Stumbling into Ghosts … Wineries of the Past by Charlene Sands


 ghost-winery-img_vineyardsWhile doing research about Napa Valley in northern California for my upcoming Desire Trilogy, Napa Valley Vows, I stumbled upon Ghost Wineries in that region. Now, how can a writer pass up something so intriguing?  As I delved further, I found that the ghost wineries aren’t necessarily haunted by anything other than time.


Napa Valley is one of the leading regions in America for winemaking. Some of these ghost wineries built between 1860 and 1900 are still in business while others fell to phylloxera, an insect epidemic in the late 1880’s, some to Prohibition and others to the Depression.  The San Francisco-based Wine Institute stated that 713 wineries claimed bustling business before Prohibition in 1919, and only 40 remained after its repeal. ghost-winery-buehler


Many of these closed wineries were transformed into estates or businesses, while dozens of these historic properties have been restored from barns to cellars to abandoned structures of an era gone by, as working wineries again. These ghost wineries dot the landscape throughout the Napa region. In 1882 the first vines were planted on the estate of Reverend Alfred Todhunter. He lost his vineyard to disease in 1885 and sold the property to a Sacramento grocer, Bernard Ehlers.  Ehlers replanted the vineyard and erected a stone winery building that remains today as the wineries centerpiece. After Ehlers died his wife maintained the property for seven years.  Alfred Domingos bought the land from her in 1916 and bootlegged wine out of the area until the repeal of Prohibition.  He established the Old Bale Mill Winery which he ran until 1958. The Leducq family purchased parcels from the estate in 1987. ghost-wineries-images


The Leducq family wines are 100% estate grown, using only organic and biodynamic farming practices. This wine is known to be heart healthy.  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.  (Isn’t that neat?)


In 1883ghost-winery1890, 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 and his brother Jacob, planted extensive vineyards.  They dug three wine tunnels into the mountainside, thus establishing Grimm Vineyards and WineVaults. During prohibition, Adam left the business and Jacob began making medicinal and sacramental wines.  Through the years, the property was broken up, a fire destroyed much of the land and the property was left in decay.  In 1976 Jerry and Sigrid Seps bought the land surrounding the wine caves and renamed it Storybook Mountain, in direct reference the storybook setting and to the brothers Grimm.  Today, visitors can visit the original wine caves and sip from some of the highest rated Zinfandel in the world.   As it was in the 1800’s, the winery is still a family affair.  The Seps daughter is the tour guide on the property. 


Around 1870 a Swiss man named Gottlieb Groezinger made wine in the Yountville spot where visitors now shop for handmade bottlestops. Groezinger had  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.

ghost-winery-far-niente-img_0234Originally founded in 1885, Far Niente which means “without a care”, a renowned winery in Oakville, had to be shut down at the onset of Prohibition.  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 refurbished and given new life. Reinstating the original name, Far Niente now ranks as one of California’s oldest wineries and is in the National Register of Historic Places.

I get goose bumps whenever I learn a piece of history I never knew before. I have to say the idea of winemaking and living amongst the vineyards really appeals to me. I’d love to visit these ghost wineries and learn the history behind them.  I’ve learned so much about making wine just in writing my contemporary story — the ups and downs, the beauty of the vineyards, the process and all it entails that I can honestly say I would love to have been vintner. a-walk-in-the-clouds1 While I know in my heart it’s hard and sometimes non-gratifying work, there is also something extremely romantic about nurturing the vines and producing award-winning wine.

Did you see Sideways?  How about French Kiss and my favorite movie about winemaking and romance, A Walk in the Clouds?   Do you drink wine and if so, what’s your favorite? Do you know how wine gets its color?  And wouldn’t it be fun to go on a ghost winery tour? Have any of you taken the Wine Train? 

a-reserved-for-the-tycoonWe’re closing in on our Millionth Hit… Have you entered our contest?  Keep those comments coming too. You may win the It’s Raining Cowboys Book Shower … 2 chances to win when we hit the BIG NUMBER!

Oh and my favorite wine is Zinfandel and Merlot, but I don’t refuse any type of vino!

