By Rebecca Yerger
Envisioned by William Bowers Bourn, Jr., the son of an Irishman, the visually impressive Greystone Cellars is the perfect historical subject for the month of March; the time to celebrate all things Irish.
With its solid, native-stone edifice rising from its terraced hillside site, Greystone has commanded notice and attention since its 1887 construction. While being physically solid, stately, and even formidable, Greenstone’s history has changed over time due to the influences of socio-economic changes.
Greystone began as a brain-child, business concept of William Bowers Bourn, Jr. who was the son of the late William Bowers Bourn, Sr. The elder Bourn had amassed a great fortune from his shipping company partnerships, and especially from his Empire Gold Mine during the mid-1800s. While both Bourns had many business interests and residences throughout California, they had strong ties to Napa County, and especially to St. Helena where Bourn, Jr. spent the summers of his youth.
Although an heir to his father’s estate, Bourn, Jr. was a savvy businessman in his own right and created an even greater financial dynasty. This entrepreneurial aptitude helped him recognize the opportunity and potential of a facility such as Greystone.
The genesis of Greystone was Bourn Jr.’s response to the autocratic, price-fixing conspiracies found throughout the Bay Area wine mercantiles. By imposing those unfair practices, wine dealers forced local grape growers and winemakers to take below-market prices for their commodities.
As a remedy to those underhanded tactics, the Greystone concept included creating a cooperative. In addition to building the one-million gallon winery, terms and options were drafted for those wanting to conduct their business with proposed Greystone. First off, it was emphatically stated, “NO Malvoisie, Mission, inferior grapes or grapes in bad condition will be received for winemaking.” As for the options, they were: 1) Greystone would produce wine, on shares, from anyone’s grapes, plus store the wine separately. 2) That wine, or any wine stored at Greystone, would be held until the highest price could be secured. Then, following the sale, the wine owner would be paid his share of the profits. 3) Any grower could sell their quality grapes directly to Greystone.
Bourn, Jr. began his Greystone campaign by first forging a business partnership with another young businessman, Everett Wise. Both of these men were in their early 30s. The next step was to find and/or rally support for the cooperative within the Napa County wine industry. To that end, Bourn, Jr. met with Henry Pellet, president of the St. Helena Vinicultural Club before meeting with the general membership. Pellet fully endorsed the idea and strongly encouraged his fellow associates to do the same.
After successfully gaining the backing of the local wine industry, Bourn, Jr. and Wise hired the San Francisco architectural firm of Percy and Hamilton to design Greystone Cellars. Some individuals believe Greystone was designed to resemble a castle in Ireland.
The final plans called for the use of cutting-edge materials and technology of that era, such as the brand-new, Portland cement. During the construction, that cement was used as mortar, as well as poured over the iron reinforcing rods built within the first and second floor elevations. The heavy timber construction of the third floor provided structural support for not only that floor’s cask, barrel and bottle aging space but also for the gravity-flow crushing area located within the floor above.
As for technology, Greystone was the first California winery to be operated and illuminated by electricity. A boiler and gas generator, located in a mechanical room below the central front wing of the building, produced the electricity. Another accolade garnered by Greystone was due to its massive dimensions. Greystone Cellars was the largest winery in California.
All that grandeur and state-of-the-art design came with an equally grand price tag, $250,000. That figure was an exorbitant amount of money in the late 19th century, even for the ultra-wealthy.
Then, within less than a decade of its completion, Greystone began its succession of property owners. By 1894, it was owned by Charles Carpy, and became the trademark for the CWA – California Wine Association. By late 1924, CWA had removed all of the 200,000 gallons of wine stored at Greystone. A year later the Bisceglia brothers of San Jose purchased Greystone, where they produced sacramental wines until 1930. Following a three-year hiatus, the Bisceglias restored operations at Greystone in October 1933.
Christian Brothers entered the picture in 1945 when they signed a lease agreement for the cellar. Five years later they bought Greystone. Decades later, faced with declining market shares and vineyard yields, as well as the very costly prospect of seismically retrofitting Greystone, Christian Brothers winery was sold to the Hueblein Company of Canada in 1991. A year later they sold Greystone to the Culinary Institute of America for $1.68 million. In three short years, after opening in August 1995, Greystone had been retrofitted and remodeled into the western CIA campus.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, Greystone Cellars is now enjoying a renaissance in purpose and popularity. However, it still lives up to the sentiments expressed in a circa-1900, CWA brochure. “Whoever visits Napa Valley…must inevitably have his attention called to ‘Greystone,’ our magnificent stone cellar which is a landmark for miles around, and which, for centuries to come, will be an enduring monument to its builders and owners…” and community.