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Just because Spottswoode is a ghost winery, there's no reason to get spooked the next time you uncork one of its Cabernet Sauvignons. Ghost wineries aren't necessarily haunted. But in October, people in Northern California get nostalgic for old, pre-Prohibition cellars often abandoned and forgotten, now -- as they're called -- "ghost wineries."
"These are hallowed places, holy places, as far as I'm concerned," said wine historian William Heintz, author of Wine Country: A History of Napa Valley, the Early Years 1838 to 1920. "They're remnants of the past."
There are hundreds of such wineries around California, from the Sierra Foothills and the Central Coast to Mendocino County. Of the 700 wineries in business when Prohibition began, in 1929, only 40 survived by the time it was repealed, in 1933.
Many of the old wineries are gone without a trace. Other Napa wineries -- like Caramella and Vorbe, names that only old-timers recall -- are now nothing more than a stone wall in an overgrown field. A few have been reborn as new wineries, homes or businesses, and many have names that are familiar. Napa Valley's Chateau Montelena was built in 1882 and has seen many lives. Kenwood Vineyards in Sonoma County began life in 1900 as the Pagani Winery. Popular St. Helena restaurant Tra Vigne was once the Sciaroni Winery, built in 1880.
Nowhere are these historic wineries more celebrated than in Napa Valley, which for the past eight Octobers has been host to the annual "Ghost Winery Tour of Napa Valley." The tour is organized by and benefits The Land Trust of Napa County, a nonprofit group that preserves open space and agricultural land. This year, about 700 people took the tour, a largely self-guided exploration of four properties, including Spottswoode, Pride Mountain, Robert Keenan and the historic St. Michael's Villa at the Sattui estate.
At Spottswoode, the old Kraft Wine Cellar is now used as the winery's barrel-aging cellar. The 1880s stone building, with its handsome arched windows and doors, is largely unchanged from the old days, except for a new roof and a concrete floor.
"I think it's really important to share these old buildings with people," Spottswoode owner Mary Novak said. "We need to let people know what it was like in Napa Valley a hundred years ago."
Except for a cobweb in a corner of the Spottswoode cellar, there isn't anything ghostly about it, but high on nearby Spring Mountain is another old winery that might inspire a raised hair or two on a dark night. The old stone winery at Summit Ranch, home since 1990 to Pride Mountain Vineyards, is a skeleton of fieldstone, partially damaged in the great quake of 1906. Its roof gone, sections of its weathered walls reaching two stories high, the place feels almost like Stonehenge.
There are many wineries like Summit Ranch around the state. In Sonoma Valley, just off Highway 12 in Kenwood, amid the vineyards of Kunde Estate Winery, is the Dunefilly Winery. Built in 1884 by an English army captain, the stone building is now just a shell used by Kunde for special occasions. A few years ago, actress Geena Davis married director Renny Harlin there.
"We tend to think of Prohibition as sort of the watershed year for the wine industry, and what happened before 1920 was sort of vague and unimportant," Heintz said. "That isn't true at all. The California wine industry is much older than that, older than the Gold Rush. We have lost sight of our history."
But are there any true ghost wineries, any haunted-house tales to tell? Evidently not.
Greystone Cellars, once used by the Christian Brothers to make wine and now home to the West Coast campus of the Culinary Institute of America, has long been rumored to have a ghost. The cellar was built in 1889, and it was once considered to be the largest stone winery in the world. Folklore has it that a thin man with a long beard can be seen on foggy mornings near the stone archway along St. Helena Highway.
"I believe in spirits," Heintz admitted. "But I cannot tell you that I have ever sensed a ghost [in a winery], and I've never been told of one in almost 30 years of interviews."
With Halloween approaching, we'll just have to trust our imaginations.
The Land Trust of Napa County
1040 Main St., Suite 203
Napa, CA 94559
Telephone: (707) 252-3270
Web site: napalandtrust.org
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