Posted by: acooksca | 05/25/2010

Ghost Wineries on the Silverado Trail

Stags' Leap Winery, 1888

Napa Valley

began to gather accolades for premium wines as early as the 1870’s. By the 1890’s Napa wines were shipped around the horn to grace drawing rooms of the East Coast. But around 1900 phylloxera infested the Napa Valley, destroying most vineyards. A general economic depression compounded issues. Prohibition, which became law in 1920, dealt the final blow to the Napa wine industry. A few wineries were allowed to remain open, making sacramental wines. The others became ghost wineries… bankrupt, abandoned and dormant.

It would take decades to re-build the wine industry and reputation of Napa Valley. Not until 1979, when a Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars on the Silverado Trail won a blind tasting in Paris, did the world rediscover Napa wines. It seems crazy to us now, but just thirty years ago Napa Valley had far fewer wineries and was just emerging as a world renowned wine country. The valley still had a number of unused structures built during the 1870 – 1900 wine boom. Armed with the book Ghost Wineries of Napa Valley (published in 1980) a friend and I went searching Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail for old stone and wood buildings, the bones of ghost wineries of the 19th century.

The book is now 30 years old and we expected some ghost wineries to be dismantled. Or new wineries built on the sites of ghost wineries, incorporating what was left, rendering the architecture too changed to notice. Earthquakes are a problem for un-reinforced stone walls and many original winery buildings might have collapsed. The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 closed the stately 100-year old Greystone Cellar in Saint Helena to visitors. The Christian Brothers, who had inhabited the winery since 1945, were unable to face the very costly prospect of seismically retrofitting Greystone. Happily, for it is perhaps the Valley’s iconic 19th century winery, Greystone was preserved, retrofitted and remodeled into the western Culinary Institute of America campus. Most are not so lucky.

We selected the more rural Eastern route of Napa Valley, the Silverado Trail, hoping to find a few ghosts still in tact. Our book told us that 3 miles north of Yountville, visible from The Trail (as it is known locally), the elegant four-story Vine Cliff Winery stood from 1870 to the early 1900’s. Wine production began in 1871, using both fruit grown on the estate and purchased from other growers. At its peak in the late 1800’s, Vine Cliff was one of the regions largest wineries, producing up to 19,000 gallons annually. The vineyard succumbed to the phylloxera scourge and in 1901, suffered the death of the owner. The winery became a ghost, lying dormant until 1985.

We made the required appointment to visit and headed through the metal-art gate and up the private drive. Vine Cliff Winery nestles in a secluded and beautifully landscaped pocket overlooking the Valley. The gorgeous tasting room, we learned, was newly built. Nothing remained of the original structures except the stone first floor and the wine ageing tunnels built into the hillside. In 1999 the tunnels were improved to become not only the ageing caves but private tasting rooms and event venues. No longer a ghost, Vine Cliff Winery had been resurrected into a gracious small family winery.

Bay View Vineyard, 1888

The next ghost winery we stumbled on by accident. A photo in our book showed a stone  winery from 1888 as a handsome ruin with a distinctive front wall and no roof or interior. It mentioned that a Chicago financier had built the winery and Stag’s Leap Hotel a few miles off the Trail. But exactly where, it didn’t say.

While contemplating where in the Stag’s Leap district it could be we headed down a private back road toward a different winery. Without warning, across an adjoining field of grapevines, we spotted that unique stone front. Since the publishing of our ghost wineries book the structure has been tenderly restored. It is tucked against a craggy hillside on the property of Stags’ Leap Winery (a neighbor of the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars mentioned earlier.) The accompanying Manor House from 1890, a two-story stone structure with crenulated tower, was once the Stag’s Leap Hotel. In both buildings it is easy to get a feel for the historic importance and romance of this enchanting property.

Understanding that our book gave location clues rather than addresses we ventured up Soda Canyon Road with marginal hope of locating three 19th century properties. White Rock Winery was established in 1870 by Dr. John Pettingill. The winery went out of business and the building, built of rock quarried on the site, had been incorporated into a private residence in the 1920’s. While searching for it we bumped into Mike, one of the sons of the family that set out in 1977 to revive the White Rock Winery. In 1986 this ghost was brought back to life and now produces 3,000 cases of wine annually under the original White Rock Vineyards name. The new winery is underground in 6,000 square feet of caves. The 1920’s private residence is Mike’s family home.

Mike took a look at our book and confirmed that another ghost winery was visible about three miles up the road. Looking much like the photo from 30 years ago, we found the neat two-story wood and stone winery at 2140 Soda Canyon Road. It was built in 1888 by Felix Borreo from Genoa and called Bay View Ranch and Vineyards. It too went dormant with the beginning of prohibition. Although grape vines once again surround the building, it is no longer a working winery but a private residence.

One more ghost winery called to us, what the book called “one of the handsomest in the county.” The photo showed the imposing three story Occidental Cellar, built in 1878 by Terrill L. Grigsby, an early pioneer to the area. Grigsby learned the craft of winemaking at Vine Cliff Winery then went on to build his own impressive winery on The Trail, making it the easiest ghost winery to find.

Occidental Wine Cellar, 1878

The winery ceased wine production with prohibition. In 1932 Gaetano Regusci bought the property and farmed various crops, using the old winery building for storage, as a dairy and for producing bootleg alcohol. In 1995 the family re-established the property as a winery.

As we headed up the drive of Regusci Winery the building looked in perfect condition. No doubt the two-foot-thick stone walls aided its longevity. We stood a long time admiring the arched windows and heavy wood door. The name of T.L. Grigsby, Occidental Wine Cellar and the date 1878 are boldly carved on the winery façade. This was a ghost of a winery once. Now it proudly ages great Napa Valley wines once more. 

Napa Valley hosts five million visitors a year and most wineries require appointments. Call before you visit to avoid disappointment. 

Vine Cliff Winery: http://www.vinecliff.com/visit/index.html
Stags’ Leap Winery: http://www.stagsleap.com/
White Rock Vineyards: http://www.whiterockvineyards.com/
Regusci Winery: http://www.regusciwinery.com/

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