Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Winehaven: World’s Largest Winery, Turned Ghost Town

A small town on the San Pablo Peninsula once held the title of “The World’s Largest Winery.” Within a century, it became a ghost town– abandoned and boarded up. This is Winehaven; fenced off, desolate, and seemingly, forgotten.

My parents had been coming to and from Point San Pablo the past week and had mentioned the creepy ghost town they had passed through on the way. My dad referred to it with a tongue-in-cheek manner as the “town that time forgot”.  

I looked out of the window as we curved through slim roads, passing the overgrown and fenced-off zones, my parents and I throwing theories into the air as we drove on. We passed by a Germanic-style brick castle that faced the bay, which was fenced off with boarded-up windows. 

On the other side of the road further up was where I saw the houses. Dozens of them– all identical white with faded blue trim, surrounded a dusty-looking playground. This area was again surrounded by fences and clad with signs that urged trespassers to stay away.

I wished so desperately that the windows hadn’t been concealed by planks of wood painted white to blend into the surrounding architecture. I wished to peer in to see whether or not the dining room table still stood there, or if the sofa or children’s toys were still scattered about. 

So many questions swam in my head. What kind of fate leaves an entire town abandoned? It felt as if everyone just picked up their belongings one day and left.

I let myself fall down the rabbit hole, which I do so often. I became more and more immersed in my role of Alice as I plummeted down, past pages, internet tabs, and black and white images. Here’s what I found. 

In 1906, the California Wine Association was desperate for a new location to begin picking up the pieces that came crashing down following the tragic San Francisco earthquake; thus, they set their eyes on Point Molate, a cove east of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

The future for Point Molate, newly christened Winehaven, was looking brighter and brighter. Papers raved about business and opportunities that they predicted would come from this small town, and for a short time, those opportunities proved to be true. 

The town was home to some 400 working residents, with round-trip trains that reached Napa and Sonoma, and the town also had a school for the workers’ children. Annually, Winehaven was making 12 million gallons of California wine, and a monthly shipment of 500,000 gallons was to be sent to the East Coast and Europe. 

Flicking through the few images I could find of Winehaven during its heyday, I bit back a smile at how “small-town America” wholesome it felt. Click. Click. After a couple of images passed by my screen, I was forced to rise to the surface from underneath my research, greeted by the images of Winehaven’s current predicament; the empty, isolated ghost town. 

As prohibition laws came into effect, the flourishing business at the peak of its success began to fall apart. Desperate to generate revenue, there was a period in which non-alcoholic grape juice was produced, but this proved to be unsuccessful as in 1919, Winehaven closed shop. 

The town would remain empty for the following 22 years until it was taken over by the Navy and served as a Naval Fuel Depot in 1941. It continued as a fuel depot throughout the Korean War and Vietnam War until its eventual decommissioning in 1995.

A town once home to the world’s largest winery sits there by the edge of the Bay, its boarded up, dust-covered buildings falling into more and more disrepair as time goes by and its legacy fades into the distance. 

On the drive home from Point Molate, I looked out of the window. There were a couple of families spread out past one side of the road having a 4th of July cookout. The other side was fenced off– forgotten. 

Drinking boxed wine just down the road from the town once called Winehaven. To me, the irony was almost tragic.