Ghost wineries of Napa Valley offer a taste of the past

 
LA Times | Travel
 

There's a ghost in my wine. I haven't always believed in ghosts. That's a recent development. In the spring, my wife, Jenn, and I headed to the Napa Valley for a séance, of sorts -- an attempt to summon the spirits of winemaking past. I'm not talking about ghouls, goblins or apparitions ...

By Kevin Garbee // 07.30.08
 

There's a ghost in my wine.

I haven't always believed in ghosts. That's a recent development. In the spring, my wife, Jenn, and I headed to the Napa Valley for a séance, of sorts -- an attempt to summon the spirits of winemaking past. I'm not talking about ghouls, goblins or apparitions in flowing gowns. I'm talking about the ghost wineries that dot the valleys, mountains and benchlands of America's most famous winemaking region.

So what exactly is a ghost winery? It is one of the few remaining wineries built between 1860 and 1900, some still in business, others not.

In the late 1800s, the Napa Valley was a bustling wine community, but several factors led to its disintegration. The phylloxera insect epidemic of the late 1880s and early 1890s forced some wineries to close. The Depression threw others into bankruptcy. And Prohibition effectively shuttered the rest.

The San Francisco-based Wine Institute says 713 wineries were in operation before Prohibition, which was ratified in 1919. Only 40 remained after its repeal in 1933.

Today there are hundreds of wineries in the valley, all looking to the future. But several are making sure not to forget their past. By some accounts, there are dozens of ghost wineries throughout Napa. Many have been transformed into private homes and businesses, yet several winemakers have restored these historic properties into working wineries, where visitors can taste another era.

Blueprint bliss

Our first stop was Hall Winery on California 29, just south of St. Helena's main drag.

The Hall estate is built on the old Bergfeld Winery. The original winery, built in 1885 by a New England sea captain, changed hands several times in the next 50 years. After the repeal of Prohibition, the Napa Valley Cooperative Winery bought the property in 1935 and made wine under the Bergfeld name for nearly 60 years. Golden State Vintners reopened the facility as Edgewood Estate Winery in 1994 before the Hall family bought the property in 2003.

Within months, the Halls brought in architect Frank Gehry to design a $100-million state-of-the-art winery and hospitality center.

"We want to immerse visitors in something fantastic," said Mike Rey- nolds, Hall Wines president. Early on, the decision was made to incorporate the ghost winery as the focal point of the new design.

Until the completion of the new facility in 2010, Hall offers an excellent tour to satisfy your ghost-winery craving. The tour includes a barrel tasting in the historic Bergfeld Winery and a guided tasting of current Hall releases in the Architectural Gallery, which houses an exhibit of Gehry's models and blueprints for the new winery.

Continuing up California 29, through St. Helena, we stopped at the stunning Ehlers Estate, one of the gems of the Napa Valley.

Vines were first planted on the estate in 1882 by the Rev. Alfred Todhunter, who lost his vineyard to phylloxera in 1885 and sold the property to Sacramento grocer Bernard Ehlers. Ehlers replanted the vineyards and erected the stunning stone winery building that remains the estate's centerpiece.

After Ehlers' death in 1901, his wife maintained the property until 1916, and seven years later, she sold the estate to Alfred Domingos. Domingos bootlegged wine out of the facility until the repeal of Prohibition, when he established Old Bale Mill Winery, which he ran until 1958. In 1987, Jean and Sylvia Leducq acquired 7 acres of the estate and, over the years, contiguous parcels and the original stone winery and estate home.

"This is a special property," said Kelly McElearney, the estate's director of marketing and sales. "We want our wines to truly reflect this distinct location."

Mission accomplished. The wines are 100% estate grown, using only organic and biodynamic farming practices. Sipping wine in these special surroundings, I felt as though I was drinking history.

Feel free to drink up at Ehlers. Its wine is known for being heart- healthy.

 

Upon his death in 2002, Jean Leducq left the winery in trust to the Leducq Foundation, which is dedicated to funding international cardiovascular research; 100% of the winery's net profits support this effort. That's a cause I can rally around.

Once upon a time . . .

We followed California 29 as it turned into state highway 128 in Calistoga. Just before the Sonoma County line is the Storybook Mountain Vineyards.

No wonder this is the site of a ghost winery. The setting is beautiful, almost otherworldly.

In 1883, German immigrant Adam Grimm bought 405 acres in the mountains above Calistoga. Being from a venerable winemaking family (whose roots in the business date to 1540 and continue to this day), Grimm planted extensive vineyards.

He was joined by his brother, Jacob, in 1889, and they began to dig three wine tunnels into the mountainside, thus establishing Grimm Vineyards and WineVaults.

At the outset of Prohibition, Adam left the business, and Jacob began making sacramental and medicinal wines.

The property was broken up and sold several times in the ensuing decades. In 1964, a fire burned from the mountains, east of the property, southwest to Santa Rosa, and the property lay in a state of decay.

In 1976, Jerry and Sigrid Seps bought the 90 acres surrounding the old wine caves and named it Storybook Mountain, not only in tribute to the fairy-tale setting but also as a witty nod to the winery's original owners (the brothers Grimm).

Visitors to the estate can tour some of the most picturesque vineyards in the valley and taste some of the world's highest-rated Zinfandels in the original wine caves. And as in the late 1800s, it remains a family affair.

"We're the winemakers, the bottling folks and the tractor drivers. We're proud to grow grapes and make wine. And we try to make sure that passion shows up in the bottle," said Colleen Williams, our personable tour guide and the Sepses' daughter.

Heading back down California 128 toward Calistoga, we took a left onto Tubbs Lane. Near the end of the road is the renowned Château Montelena.

In 1882, Alfred Tubbs bought 254 acres of land at the base of Mount St. Helena. By 1896, the winery he had christened Château Montelena was the seventh largest in the valley. Winemaking on the property virtually ceased from Prohibition until 1972 when James Barrett bought the estate.

Four years later, Château Montelena helped catapult California to the forefront of the wine world at the now-famous Judgment of Paris wine tasting when its 1973 Chardonnay was rated above all others.

Today, you can still taste world-class wines in the stately tasting room. And be sure to stroll about the property. It's a regal setting -- fitting for one of the queens of the wine world.

The last stop on our tour took us down the picturesque Silverado Trail to St. Helena. A left on Howell Mountain Road and a quick right onto Conn Valley Road delivered us to perhaps the most exciting stop on our trip.

Ten years ago, winemaker Richard Mansfield and his wife, chef-author Leslie, bought the old Franco-Swiss Winery on Conn Valley Road in St. Helena. Here's what makes their property unique: The winery has yet to be restored. They are working to obtain the permits and financing to return the 1876 winery to its original working condition. It's an arduous process to restore a winery, but the Mansfields' passion and enthusiasm are unbridled.

"We are so excited to be, at once, a part of Napa's history and future," Richard said.

The project may be in its nascent stages, but don't let that stop you from taking a tour. The Mansfields are two of Napa's most gracious hosts, and Richard makes some of the valley's most underrated wines. Sipping a cool glass of Chardonnay against such a historic backdrop makes me feel as though I was part of something special.

Who knew ghosts had such a future?