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Reawakening Napa's spirits

In old wine caves and vineyards, history lingers. Some wineries have been restored and offer tastes of another time.

August 03, 2008|Kevin Garbee | Special to The Times

ST. HELENA, CALIF. — 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 seance, 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.

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