RICHMOND — The Winehaven castle, an imposing red brick building that once housed the world’s largest winery, has stood on the edge of Richmond’s Point Molate peninsula for more than a century, surrounded by eucalyptus trees in the shadows of a bluff.
In its heyday at the beginning of the 20th century, Winehaven employed about 400 people and stored millions of gallons of wine. It shipped out 500,000 gallons of wine a month from its docks, according to the National Parks Service, and had a railroad connection for the trains that constantly picked up and dropped off materials. The rail is still there, unused.
Today, the castle is mostly empty except for some stored building materials, its windows boarded up.
But the one-time hub could be bustling once again under terms of a settlement the city reached with an Indian tribe and developer that wanted to build a casino there and sued it after being rebuffed.
That settlement — the culmination of an eight-year legal battle — calls for at least 670 housing units — it doesn’t specify what type — to be built at Point Molate and for 70 percent of the 270-acre site to be maintained as open space. It also states that whoever the developer is should preserve the 48-acre Winehaven Historic District, which includes the castle and about 35 houses. The city spends about $500,000 a year maintaining the district’s buildings and paying for security, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said.
Under the settlement, the city has two years to craft a zoning and reuse plan for the site and four years to sell it to a developer. The city currently is holding meetings to get residents’ opinions and ideas about what should happen to the property.
If the land isn’t marketed for sale within four years, the Guidiville Rancheria of California Indian tribe and Upstream Point Molate LLC can purchase that portion slated for development for about $300 and do what they want with it. Butt said he’s certain the rezoning wouldn’t allow a casino, however.
The Guidiville Rancheria and Upstream Point Molate sued Richmond after the City Council denied their plan to build the casino, alleging that the city had no legal grounds to do so. The plaintiffs said they paid millions of dollars to the city in efforts to obtain agreements for the project and sought more than $750 million in damages, as well as the cost of the suit.
The planned Las Vegas-style casino development was opposed by Bay Area card clubs and other Indian tribes. The United Auburn Indian Community, which owns Thunder Valley Casino Resort north of Sacramento, funneled $150,000 into the campaign to stop the casino. A spokesman at the time said a casino could “open the floodgates for gaming” in an urban area because state law only allows Indian gaming on tribal lands outside urban areas.
The Richmond City Council rejected the proposed development after a majority of voters said no to a 2010 ballot measure asking if a casino should be built.
In April, the city cut a deal with Guidiville Rancheria and Upstream Point Molate to sell the land for development and for the profits to be split 50-50.
The Winehaven Historic District must be preserved to local and state standards under the settlement, Butt said, adding that basically means the developers can’t put stucco over the walls or tear the buildings down and replace them. But they can use the buildings as housing, retail space or whatever they want as long as the structures are maintained.
Butt said he thinks a developer would want to add commercial and retail space to the housing units since it would be allowed to build on about 80 acres.
Butt, who is also an architect, estimated it would cost about $60 million to rehabilitate the entire district, or about $200 per square foot for 300,000 square feet. “The cost of rehabilitating a building like that would be about the same as the cost of building a new building,” he said.
Winehaven was constructed after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake by the California Wine Association — a group of Bay Area winemakers and sellers who banded together to dominate the California wine market. The association’s previous facility in San Francisco was destroyed in the earthquake.
In his book, “A history of Wine in America,” author Thomas Pinney said the California Wine Association lost tens of million gallons of wine in the earthquake and subsequent fire. So the next year it built Winehaven, which included a winery, a distillery and warehouses, and installed an electric railway through the site linked to the docks.
Winehaven originally stored 10 million gallons of wine, and later 12 million. “From the turn of the century to the coming of national Prohibition, the California Wine Association was the most prosperous establishment in the most prosperous period that the California wine industry had yet known,” Pinney wrote.
But the thriving business crumbled during Prohibition in the 1920s. The U.S. Navy purchased the site in 1941 and used it as part of a fuel depot until 1998. The Point Molate property was given to the city in 2003, and the building has been mostly vacant since.
The Navy converted the cellars into a nuclear bomb shelter, the remnants of which remain. Little makeshift rooms with cloth barriers line much of it. Inside are cots, survival kits and well over a hundred water barrels.
The court settlement calling for the land to be developed is being fought by several local groups.
Two environmental organizations and four Richmond residents filed a lawsuit alleging the settlement was made illegally behind closed doors. Others have decried the use of the land for a major housing development.
Richmond resident Jan Gilbrecht, who has spoken at City Council meetings about Point Molate, said she doesn’t support the settlement but wouldn’t mind seeing Winehaven rehabilitated “as a lovely relic” since she views the site as a destination.
If the site is to commemorated, she said, so should the Chinese shrimp fisherman camps that emerged at Point Molate in the late 1800s. Ohlone Indians who fished at Point Molate for centuries should also be honored, she said.
“Winehaven brought people in to work who were mostly single white men, and then left when Prohibition came to pass,” Gilbrecht said.
Robert Cheasty, executive director for environmental group Citizens for East Shore Parks, also supports restoring the Winehaven, but thinks it should be part of a larger Point Molate plan crafted by the community. Cheasty and the group opposed the city entering into the settlement agreement.
“It was a magnificent building and it really should be restored. ... But there’s lots of opportunities for Point Molate, and it needs more creative thinking than just putting a bunch of housing out there,” Cheasty said.