Napa Approves Restoration of 'Ghost' Winery

Changed ordinance permits Mansfield Winery owners to bring former Franco-Swiss Winery back to life

by Paul Franson
Mansfield Franco-Swiss Winery
Neglected for decades, this 1876-vintage stone structure in Conn Valley will be refurbished to house Mansfield Winery.

St. Helena, Calif. -- A small tempest that developed in remote Napa County over the proposed restoration and resumed operation of a “ghost” winery ended this morning, when the County Board of Supervisors approved a small change in the Winery Definition Ordinance that allows the owners to proceed with their plans.

Richard and Leslie Mansfield, owners of Mansfield Winery, which currently produces wine at a custom-crush facility, won approval to renovate their 1876 stone “Ghost Winery” -- once G. Crochat and Company’s Franco-Swiss Winery.

The site is only 3.5 miles east of St. Helena, situated down a long, dead-end country road in secluded Conn Valley. The building was once one of Napa County’s largest wineries, producing 100,000 gallons of wine on its 640 acres of land, 150 planted to vines. It also had a still to produce brandy.

Like other wineries of its era, the Franco-Swiss Winery took advantage of gravity and was built on a slope, with fermentation tanks accessible on the second floor via a direct entrance on the building’s eastern side. On the ground floor, large oval casks were positioned to receive the natural gravity flow that the site afforded. Large keystone-arched doors and windows offered ideal light and ventilation to the fermentation rooms, and the thick stone walls provided insulation during the hot summer months to cool and protect the young wines.

The Franco-Swiss Winery is one of the largest unrestored wineries in the county. It was also the site of an infamous murder. After phylloxera, the 1906 earthquake and Prohibition took their toll on the winemaking business, the site later was used to produce perlite (a soil amendment).

The Mansfields want to restore the old structure on Conn Valley Road into a functional 8,000-case winery. They applied for the permit under the “Historic Winery” clause in the Napa County Winery Definition Ordinance, which permits historic wineries on 5-acre parcels rather than the 10 acres required for new ones; but this winery is on an even smaller plot, only 2 acres. The Napa County Board of Supervisors voted to change the definition to 2 acres, allowing the Mansfields to continue.

The Mansfields’ proposal had been approved by the Napa County Planning Commission, but the change in law required approval by the Board of Supervisors.

A neighbor, Bill Seavey, who owns adjacent Seavey Vineyards, opposed the plans. He had offered to buy the property, and his wine director, Brandon St. Martin, said he simply wanted to restore the old building and use it for wine storage, not as a working winery. He said that Seavey already has restored the 1881 cattle barn on its property, which also used to be a part of the Franco-Swiss vineyard.

St. Martin also claimed the proposed winery has a “negligible/questionable water source,” but opponents pointed out that three dwelling units could legally have been built on the site, and each potentially would have used as much water as the one-half acre-foot the winery would consume.

St. Martin also noted that grapes will have to be trucked in along the rural road, along with everything else, “Making that area a bottleneck of activity on a precarious road at the point of entry to the Seavey estate and winery.” No other opponents arose. Mansfield supporters included Napa County Landmark, an influential preservation group.

The vote may have come just in time. After years of neglect, the still-impressive old building is in imminent danger of collapse, and the Mansfields are undertaking a challenging and expensive effort to save this bit of Napa County’s history.

They have hired architect Juliana Inman, who specializes in historic renovation, to plan the project. She is a former member of the Napa County Planning Commission and now a councilmember and vice mayor of the city of Napa. The contractor chosen, Andrews Thornley, is an expert in rebuilding historic wineries. Inman said the building has a good chance to be included in the National Registry of Historic Places.

Richard Mansfield has been a winemaker for 28 years. He holds master’s degrees in viticultural and enological engineering from Germany’s University at Geisenheim, as well as a Bachelors of Science in chemistry from the University of Oregon. Leslie Mansfield is a chef and the author of 18 cookbooks.

Following eight years of formal training in the vineyards of northern Europe, Mansfield founded Callahan Ridge winery in his native Oregon, then sold that winery and moved to Napa Valley. There, he worked at Stags’ Leap Winery, Bradford Mountain Winery and Palmaz Vineyards before he left to concentrate on his Mansfield label. He consults for several wineries.

To find out more about the winery’s extensive history, visit mansfieldwinery.com.

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