Bringing a Historic but Haunted Winery Back to Life

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The upper stretches of Conn Valley Road are more locked in time than most other corners of California. Only a few miles away from the contemporary epicurean bustle of Napa Valley's Highway 29, the road meanders through the oak-studded foothills east of St. Helena, where, rather than busloads of weekend winos headed for trendy tasting rooms and amazingly expensive eateries, you're more likely to encounter bald eagles, bobcats, and — if you drive deep enough — the relics of the winemaking region's nearly forgotten past.

That would be the remains of the Franco-Swiss Winery, built in 1876. By the 1880s, the Franco-Swiss was pumping out more than 100,000 gallons of wine every year — and we're not talking run-of-the-mill plonk. "The quality of grapes produced by it is evidenced by the wines now in the cellar," wrote the St. Helena Star in 1882, "one of which — the Zinfandel Claret — we have rarely seen equaled." Most wine aficionados believe that the 1976 "Judgment of Paris" — the historic blind tasting by French critics who, to their own shock, preferred American entries to French — was the first time the New World beat out Old World wines. But the Franco-Swiss is a reminder that Napa Valley has been holding its own since the end of the 19th century, when American wineries regularly won awards at expositions and fairs from Paris to St. Louis. That momentum, however, screeched to a halt with Prohibition; and the Franco-Swiss faded into the weed-infested, crumbling edifice visitors find today.

But this so-called "ghost winery" may cease to be ruins: its history-loving owners are in the midst of breathing winemaking life back into its walls "There's a lot of wineries on Highway 29, and many of them are beautiful structures, but they really have very little to do with the history of the valley," explains owner Leslie Mansfield, a cookbook author and chef whose husband Richard has been a winemaker for more than 30 years. "We've got a Persepolis and we've got a Tuscan castle," she says referring to other architecturally fancy wineries nearby. "But I think that the most beautiful wineries are the old ones." So the couple, who live in a historic ranch house across the road from the dilapidated Franco-Swiss, has spent the past decade pursuing their dream of saving the old winery by restoring it into a fully functioning facility.

The Mansfields are by no means the first to revive such a ghost. Countless other once-shuttered cellars are pumping wine again or have found new life as shopping malls, private residences, and, in one case, the recently opened headquarters of the Napa Valley Vintners Association. But, as Leslie explains, "We are the last ghost winery in the Napa Valley that can be restored, which is pretty exciting." And since most of the other ghosts haunted the now extensively developed valley floor, the Franco-Swiss's untrammeled setting makes it unique. "There's nothing to let you know what century you're in," says Leslie. "It really could be the 1800s."

The Napa County supervisors approved the Mansfields' restoration permits unanimously last fall. "The historic winery structures are symbols of the continuity of the wine industry in this valley," explained supervisor Diane Dillon, whose great-grandfather Connelly Conn — Conn Valley's namesake — used to grow grapes for the old Franco-Swiss Winery. "Everyone wants to have a wine industry like ours, and almost every state says it has a wine region now. But ours is 150 years old, and these historic buildings tie the current industry to the past and ensure that their context is not forgotten."

The Mansfields, meanwhile, will not just have a ghost winery but a ghost. According to tradition, Jules Millet, a member of the family who used to own the Franco-Swiss, was murdered right outside the winery's walls way back in 1882 — and supposedly haunts the place. One dark and wet winter night soon after the Mansfields purchased the winery, they were dining with friends when Richard took the guys over to the winery for a little late night tour. As they wandered around with flashlights, one of the more tipsy fellows yelled out, "If you're here, Jules Millet, knock three times!" Only their laughter broke the silence. But then the next night, six loud explosions — "pop, pop, pop, boom, boom, boom," recalled Leslie — erupted in the bowels of their own home. Richard was away on business, so Leslie hid in the bedroom all night until the next morning when she discovered the source in her basement. "Every flashlight that [the men had] taken across the street — and only those flashlights — had exploded into a million pieces," says Leslie. The exploding bulbs included that in a dive lamp able to go down to 300 feet; a C battery was also bent in half. "The ones that had not been taken across the street were just fine."

Since then, the ghost of Jules Millet has kept mostly quiet, but that was enough for the Mansfields. "Believe me, I did not believe in ghosts before this at all," laughs Leslie. "But I don't need any more. I do believe in spooks! I do believe in spooks!" Barring any unforeseen interruptions from Millet, the Mansfields plan to start the renovation project this summer.