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November 3, 2011

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'Ghost wineries' spin some spooky tales

AS the crisp bite of fall turns vineyards into a kaleidoscope of russet and orange, the Napa Valley's spooky side comes out to play with tales of mysterious noises and ghostly sightings.

Not a believer? Not a problem. Skeptics can enjoy the valley's real-life "ghost wineries," relics of the pre-Prohibition industry that are haunted by history if nothing else.

The term "ghost winery" refers to places that were started in the mid-to-late 19th century, a time when the California wine industry was booming, but were abandoned in the early 20th century. It was a crash brought about by the triple threat of an outbreak of the vine disease phylloxera, the Great Depression, and, of course, the failed experiment to ban alcohol that was analyzed in the recent PBS documentary "Prohibition" directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

Some of the ghost wineries have become tumbledown ruins, but others have been renovated by new owners who moved in as the modern wine industry took off in the 1960s and '70s.

One such winery is Chateau Montelena, which was founded in 1882 by Alfred L. Tubbs and was a major producer in the Napa Valley by the turn of the 20th century, only to fall largely into disuse after Prohibition. The property was revived in the early '70s when James Barrett bought the estate.

Back then, the place was thoroughly overgrown, says Barrett's son Bo, who was just out of high school at the time. There weren't any ghosts, but that doesn't mean the grounds were fright-free. Barrett remembers camping out on the lawn - and relocating to the comfort of his truck after hearing the throaty call of a resident bull frog. "We'd never heard a big old bull frog," he says with a laugh.

The winery made its mark in the modern era of California winemaking when its chardonnay beat French whites at a famous Paris tasting in 1976.

Bo Barrett, now a winemaker himself, sees continuity in the winery's history. "Tubbs set out to make the very best wine he could in California," he says. "We believe in the high standards that he set in those days."

At Charles Krug in St. Helena, interest in the past is particularly strong this year, its 150th anniversary.

The winery was founded in 1861 and there have long been ghost stories kicking around, including a few alleged sightings of a lady in white walking the upper floors of the Redwood Cellar, which dates back to the 1870s.

Staff researching the history of the winery, which has been in the Peter Mondavi Sr. family for decades, have discovered that information about Krug is almost as elusive as the walking lady.

Krug died in 1892 and Cesare and Rosa Mondavi, parents of Peter Sr. and his brother, the late Robert Mondavi, purchased the winery in 1943. What is known about Krug is that he was a revolutionary in his native Prussia, later a newspaper journalist, then a winemaker.

Hoping to find out more, the winery is considering holding a seance this fall. It's mostly for fun, but then, you never know. "We do not want to ignore any option," says Paul Englert, vice president of marketing.

Just south of Charles Krug is the Beringer winery, founded by Jacob and Frederick Beringer, in 1876. There's no ghost winery here; wine has been made continuously including during Prohibition, when a clause in the law allowed a certain amount of wine to be made for sacramental purposes. Still, ghost stories are always popular this time of year, and Beringer is not without its spooky side - the usual unexplained movements, lights shutting on and off, disappearing figures and the sounds of footsteps when no one's around.

The Franco-Swiss Winery scores a double in the spirits sweepstakes. It's a ghost winery replete with ghost stories. Built in the 1870s, the winery is being renovated by Richard and Leslie Mansfield, who are now producing wine as the Mansfield Winery, but plan to reopen under the original Franco-Swiss name when the restoration is completed.

The St. Helena winery was founded by three men who met while working at Charles Krug. By 1884, the place was producing 378,530 liters of wine annually. But it was later forced to shut down due to Prohibition.

The Mansfields - Richard is an experienced winemaker and Leslie a chef and cookbook author - discovered the neglected gray stone building in 1996 and were excited about restoring it to its glory days.

They also discovered a good ghost story, dating back to 1882, when Jules Millet, nephew of one of the founders, was shot and killed by a disgruntled cellar worker who had been fired for theft. Leslie Mansfield says they believe "Jules Millet's ghost is still here and after a few initial misunderstandings he is now quite friendly."

Luckily, the Mansfields aren't averse to spirits in their wine cellar - provided they're benign.

If You Go...

Chateau Montelena: 1429 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga, California; or 707-942-5105. Open 9:30am-4pm daily; check website for holiday schedules and other occasional closings. Tastings start at US$20.

Charles Krug Winery: 2800 Main St., St. Helena, California; or 707-967-2200. Open 10:30am-5pm daily. Tasting fees start at US$10.

Beringer Vineyards: 2000 Main St., St. Helena, California; or 866-708-9463. October to May, open 10am-5pm daily. Tasting fees start at US$15.

Franco-Swiss Winery: Weekend tastings and tours of the ghost winery ruins are available by appointment only to interested wine-lovers by e-mailing


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