Napa’s history as winemaking region dates to the mid-19th century. There were hundreds of operational wineries in the area, though Prohibition spelled death in the form of abandonment for many of them.
A few survived, selling religious wines or grapes; others were burned to the ground. Those abandoned wineries stonily pockmarked Napa County until the region’s wine revival almost half a century later.
As Napa once more became wine country, the ghost wineries that had remained mostly intact were restored to their former glory by newcomers to the region – all but one of them, that is, according to Leslie and Richard Mansfield.
The Mansfields own the Franco-Swiss Winery, a 2-acre property east of St. Helena on Conn Valley Road. The couple believes the winery is the last unrestored ghost winery in Napa.
They stumbled on the property while exploring Napa Valley when they first moved here from Oregon more than two decades ago, Leslie Mansfield said. The two – she a writer and he a winemaker – felt instantly drawn.
“On one side was the winery and the other, the house, which was also abandoned,” Leslie Mansfield said, of her first glimpse of the winery. “I said, ‘Richard, stop the car. That’s our house, and that’s our winery.’”
She wrote to the owner once a month for three years, “a campaign,” she said, to persuade him to sell. Finally, he agreed to lease them the house; subsequently, he sold them the winery, on a separate two-acre parcel.
The Mansfields intended to recreate the winery as it once was, but the size of the parcel complicated things: the Winery Definition Ordinance mandated a minimum of five acres for historical wineries. But the couple was able to prove that an exemption from the size requirement would not result in a cascade of additional wineries – “we had to prove that there were no other ghost wineries that were going to just pop up,” Leslie said – and was eventually granted the go-ahead from the county to begin restoring and operating the winery.
That’s no small feat, according to architect Juliana Inman, who called historical projects “something of a niche” for her. She worked with the Mansfields to acquire the county’s approval for its use permit.
“Bringing back the physical building is not necessarily the hardest part: it’s getting through the whole permitting process,” Inman said, noting the unique nature of the Winery Definition Ordinance. Gaining the parcel size exemption was “a big deal,” she added.
The next step for the Mansfields was fundraising – securing the means necessary to begin the restoration process. As they began their search, hosting dinners and wine tastings at Franco-Swiss, Leslie was diagnosed with breast cancer.
A series of health-related challenges followed, and though her health has since returned, the Mansfields decided to put the property – still unrestored – up for sale in 2017. Today’s asking price is $3.9 million.
There are an estimated 65 ghost wineries in Napa County, Irene Hayes wrote in her book “Ghost Wineries of Napa Valley.” At the time of its publication in 1980, 13 had been converted into residences, and five for other use. Many of Napa’s most well-known wineries – Charles Krug, Inglenook, Chateau Montelena – are themselves restored ghost wineries.
The winery at Varozza Vineyards in St. Helena, which has been in owner Jack Varozza’s family for 100 years, was being used to store farm equipment until Jack and his wife Dianna began restoring the building in 2007. Working with Inman as their historical architect, as well as an additional architect and an engineer, they wrangled with city and county regulations, as well as state-mandated seismic retrofitting.
“It was a relief to be done, so (we could) start hosting guests. It’s no longer just putting money into it,” Dianna Varozza said. The couple took out a loan to complete the repairs on the building, which – despite having been non-operational since 1946 – was in fairly good shape.
That said, there still remained a laundry list of repairs to bring the building up to operational code. The Varozzas had the building’s stone walls repointed (renewing and replacing old lime mortar with cement) added steel columns and a new roof along with additional structural reinforcements.
Renovations took eight years to complete, she said. Restoring historic buildings like their winery, which was built in 1885 by the same architect who designed Charles Krug Winery and Ehlers Estate, can certainly be “cost prohibitive,” Varozza said, though she sees value in preserving the historic buildings.
“There’s definitely a sense of having saved this beautiful building – now it’ll last through our son’s lifetime and into his kids’ lives,” Varozza added. “Everything we did, we kept in mind that we wanted it to last a long time for him.”
For now, the Franco-Swiss Winery remains in reconstruction limbo. Inman says the restoration won’t be an easy one, as the building has continued to deteriorate, but that it could still be “a viable project,” thanks to the project’s retained permits.
Earlier this year, Napa County Landmarks included Franco-Swiss Winery on its list of the county’s 10 most threatened treasures. It sustained some damage in the 2014 earthquake, Richard Mansfield said: only part of the roof remains on, and additional stones from the walls have fallen.
Though it’s not as intact as it once was, the Mansfields agree that some of the damage might actually make the restoration process easier for its next owner (who would be able to stabilize the walls without drilling into stones, which would have forced construction to work from the outside in).
It’s a bittersweet reality for the Mansfields, who have had to relinquish their dream of restoring the winery in the hopes that someone else will.
“It’s remarkable to have a winery in Napa in the first place, but to have a ghost is really incredible,” Leslie said. She still feels drawn to the history of the place, having successfully discovered 20th century photographs of the winery in the extensive research she’d conducted.
“It’s just gripping, it’s so beautiful,” she said. “It’s about the only winery left in its historical context.”
You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or email@example.com.
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