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