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45 thoughts on “Stumbling into Ghosts … Wineries of the Past by Charlene Sands”

  1. Interesting information on these wineries, great
    histories. Touring the “ghosties” would be such
    fun! Texas, over the past decade, has begun seeing
    wineries pop up, especially in the Hill Country.
    If I can interest Honey in visiting one or two, I
    am certainly up for a tour! We’re not such great
    imbibers, but it would be most educational to visit.
    Merlot for me, please!

    Pat Cochran

  2. I was drinking an Australian Shiraz last night, but my husband usually picks out the bottles. I like chardonnay very much, too. And champagne, bring on the bubbles! 🙂

    I have never been to wine country in California, but it looks lovely.

  3. That would be so much fun to go on a ghost winery tour! A definite ladies day/night out event! I am a champagne girl…any bubbly wines are great!

  4. Good morning, Charlene,

    Being Italian, I’m a wine-lover, though nothing too dry. I like the sweeter ones–Bricco Rielli is my fav. I have no preference of white over red, just as long as it goes down easy. 🙂

    How does wine get its color? From the grapes, right?

  5. Hi Pat,

    I didn’t know the Hill country had vineyards! I would definitely go on a wine tasting tour, even if you don’t inbibe, it’s fun. They show you everything from how the grapes grow, the vineyards, the hazards to the vines, to how they crush and macerate the grapes, then ferment and bottle them. I saw the whole process once and it fascinated me!

  6. Hi Gillian – Our “signature” wine, literally is Chardonnay – My name Char/his name Don! We often joke about it. I’ve really gotten to love pino grigio too… learned of it from the movie Sideways! Oh, and I do love champagne. My friend once brought be back a bottle from Champagne France and I could taste the difference … yummy!

  7. Hi Kathleen!

    Yes, those winery tours are becoming very popular. My daughter organized one for her friend’s bachlorette party. They hired a car and the driver took them to various wineries in Santa Barbara. They had fun, but good thing they HAD a driver, because after tasting wine they were all buzzed afterward!

    The ghost winery tours were mostly up north. Sadly, they discontinued them, but an individual can map them out. There is actually a ton of info about ghost wineries. I could have written about for pages and pages!

  8. Intriguing blog, Charlene. Haven’t seen Sideways, but loved French Kiss and A Walk in the Clouds. Wine is such a romantic drink. Would love to be an expert on different wines. Alas, having been raised in a non-drinking culture, I never developed a taste for alcohol. I sip wine at parties to be sociable, but can’t say I really like it.
    However, I do like champagne….

  9. Hi Pam,

    I’m with you, I love a sweet wine. I would even venture to say, I love blackberry or strawberry wines… those really sweet ones. But I don’t care for dry wines as much.

    Did your parents drink wine like water? I swear my dad had wine flowing thru his veins. He grew up drinking wine … and I’d never seen him drunk. He drank red wine from noon to bedtime, but mostly at dinnertime.

    Wine color – Yes, it’s from the color of grapes, but not how most people think. All grapes, once gently crushed from their skins comes out whitish gray. How long its allowed to macerate (sit inside the tank and blend) with it’s skins, seeds and stems determine the actual color. Deep reds steep longer with their counterparts than white wines.

    Thanks for stopping by today!!

  10. Hi Abi-

    I don’t drink wine often. I have to be in the mood but when I do, I enjoy it. I’ve really been enjoying my research on wine. I hope to head to Los Olivos soon to take a tour of a big winery there. I think you’d enjoy a wine tour too.

  11. Hi Elizabeth – Wine is such a romantic drink, that movies with a wine theme seem to be big hits. I must have seen French Kiss ten times!!
    I love champagne but only drink it at weddings and on Ne Year’s eve!

  12. I enjoy a good glass of white wine rather than the reds. My favorite is Piesporter. The only wineries I’ve toured are those in SW Michigan. Bought lots of good local wines and had great fun on the tours.

  13. I do enjoy a good glass of wine on occasion, my favorite is White Zinfandel with a shot of peach snopz in it..mmmm…

    A friend of mine makes wine that has a slightly higher alcohol level, he experiments all the time and we often get a bottle of wine as a gift. He doesn’t have a website but his email is – he makes most wines from fruits native to LA & the bayou (muskadine wine).

