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Way Cool—Wine Cave & Champagne Cellar Tours
Entering a cool, humid cave and having the delicious aroma of wine wash across my senses has become a favorite experience.
The month of August can be especially hot, even in the Sonoma and Napa Valleys which are known for the cooling fog and sea breezes that give them such an ideal climate for growing wine grapes. High temperatures didn't bother me one August though, because most of the month was spent exploring wine caves and champagne cellars at some of the oldest and a few of the newer wineries in Northern California.
Wine Cave at Pine Ridge Winery
My first wine cave encounter happened two years earlier when my friend Robert and I visited Pine Ridge Winery on the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley. We were shooting panoramas for iNeTours.com —yet to be launched—and tasting wine along the way.
Pine Ridge Winery’s tasting room is also the entrance to their wine cave.
While we were checking out their wines, I asked if I could photograph an intersection of tunnels a few feet beyond a sign restricting visitor access to the front of the cave.
An escort was provided to take us much further back into the cave to a special wine tasting and dining area with one of glass artist Dale Chihuly pieces on display.
With the site launched and most planned features in place it seemed like an ideal time to pursue the project that had been on my mind since shooting that first wine cave panorama.
Along the way I learned a bit about why there are so many wine caves under the vineyards and wineries in some of the most famous agricultural land in North America.
Favero Vineyards Small Wine Cave
The first cave on my wine cave tour was one of the newest and also the smallest. Fred Faverowho, along with his wife Ginger, owns Favero Vineyards not far from Historic Sonoma Squaredecided not to wait on local tunnel contractors.
Fred learned to run a tunneling machine, designed and dug his cave, then sold the equipment. Although the Favero Wine Cave is small, it currently holds all the production of the family winery with room to grow.
Robert and I celebrated the completion of the photo shoot by joining Fred in sampling his Favero 1999 Estate Sangiovese in the cool cave before heading for our next appointment.
Wine Cave Construction Methods
The Pine Ridge and Favero Wine Caves are surfaced with a material called shotcrete. I recently talked with Scott Lewis at Condor Earth Technologies, Inc. about wine cave building. Condor has experience with over 40 cave construction projects, performing project feasibility studies, providing design services and construction management, field engineering and other engineering related functions.
Scott described shotcrete as a combination of 3/8" pea gravel, sand and cement. Accelerators are added so that the mix will set quickly when sprayed on the walls and ceiling of the cave. Soil conditions determine the required thickness which can range from a minimum of four inches to as thick as twelve to fourteen inches.
A final color coat is added at the end of construction. A few lucky winery owners have conditions that don't require any lining, letting the natural rock show. In other situations the shotcrete may be reinforced by adding fiber to the mix, or erecting rebar or arched I beams and wire mesh reinforcement before being sprayed with shotcrete.
Hans Fahden Vineyards
The volcanic wine cave at Hans Fahden Vineyards, on the Petrified Forest Road outside of Calistoga, is one that doesn't require a lining or other support. The unique cave, along with the picnic grounds and Monet Gardens, is used as a venue for corporate conferences, wine cave dinners and private weddings.
While larger than the cave at Favero Vineyards, the Hans Fahden cave was the second smallest cave we visited. The cave is laid out in a T shape and has an unusual, peaked Gothic ceiling.
Robert and I enjoyed a glass of Hans Fahden's Cabernet Sauvignon with Lyall Fahden after shooting three panoramas at the winery including a beautiful wedding site on the mountain top with a view of hillside vineyards, the Mayacamus Mountains and Mt. St. Helena.
According to Scott Lewis at Condor, cave design is as much art as science, with the wine maker taking the planned use for the cave into consideration, along with soil conditions, when laying out the grid of crossing tunnels that is representative of several of the caves we visited. A certain amount of intuition is involved in cave tunneling. The goal is to dig as far as possible without having to stop to spray supporting shotcrete.
Cuvasion Estate Wines Dining and Wine Storage Caves
The wine caves at Cuvasion, on the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley, are a good example of the multiple ways that wineries use their caves. With 22,000 square feet of wine cave built into the mountain behind the tasting room there's plenty of room for barrel storage, a complete catering kitchen and large dining tunnel.
Cuvasion was very accommodating in scheduling me for a time when they had just completed setting up an early dinner and wine tasting for about thirty-five guests and, best of all, I completed the shoot just in time to participate in a private tasting of Cuvasion's very fine wines.
Kunde Estate Wine Cave and 100 Year Old Vines
There is another wine cave, used in a similar manner, at Kunde Estate Winery and Vineyards in Kenwood on Highway 12 a few miles north of Sonoma. Kunde has over 32,000 square feet of tunnel and storage space for 5000 barrels.
While I was shooting a panorama of their beautiful underground dining room, Nancy—the Kunde cave tour guide who was assisting us—mentioned that they hold very limited private wine tastings at a picturesque site on top of a hill on the Kunde estate. I immediately asked if we could go there next.
