Editor’s note: Absent for seven years, Rebecca Yerger’s column “Memory Lane” returns this week. Yerger, a Napa historian, writer and frequent contributor to the Register, wrote “Memory Lane,” exploring the history of the Napa Valley for many years. Beginning today, it will run on the first Saturday of each month in the Home and Garden section. To suggest a topic for “Memory Lane,” e-mail the idea to email@example.com.
In celebration of the return of “Memory Lane” — what better historical subject could there be to feature than the iconic Greystone Cellars in St. Helena?
With its solid native stone edifice rising from its terraced hillside site, Greystone has commanded notice and attention since its 1889 construction. Physically solid, stately and even formidable, Greystone has, nonetheless, felt the influences of socio-economic changes over time.
Greystone began as a business concept and brain-child of William Bowers Bourn Jr. His father, William Bowers Bourn Sr., had amassed a fortune from the shipping company he co-owned with Captain George Chase and especially from his Empire Gold Mine profits during the mid-1800s.
The younger Bourn was a savvy businessman in his own right who created an even greater financial dynasty than his father. Bourne’s entrepreneurial aptitude helped him recognize the potential of a facility like Greystone.
While Bourn had business interests and residences throughout California, he had a long-standing tie to Napa County, and St. Helena, in particular. During his youth, he’d spent his summers at White Sulphur Springs Resort before his parents bought Madrono, a St. Helena estate.
The genesis of his Greystone concept was the autocratic price-fixing conspiracy found throughout the Bay Area wine mercantiles. Wine dealers forced local grape growers and wine makers to take below-market prices for their commodities. To add to this hostile financial climate, banks denied loan applications of vintners whose collateral was their stored wines. This practice placed additional pressure on the vintners to accept absurdly low compensation for their wines. Fortunately, the banks changed that policy by the late-1800s, offering some relief for the wine industry. Still, more action was needed to level the lopsided market.
Bourn began his campaign to build Greystone — a 1 million gallon winery and cellar — by forging a business partnership with another young businessman, Everett Wise, who, like Bourn, was in his early 30s. The next step was to rally support for a cooperative within the Napa County wine industry. Bourn met with Henry Pellet, president of the St. Helena Vinicultural Club. Pellet endorsed the idea and encouraged his fellow associates to do the same in a letter.
He wrote: “The object of (Mr. Bourn’s) cellar is to lift the wine industry out of the slough it is now in and to get out of the clutches of the San Francisco wine dealers who have us by the throat. We should erect this cellar so as to be able to hold our wines and not sell at the prices offered to us.”
Bourn and Wise drafted terms and options for those wanting to conduct business with Greystone. One emphatic term was: “NO Malvoisie, Mission, inferior grapes or grapes in bad condition will be received for winemaking.”
As for the options, they were:
1) Greystone would produce wine, on shares, from anyone’s grapes and store the wine separately.
2) That wine or any wine stored at Greystone would be held until the highest price could be secured. Then, following that sale, the wine owner would be paid his share of the profits.
3) Any grower could sell their quality grapes directly to Greystone.
Bourn and Wise succeeded in garnering the backing of the local wine industry and hired the San Francisco architectural firm of Percy and Hamilton to design Greystone Cellars. The final plans called for the use of cutting-edge materials and technology of that era, such as the new Portland cement.
During the construction, that cement was used as mortar and also poured over the iron reinforcing rods built within the first and second floor elevations. The heavy timber construction of the third floor provided structural support for not only that floor’s cask, barrel and bottle aging space but also for the gravity-flow crushing area located on the floor above.
Greystone was the first California winery to be operated and illuminated by electricity. A boiler and gas generator located in a mechanical room below the central front wing of the building produced the electricity. Another accolade for Greystone was due to its massive dimensions. Greystone Cellars was the largest winery in California.
All that grandeur and state-of-the-art design came with an equally grand price tag: $250,000 — an exorbitant amount of money in the late 19th century, even for the ultra-wealthy.
Within less than a decade of its completion, Greystone began its succession of property owners. By 1894 it was owned by Charles Carpy and became the icon for the C.W.A. — California Wine Association. By late 1924, C.W.A. had removed all of the 200,000 gallons of wine stored at Greystone. A year later, the Bisceglia brothers of San Jose purchased Greystone where they produced sacramental wines until 1930. Following a three-year hiatus, the Bisceglias restored operations at Greystone in October 1933.
Christian Brothers entered the picture in 1945 when they signed a lease agreement for the cellar. Five years later, 1950, they bought Greystone. Decades later, faced with declining market shares and vineyard yields as well as the very costly prospect of seismically retrofitting Greystone, Christian Brothers winery was sold to the Heublein Company of Canada in 1991. A year later, Heublein sold Greystone to the Culinary Institute of America for $1.68 million. In three short years, opening in August 1995, Greystone had been retrofitted and remodeled into the western CIA campus.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, Greystone Cellars is enjoying a renaissance in purpose and popularity, but perhaps its most sentimental adulation is found in a circa 1900 C.W.A. brochure: “Whoever visits Napa Valley .. .must inevitably have his attention called to ‘Greystone,’ our magnificent stone cellar which is a landmark for miles around, and which, for centuries to come, will be an enduring monument to its builders and owners” — and community.