    I haven’t visited a ghost winery, but I DID visit a winery in New York, The Finger Lakes Region (Hammondsport) and my book, The Inheritance ends there when the heroine inherits a home and vinyards from a grandmother she never knew.

    Interesting post Charlene!

  14. Hi Pam T – Oh, your book sounds fascinating. Wouldn’t it be neat to inherit a vineyard? Your friend’s wine sounds intriguing … I do like a sweeter fruity wine. I guess its the sugars in the different fruits that give it a higher alcohol level. Thanks for the post!!

  15. Hi Charlene, Great information. My daughter and I plan to do some wine tasting this year and Napa Valley isn’t too far from us. This new information is just what we need to see something different in our outing. We love ghosts, too.
    My son does the wine tasting in Oregon and has sent me some very delicious wines I wouldn’t normally get. I think my fav is Zinfindel.

  16. I’m not much of a wine drinker. I try because my doctor said one glass a day is heart healthy. But I just about can’t do it…and I set out to drink it like medicine and find out a month has gone by and I’ve forgotten to take a glass of it. 🙂

    I loved A Walk in the Clouds. Such a beautiful movie. That scene where Keanu Reeves is helping the heroine fight off the frost, they’re waving those wings, smoke in the air, passion, music. Beautiful scene, beautiful moment.

    Ah romance………

  17. Hi Mary J-

    Oh, I hope you enjoy your wine tours. I haven’t been to Napa area during the harvest time, actually just before, in July, but they say that the air has a distinct aroma from the crush. Up there, harvest is from Sept to October. I would love to see and smell it! And what a good son you have!!

  18. Hi Mary C-
    I agree with you about the movie. I tried to post that scene as one of my pictures, but it was too small and didn’t come thru well. I think I’m going to rent that movie again. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it. Maybe I’ll actually pay attention this time to the winemaking scenes!

  19. We love to tour wineries when we travel. It is fun to learn each one’s history and then do the wine tasting. I have tasted some good, some blah, and some shudderingly horrible!

  20. Wow! This is way too cool. What a fascinating tour. I love to visit ghost towns and didn’t realize there were ghost wineries. I’ll definitely add that to my list of places to go the next time I head south to visit California.

  21. Oh Charlene, take me to Napa. I just love it there!! I adore wine and love a good merlot, but lately I’ve had a crush on Aussie shiraz. I also like sauvignon blanc when I want something lighter.

    A couple of the funnest wineries we visited have been in Maui (pineapple wine) and Big Island–where they feature “volcano red.”

    I live close to Sideways country so it’s a real favorite. We wine taste in California’s central coast every autumn.

    As always, I can’t wait for your next book(s)

  22. Hi Cheryl C-
    Oh, I don’t think I’ve tasted really bad wine, but others say if it’s really spoiled it tastes like vinegar … that’s opposed to wine that just doesn’t suit your tastes. I tend to stick to the wines I like, Zin, Merlot and Pino Grigio, but since I haven’t been on many wine tours, I don’t have a discerning palette.

  23. Charlene, how interesting! I didn’t know wine making got such an early start in this country. Wow! I’ve always wanted to tour a winery, but haven’t had the opportunity yet. I think it’d be very neat. My wine of choice whenever I drink it (which isn’t very often) is merlot. I like the taste of it.

    I missed seeing “Sideways” but I loved “French Kiss.” If I remember right, that starred Meg Ryan when she was very popular.

    I’ll have you know I’m anxiously awaiting your next book. It promises to be a good one. RESERVED FOR THE TYCOON was one of your best! I loved it!

  24. Hi Linda,
    Are there wineries close to where you live? I don’t think of Texas as being a wine country, but I suppose there are places that have vineyards, right? I loved French Kiss, with Kevin Kline and Meg Ryan. It’s all about him transporting a little vine from the US to France to restart his own winery… we all thought he was smuggling drugs or something. Its a great romance though.

    Oh, you are so sweet. I just started Texas
    Tempest and am enjoying it so much! You have such a great western voice, I found myself smiling. But then, my copyedits came yesterday and I had to stop on Chapter Two. But I will finish it soon … don’t you hate when you can’t finish a book you really want to read because of nasty interruptions like work!

