
24, 34, 52, 53
Hummel, Herman, 10
Johnson, Hugh, 25
Martin, Frank, 14
Martini, Carolyn, 56
Martini, Louis M. , 37
Martini, Louis P., 16, 56
McComish, Casey, 27
McCrea, Don, 13, 14
early years, 2-4
family timber business, 2
first jobs, 6
responsibilities at Stony Hill,
university education, 4-5
McCrea, Frederick Hoyt, 6-8, 9-11,
12, 13, 15, 16, 20, 24, 27, 28,
29, 30, 32-33, 39, 50, 51
McCrea, Frederick and Eleanor
decision to start making wine,
learning about winemaking, 18-19
trips to French Wine Country, 40-
wine tasting, 26
McCrea, Mary, 14
McCrea, Peter, 10, 11, 13, 14, 19,
McCrea, Wally, 13
Mondavi, Robert, 33
Napa County Board of Supervisors,
Napa Valley, 19
Napa Valley Vintners, 56-58
Definition of a Winery committee,
Oberschulte, Mark, 36-37
Konsgaard, John, 27
Pavon, Lorenza, 49
Pavon, Jim, 14, 27, 28
Pierce' s Disease, 35, 38
Portet, Bernard, 61
Raf ane 1 1 i ' s Foundry ,
Rogers, Bruce, 27
19, 23, 52
Scharffenberger , John,
SHV label, 22, 54-55
Smith Madrone, 22
Soil Conservation Department,
Souverain Cellars, 16
Steele, Jed, 27
Stewart, Glenn, 19
Stewart, Lee, 16, 17,
Stony Hill Vineyard
bulk wine sales, 21,
buying the property,
developing a clientele, 21
discovering the property, 9-10
entering markets in New York and
first planting, 15-16
grape harvesting, 25-26
label design, 50, 54-55
pricing philosphy, 33-34
problems with deer, 44
restaurant and club placements of
scenery and landscape,
selling grapes, 20
size of production, 35
use during World War II,
vineyard plantings, 22
waiting list, 53-54
wine competitions, 17, 32
winemakers , 27-28
winemaking style and philosophy,
winery equipment and barrels, 18
winery tours , 43 , 54
Streblow, Bruce, 27
Taylor, Jack, 61
Trader Vic's, 32
Travers, Bob, 61
University of California, Davis
15, 16-17, 19, 27
Webb, A. Dinsmoor, 41
Wente , Herman, 16
Wetzel, Hank, 27
cooperative spirit, 16, 37, 52-
contribution of small wineries,
long-term requirements, 60-61
strengths and weaknesses, 58-60
succeeding in, 55, 53
Wine Institute, 58
Wine Service Co-op, 39
wine snobbery, 34
World War II, 11
Grapes Mentioned in the Interview:
Cabernet Sauvignon, 20, 39
Chardonnay, 15, 16, 20, 22, 23, 24,
25-26, 38, 42
Gewurztraminer , 15, 22
Pinot noir, 38
Pinot blanc, 15, 16-17, 23
Riesling, 15, 16-17, 20, 22, 23,
Semillon, 15, 16-17
Wines Mentioned in the Interview:
Chardonnay, 21, 22, 24, 33-34, 35
47, 49, 60
Gewurztraminer, 21, 35, 47
Pinor Noir, 38, 46-47
Pinot Noir Blanc, 38
Riesling, 17, 21, 35, 47
Semillon de Soleil, 35, 36
White Burgundy, 26
Lisa S . Jacobson
Born in San Francisco. B.A. cum laude , Pomona College, majoring
in history; studied at Oxford University. Experience in market
research and museum research.
Editorial assistant and alumni news editor, Public Affairs
Office, Pomona College.
Research manager, interviewer, editor, and writer with private
oral history organization, specializing in business history.
Since 1986, researcher, interviewer, and editor with Regional
Oral History Office, in fields of business history, wine
industry, and social history.