Ghost Wineries

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by Robert P. Farmer


Stroll on any afternoon through the Vintage 1870 shopping complex in Yountville and you'd never know ghosts surround you. The shops, restaurants, and art galleries give little hint of the building's past. But the structure is actually living its second life. As the name implies, the first life was in the late 1800s--more than 130 years ago. Back then, this building contributed to Napa Valley's original winemaking boom. Today the old winery enjoys a reincarnation, its winemaking past gone but not forgotten.

Napa Valley is home to dozens of "ghost wineries," from barns and cellars to homes and abandoned structures, comprising a network of the industry from an era gone by. Some of these ghosts are living again. Others have been refurbished and reoccupied, perhaps boldly, as private homes. Still others relish a second chance at making wine. Then there are those that may truly be haunted; relics of a forgotten time whose sounds don't come from shoppers or winemaking, but from the wind whipping through their few remaining walls.

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By some counts, there are hundreds of ghost wineries in the Napa Valley. Exploring them can take determination. Or, in some cases, you need only go shopping. It was about 1870 when a Swiss man named Gottlieb Groezinger made wine in the Yountville spot where visitors now shop for handmade bottlestops. Groezinger had some 600 acres in the ground around the structure and he had a prosperous wine business until Prohibition shut him down. He made another go of it after World War II but never duplicated his initial success. In the mid 1960s, the building was refurbished and converted into a destination food and retail complex.

Prohibition (officially the Volstead Act, 1920-1933), the federal law that made illegal the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages in America, was the primary reason for the demise of nearly every ghost winery in Napa; as it was with wineries the nation over. The current boom in California's Wine Country is actually the second cycle for the industry in this state. It wasn't the 1970s, but the 1870s, when wine first put Napa on the map. Trouble was, word spread much slower at the turn of the last century, and there wasn't much global news about grapes from California. That is, until John Steinbeck wrote a book. Following the initial roar, worse news followed bad during the final phase of Wine Country's first incarnation.

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Prohibition was the final blow, and Far Niente, the renowned winery in Oakville, was just one victim. Originally founded in 1885, the winery was shut in the aftermath of the federal ban. Its founder, a San Francisco real estate entrepreneur named John Benson, abandoned the building and set out for parts unknown. The stone structure lay dilapidating until 1979 when it was given new life with a gorgeous restoration. Reinstating the original name (which translates to "without a care" honored its past. Far Niente now ranks as one of California's oldest wineries and is in the National Register of Historic Places. North of Oakville, in St. Helena there are many ghosts.

Near the entrance to the town is one of the best examples in the region, the stately vine-covered stone cellar at the northeast corner of Main Street and Charter Oak Avenue. Built in 1880, it was the sherry-making facility of Swiss wine merchant Frank Sciaroni, who also had a brandy distillery on the site where Tra Vigne restaurant now stands.

Three blocks from Main Street on the south side is a fantastic residence, once the home of the Lewelling Winery. John Lewelling built it in the mid 1800s, and his name still graces the labels of wines produced by the Wight family. Also on Spring Street is the former home of Tosetti Winery. The frequently photographed barn and watchtower-like structures date to 1882. It is said that the Italian immigrant Baldisere Tosetti sold jugs of his wine right from the barn door.

Head north down Hudson Street to Madrona Street and you'll find the Kraft House and Wine Cellar. Now operated by the Spottswoode Winery, the old sandstone structure was built the early 1880s by Frank Kraft. The magnificent Victorian home on the property was built in 1882. The Novak family refurbished these structures in 1990, taking great care to maintain historical integrity (few ghosts today are so well preserved). The stone structure is now Spottswoode's barrel aging cellar and the home serves as winery offices.

There are several abandoned ghost wineries as you head north out of St. Helena on Main Street. Whether they are haunted or not, is unclear. Listen for the echoes of grape stompers in the big wooden barn on Library Lane, across from the public library. Here Jackse Winery operated from 1910 until Prohibition. North still on Pratt Avenue off Main Street is the empty wooden box that once housed Zange Winery, established in 1891. These great structures are the winery equivalent of the storied western ghost towns, places you hear the wind howl through rickety sideboards and watch tumbleweeds bounce down the thoroughfare.
Like spirits themselves, ghost wineries are often not readily visible--easy to zip by as you roll along the popular winetasting trails. Or, you can unwittingly be standing right next to one. But for the vigilant detective, a visit to the Napa Valley can be a haunting experience.

Special note: one of the best books on the subject is the locally published Ghost Wineries of the Napa Valley, by Irene W. Haynes, published by the Wine Appreciation Guild, San Francisco. Pick up a copy and start believing in ghosts.

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