  25. I am not much of a drinker, so I have not tried the wide variety that is out there. But visiting a winery sounds like an interesting thing to do. 😀

  26. Hi Charlene! Very interesting! I visited Napa Valley during RWA last year and found it fascinating. Like you, I think it’s incredibly romantic. We have vineyards here, too, close to where I live in the Niagara Region. Some of them are excellent and compete well on the world market. My favorite wines are red and I enjoy Pinot Noir (Australian at the moment).

    I loved the movie “Sideways!” Those two guys are hilarious. In fact I bought the script to study the dialogue.

    Great post! 🙂

  27. Interesting blog post – thanks!! I have a brother who lives in Sonoma Valley and has an interest in a small vineyard/winery. I haven’t gotten to visit yet and do not know the name. My husband loves Merlot and I like a nice Shiraz. Last time I did the wine tours was Napa in 1972! I would love to do a ghost winery tour! Neat idea. My DH and I both love A Walk in the Clouds!

  28. Hi Estella,
    Oh, sorry to hear that! I hope you enjoyed the visits to the wineries though. They sell other fun things in those wine tasting rooms. Thanks for stopping by today!

  29. Hi Kate,
    Oh, you have the script to Sideways! How fun. They shot that in central CA, closer to Santa Barbara area I believe. Everyone is talking about the Australian wines. I will pick some up next time I’m at Trader Joes. You really did see some great places when you were visiting CA!

  30. Hi Charlene.
    Fascinating post, esp to an unashamed wine lover! Like Linda, I had no idea North American wine had been around for so long. We hardly see any over here in New Zealand but we do have this crazy system where our locally-produced wine is so much more expensive than Australian wines. We see the occasional Sth African and Chilean wines too. I’m a Chardonnay girl, the full-bodied, loaded-with-oak for me. And I loved French Kiss too. Looks like my next dvd might be Walk in the Clouds.
    Lovely blog design, by the way.

  31. I love touring wineries! My body doesn’t allow me to have wine very often, but I enjoy every sip I allow myself. Have a local winery here in NE Nebraska that is so wonderful and Missouri has dozens that are fun to tour. I really enjoyed reading your info.

  32. Hi Jan,
    So nice to see you here! I’m glad to hear you’re a wine lover! I really have to try wines from other countries. But since I live in CA, I’m spoiled with all of our great wine we produce here. I’m glad you like our blog design!

  33. Charlene,

    Just surfacing from my cataract procedure of this
    AM! I’m still not “seeing” clearly! Anyway, as
    regards the Texas wineries, there are at least
    24/25 at last count!!

    Pat Cochran

  34. Hey Charlene – I must admit when I first saw the title come up on my blogroll I thought you were talking about the walking ‘spirits’ as opposed to the liquid kind.

    I never drank any alcohol until I joined the military. Then during every weekend at boot camp, we were allowed to go to the mess and since we were recruits, we were only allowed wine. No, I don’t know the significane of this. So I started to drink wine. It was okay to drink but murder to get out of our dress uniforms!

    When I graduated from boot camp, we were flown to another base for trades training. No longer recruits, we could drink whatever we wanted. Funny thing was, the hard liquor played with my brain somewhat. 🙂

    Nowadays, I’ve gone back to my pre-CAF time meaning I don’t drink alcohol at all. Well, except for the occasional glass when I visit my sil and get their home-made stuff. And I have no idea why I have a headache the next morning, but that one glass keeps me away until the next time.

  35. When we lived in Sacramento, we found a winery with Sweet Marie and Green Hungarian varieties of wine. They were wonderful. Unfortunately, they went to a mass production format and no longer produce those wines. Their other wines are not as good as they used to be. We have found a wonderful little winery in central Tennessee, the Highland Winery. All of their wines are wonderful. They have a Cabot Red (named for their late black lab) that is a nice dinner wine. Anytime we are even close, we swing by and usually buy a case of mixed varieties. We had little children when we lived in CA and never got a chance to do any of the wine tours. One of these days we will. Hope they have a ghost winery tour when we do.

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