Nancy and the staff at Kunde were very accommodating in providing props, transportation and—as it turned out—a second model for my 360° picture of the central Sonoma Valley. The gentleman in the photo is my friend Robert.
On the way up the hill Nancy pointed out the century old vines in one section of the Kunde vineyard so we stopped on the way back to take some pictures of the vines. The grapes on the over 100 year old vines were just at the Veraison stage, which is the point in the development of wine grapes where they change color.
Wine Cave Economic and Quality Benefits
With over one hundred wine caves in the Northern California Wine Country, and several under construction, I was curious to learn more about the advantages of underground storage. I visited The Napa Valley Museum in Yountville which had an informative exhibit titled “Wine Caves: Napa Valley Underground.”
Wine caves provide economic and quality benefits. Although expensive to construct, caves can be financially sound investments. The biggest economic advantage is the natural humidity found in caves. Wine barrels stored in a warehouse loose about three gallons more per year to evaporation than wine barrels stored in caves. Two years of aging would have six gallons of potentially very valuable wine, per barrel, lost to evaporation. High humidity also keeps empty barrels from drying excessively which might cause them to leak.
Constant cool temperatures found thirty feet or more below ground provide more than a temporary escape from the summer heat for visiting photographers and touristsalthough wine cave tours are a popular activity at many wineries. The typical 55° to 60° temperature is ideal for prolonged barrel aging and no expensive air conditioning is required.
The riddling of sparkling wines is faster in caves because of the stillness of the environment. Once wine caves are constructed there is very little additional expense as they last practically forever.
Schramsberg Vineyards Champagne Caves
By 1867 Jacob Schram had a very small wine cellar dug into a hillside near where the town of Calistoga is today. He later enlarged the cellar to over 200 feet, eventually expanding to over 1000 feet.
Robert Louis Stevenson visited the wine caves at Schramsberg Winery in 1880.
When I visited the Schramsberg caves I saw workers busy riddling the wine. Schramsberg produces a champagne style of winethe one Dom Pérignon perfectedin the méthode champenoise, also referred to as “fermented in the bottle.” Yeast used in fermentation forms a sediment in each bottle which must eventually be removed.
The bottles are turned in racks, an eighth or quarter turn a day (riddling) to gently move the sediment into the neck of the bottle where it is eventually removed using the pressure of built up gas. Additional years of aging prepare the now sparkling wine to be consumed when it is released from the cellar.
Schramsberg is often served at the White House and Schramsbergs Blanc de Blancs was presented at a banquet in Beijing during President Nixons historic visit to China.
Storybook Mountain Vineyards Wine Cave
Storybook Mountain Vineyards, a few miles to the north of Schramsberg, has a much smaller cave that is nearly as old as the Schramsberg caves. Adam and Jacob Grimm dug the three tunnels one-hundred feet into the volcanic rock around 1889.
A cross tunnel connects all three across the back end, and a large roomused as a tasting room when we visitedconnects the center and right tunnel.
The left side tunnel was recently reinforced with shotcrete, but the other tunnels and connecting room have all the character you would expect from caves dug over one-hundred years ago.
Before we left Storybook Mountain Vineyards, Robert and I enjoyed both the mountain view from the property and a glass of the Zinfandel that Storybook is famous for producing.
Beringer Vineyards Wine Caves
Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena is the oldest continuously operated winery in the Napa Valley. And, like Storybook Mountain Vineyards, Beringer Vineyards was founded by two brothers in the late 1800s. Jacob Beringer and his brother, Frederick, were kind enough to stop by and pose (in the form of cardboard cutouts) for my Beringer Vineyards Wine Caves panorama.
Chinese workers—returning to the San Francisco area following the completion of the Trans-Continental Railroad—spent several years hand-chiseling the rock tunnels at Beringer. By the way, they are not limestone caves as has been reported elsewhere.
The “Rhine House,” now on the National Register of Historic Places, was built by Frederick Beringer in 1883 as his home. The 17-room mansion served as the family home. Like many wineries in the Sonoma and Napa Valleys, impressive gardens have been designed for the enjoyment of visitors and staff.
Another advantage of underground construction is that it doesnt use valuable land that could be better utilized for planting the grapes that have made these valleys famous.
Gloria Ferrer Caves
One winery that decided to construct a second cave was Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards at the southern end of the Sonoma Valley in the Carneros AVA.
Robert and his wife Judy had attended the most recent annual Catalan Festival of Food, Wine and Music which—like the architecture style of the winery—reflects the Ferrer familys native Catalonia. On Roberts recommendation, I called Claudia Pehar and made arrangements to photograph both the new wine caves and the original champagne cellar.
While Robert was in the tasting room sampling Gloria Ferrers sparkling wines—produced in the same méthode champenoise style that is used at Schramsberg—I shot a third panorama from the Vista Terrace as other guests enjoyed the wines and the view.
My recommendation; if you have a chance to tour Northern California Wine Country, don't miss the opportunity to beat the heat by visiting the wine caves and champagne cellars at many Napa Valley and Sonoma County wineries.
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