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A rusted Napa Valley Register time capsule from 1988 — the paper’s 125th year — was ceremoniously opened Wednesday afternoon before a crowd of curious employees.

The capsule — a steel safe with a combination lock — was dug up on Aug. 2 from the paper’s former site on Second Street during demolition of the old building.

The moist planter box environment had not been kind to the safe, which now resembled a battered artifact, encrusted with rust, recovered from the Titanic.

John Hawkley, the paper’s operations manager, moved the 100-pound safe into the paper’s new offices on Soscol Avenue and did what anyone in his situation would do: He drenched the door and frozen combination lock with WD 40.

In the meantime, he sent the safe’s serial number to the manufacturer and described the situation. For $20, they sent him the combination.

The combination was helpful — the handle would now move — but the door was still rusted shut. That’s when Hawkley went at it with a sledge hammer and chisel.

“I pounded on it and it opened right up,” he said.

City Editor Kevin Courtney, who was present for the 1988 burial, was given the honor of the first peek. The sight wasn’t pretty.

The safe may have been designed to keep out burglars, but not moisture. A layer of black char and decomposed wood covered the bottom. The only recognizable objects: Four bottles of wine and a wine glass commemorating the Register’s 125th birthday.

“This is like an April fools,” said one onlooker. “It’s only somewhat better than Al Capone’s crypt,” said another.

Surveying a wine box that had been reduced to moist crumbs, editor Sean Scully concluded, “There were living things in there.”

Assessing the damage that 28 years in an irrigated environment could do, Publisher Brenda Speth said: “Note to self: ‘waterproof.’”

A rolled-up piece of plastic was pulled apart. Inside was the front page of a Register from 1875. Hardly anything but the date was legible.

Of the four bottles of wine, only one had a partially readabale label: a Louis Martini “anniversary” sherry.

After everyone had snapped photos and joked about how such a large-size safe could contain so little, Speth said there was an unfinished task.

“Do readers want us to taste the wine? We have to tell the full story for our readers,” she said to cheers of encouragement.

Adjourning to the lunch room, Dave Stoneberg, editor of The St. Helena Star, extracted the intact cork from one of the unlabeled bottles and handed out tiny pours of red wine in paper cups.

Everyone sniffed. It smelled legit. And the color — a cloudy red with brown tint — was beautiful.

Features editor Sasha Paulsen judged the wine drinkable. “It survived,” she said.

“It’s not pleasant, but it’s not unpleasant,” said Scully.

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City Editor

Kevin has been city editor since September 2010. He joined the Register in 1973 as a reporter. He covered Napa City Hall and assorted other beats over the years. Kevin has been writing his Napa Journal column on Sundays since 1989.