Sour Grapes – A past and present look at Richmond’s defunct massive winery

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By Matt Larson

There was a time when the largest wine producer in California was right here in Richmond. It was known as Winehaven and existed from about 1908 until around 1920, halted by Prohibition. Though it was never an established city of its own, Winehaven had its own school, its own fire department, a hotel, and an abundance of wine. In full production it stored up to 12 million gallons of wine. There were 3,000 vats and 100 year-round employees that rose to 1,000 at the peak of the season. And they had 40 vineyards from all over the state of California that provided grapes for this winemaking powerhouse. Never heard of it? Well you’ve probably seen it, whether you knew it or not.

“I was driving across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and … what’s that building that looks like a castle out there?” That’s a question that Melinda McCrary, Executive Director for the Richmond Museum of History, gets about once or twice a month. “It’s a really interesting part of our history,” she says. Winehaven might have still been around today if it wasn’t for Prohibition which practically stopped them dead in their tracks. “They did try to stay in business for a while after Prohibition in 1920, bottling sacramental wines for the church, but it just kind of petered out.”

For the next 20 years the area wasn’t used very much at all until the Navy took possession of the facility in June of 1942 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Winehaven, with its large buildings and giant storage facilities among 413 acres, then became known as the Point Molate Naval Fuel Depot. The Navy buried 20 large concrete storage tanks in the hillsides and the site was used to refuel ships during WW2, fitting right into Richmond’s active history with both world wars. The space remained as a fuel depot but has been mostly inactive for decades. It was finally closed in 1995 and then given back to the City of Richmond in 2005, along with $28.5 million to have the site cleaned and reused for the economic benefit of the region.

“In terms of the environmental cleanup end, it’s been proceeding very well,” said Craig Murray, Development Project Manager for the City of Richmond. From the Winehaven buildings to the shoreline and out to the pier there’s about 12 acres of land called Installation Restoration (IR) Site 3. “That’s where we just spent about $11 million to clean up this area the navy used for wastewater and disposal of petroleum product.”

Opportunities are seemingly endless when it comes to deciding what to do with the Winehaven space here at Point Molate in Richmond. The Point Molate Community Advisory Committee is comprised of 19 community members appointed by the city council to review all matters occurring here. Unfortunately they’re waiting for litigation to clear up regarding something about a previous developer and a potential casino that was promptly voted down, so until then the Committee can only plan. The Point Molate Beach Park, however, is now open to the public for your enjoyment! If you’d like to join the Committee Murray urges you to head to the City Clerk’s Office and ask for an application at 450 Civic Center Plaza, Richmond; (510) 620-6513.

Winehaven is now on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to what we’ve addressed so far, there’s a rich history at Point Molate even before Winehaven began. For generations Point Molate was home to the Ohlone Indians. In the late 19th century from about 1860-1880 the site was occupied by Chinese shrimpers who founded small villages along the shores. And it was actually due to the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco that led to the California Wine Association moving to Point Molate to continue wine production.

The story goes much deeper than we can address here. The best resource to get more information is, naturally, the Richmond Museum of History. To follow up with your own research, call them at (510) 235-7387 or stop on by at 400 Nevin Ave., Richmond; richmondmuseum.org

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