Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Haunting Look Back at Ghost Wineries

Autumn is a spirited season – in more ways than one. And in keeping with this time of year, a look at ghost wineries seems fitting.

Ghost Winery
You may have heard the term “ghost winery” before, but the meaning has nothing to do with unseen visitors, wine glasses that crash to the floor or things that go bump in the tasting room.

A ghost winery is similar to a ghost town – it is a winery that was built in Napa Valley during the beginning of California’s winemaking boom, from 1860 – 1900, but then abandoned. You might say, its a winery haunted by its past…

Rutherford Maps
There were hundreds of wineries that began during this period, but few managed to make it far into the next century unscathed due to a killing vine disease, the change of public attitudes concerning alcohol, and the unfortunate collision course the country was on. This became a trifecta of disasters for the Napa wine industry.

Phylloxera is a plant aphid that lives on and eats the grape vine roots. It was during the 1870s that these pests began destroying vines and grapes throughout California, to the point where many wineries had no vineyards left.  It took almost 10 years before a solution was discovered, but even today, phylloxera is still a threat.

Down the Drain
Then in January 1920, Prohibition went into effect. This was the result of the Volstead Act, a federal law that made it illegal to manufacture, transport or sell alcohol in the U.S. Most of the ghost wineries in Napa came about because of the impact of Prohibition, which ended 13 years later, in 1933.

By then the Great Depression had swept through the country. During this long period of economic hardship, few people had any money to spend on such luxuries as alcohol.

Put it all together and these elements forced many wineries to close. Some were simply abandoned by owners who could no longer pay to keep them, leaving buildings, equipment and vineyards to evolve into a state of deterioration.

It was not until the 1970s that the California wine industry, and Napa Valley, was able to get back on its feet.  Some of the old ghost wineries were taken over and the rich histories of the early wineries began to be preserved and enhanced.

V Marketplace
Inside V Marketplace
Today, some of those once forgotten wineries have been revitalized, turned into retail businesses including shops and restaurants. In Yountville, California V Marketplace is located on a 23-acre complex that was once the Groezinger Winery during California’s original heydays. With upscale specialty shops, galleries, restaurants and a wine tasting cellar, the building’s character of yesteryear continues to shine through.

Napa Ghost Winery Rental
Others have been converted into private homes and wine country rentals, complete with amazing cellars where winemaking equipment have been preserved.

And a lucky few are back in business as wineries, renovated and restaged into state-of-the-art winemaking facilities for a new century, and a different world.

A Few Famous Ghosts

Far Niente – Oakville, CA

Far Niente
Founded in 1885 by San Francisco entrepreneur John
Barrel Room

Benson, Far Niente (meaning “sweet to do nothing”) was one of Napa’s original stone wineries. The winery was prosperous until Prohibition. Benson disappeared in 1919 leaving the winery and buildings to the elements. In 1979, the winery was restored, and the first harvest in over 60 years was celebrated in 1982. Far Niente is now in the National Register of Historic Places.

Charles Krug, St Helena, CA

Charles Krug in 1874
Charles Krug
This is the oldest winery in Napa Valley, dating back to 1861. Founded by 27-year-old Charles Krug, a Prussian immigrant, who was willing to work hard and had the determination to succeed with what was the first winery in Napa. Krug died in 1892 and the winery slowly lost its footing. That is until Cesare and Rosa Mondavi purchased it in 1943. It would be their son Peter Mondavi, Sr. who would make a name for himself, and the wines, in the latter half of the 20th century.

Charles Krug Winery
Krug Vineyards
This is also one winery that may, indeed, have a few ghosts lingering on. The Charles Krug Winery is supposedly haunted by a lady in white who walks the upper floors of the Redwood Cellar. But how long will she continue to stay? Renovation began last year on the building and is scheduled to be completed this fall. It will be interesting to see if the ghost remains or is contented with the changes and moves on…

Chateau Montelena, Calistoga, CA

Jade Lake
Originally founded in 1882 by Alfred L. Tubbs, Chateau Montelena was a major wine producer during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – before Prohibition. In 1958, the Tubbs family sold the rundown winery and its overgrown grounds to Yort and Jeanie Frank, who excavated Jade Lake on the property.

Chateau Montelena
1973 Chardonnay
In the early 1970s James Barrett purchased the neglected estate and ended up changing the history of California wine. It was a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that beat out the best French white wines in the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. (See last week’s post for more info on this judging.)

There are many more living legends scattered around Napa Valley. If you’d like to learn more, author Irene W. Haynes wrote a book in 1980 called “Ghost Wineries of Napa Valley: A Photographic Tour of the Last Century”. The book is a pictorial history of more than 65 ghost wineries; some decrepit, or long gone, others rescued and revived.

These ghost wineries offer us a glimpse back at the first dynamic California wine industry of more than 100 years ago, and a chance to experience their rebirth as we link past and present together in order to keep that spirit alive.

~ Joy