There was a time when the Napa Valley was replete with ghost wineries, vestiges of the wine industry that thrived here, beginning in the 19th century, and was shut down by Prohibition. They were noble old stone buildings, abandoned, ruins sitting in fruit orchards that had replaced vineyards.
One by one, these old ghosts have been brought back to life, restored as working wineries, like Flora Springs or Chateau Montelena; others have been turned into private residences.
Except for one.
The Franco Swiss Winery lies off the well-tread roads of the valley, in a nook in the eastern hills on the serene, and remote Conn Valley Road not far from Lake Hennessey. Leslie and Richard Mansfield were newcomers to the valley 20 years ago, and exploring their new home when they discovered the old stone ghost, standing silently near the road, part of its roof and walls missing.
“I fell in love,” said Leslie, a cookbook author, journalist and chef. She and Richard, a veteran winemaker, set out on a quest, to purchase the winery and restore it to its lost glory.
“We called it the Sleeping Beauty winery,” said Leslie Mansfield. It took several years to track down the owner and persuade him to sell it. After they moved into the manor house adjacent to the winery, they took on their next challenge: The valley’s Winery Definition Ordinance permitted historic wineries on 5 acres; the Franco-Swiss winery had only 2 acres. The Mansfields took their case to the Napa County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission to revive the ghost into a working winery.
Meanwhile, the Mansfields, delving into the history of the Franco Swiss Winery, discovered that their ghost winery came with a ghost.
Built in 1876, by the 1880s, the winery was producing 100,000 gallons of wine a year, and winning awards from Paris to St. Louis. In 1882, however, it was the site of a notorious murder, when a disgruntled employee named Louis Murback was fired for theft, went to San Francisco, got drunk, bought a gun, and returned to the winery. Announcing, he was going to shoot someone “so it might as well be you,” he shot and killed Jules Millet, the nephew of the winery owner.
The Mansfields were not believers in ghosts, yet a series of odd events — exploding flashlights, unexplained noises — persuaded them to reconsider their views. The winery even became the subject of a television program exploring the paranormal; but after visits from psychics, and a Catholic priest, they concluded that if the unsettled ghost of Jules Millet ever had roamed the winery, he’s now at peace — maybe it happened when the Mansfields finally secured the permission to restore the winery.
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“We had wonderful support from everyone,” Leslie Mansfield said. “The Historical Society backed us up, and we got unanimous decisions our favor. Everyone understood: it’s the valley’s last unrestored ghost winery.”
On to the next challenge, for a writer and a winemaker to find the millions in funds for the restoration. They were busy hosting dinners for prospective investors when Leslie fell ill, diagnosed first with breast cancer, then with leukemia as a result of the chemotherapy.
The sleeping beauty project was put on hold while Leslie, supported by Richard, successfully battled back from not one but two bouts of cancer. “But bad things come in threes,” she said. She was on her way to meet Richard and friends for dinner in downtown Napa, when she tripped over a hole in a sidewalk, fell forward on her face and landed back in hospital. Recovering from these extensive injuries, she said, “was worse than dealing the cancer.
At this point, the Mansfields decided it was time to hand their beloved winery project on to others. “We want to do some traveling, and enjoy each other’s company,” said Richard, who’d been at Leslie’s side through near-death experiences and a month in a medically induced coma.
They have put the winery on the market for $3.85 million. The use permits have been secured for an 20,000 gallon wine production, visitors by appointment, events, and a tasting room and offices in an historic barn on the property. Juliana Inman, a Napa architect who specializes in historic renovations, has drafted plans for its renovation, and Tom Andrews, a local contractor experienced in historic buildings, has provided estimates.
“We fought the good fight to get it going,” Leslie said. “Now we are hoping someone will carry on. I have no regrets. We’ve met so many wonderful people through our work on this dream. We are just hoping someone will fall in love with it as we did.
“The remarkable thing is it stood through the (2014 Napa) earthquake,” she added. “It may look like an ugly duckling, but the right person could turn it into a swan.”
The Franco-Swiss Winery is listed with Gates Estates, Sotheby’s International Realty, 6550 Washington St., Yountville. For more information, visit gatesestatessir.com or call 707-944-0888.